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Sustainability: a global conversation

Gerda Stelpstra • 3/31/2021

Women leading Sustainability (Image)

Global companies are increasingly considering corporate sustainability as a critical initiative in this “new world” following COVID-19. The pandemic has provided an opportunity for companies to see how they can address an expanding range of environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) challenges and embed sustainability practices into their business going forward.  

Women leading Sustainability (Image)Sustainability has become an international conversation. The Edge Magazine sat down with female sustainability experts from Cushman & Wakefield to discuss their approach to corporate sustainability across the globe. 

How do you approach sustainability and what has informed your perspective? 

TEREZA JELÍNKOVÁ: The Czech word for ‘sustainable’ figuratively means, ‘long lasting.’ When it comes to CRE, the most sustainable building is the one that lasts and remains competitive over a long time period. To make this happen we must expand our thinking beyond ‘environmental friendliness.’ 

GERDA STELPSTRA: My training as an anthropologist uniquely informs how I think about sustainability. As humans, we are naturally individualistic and focus on our own gains. That has been a challenge in environmental sustainability—it’s difficult to make lasting change in an individualistic world. Therefore, I see sustainability and wellbeing as inherently intertwined. You can’t separate them from each other. 

CORRINE CHEN: Our team in China recently won a sustainability project with a major toy production company and they asked us this exact question. Of course, our answer includes ESG strategies, but we also need to connect sustainability to the economy. Making an economic case can shift sustainability from just governance and policies to corporate motivation. 

In the sustainability field, how are you seeing women make unique and vital contributions? 

RACHEL SCHIFTAN: The challenge of sustainability has opened up fields that have been historically male-dominated —engineering, energy and CRE. Attracting and supporting more women for these roles benefits everyone because it increases the potential to develop inclusive, innovative environments that we need to solve the complex, global problem we’re facing. 

CORRINE CHEN: In Shanghai, the three top sustainability leaders are women. While they are my competitors from a professional standpoint, I also consider them friends. Something we all have in common is wanting to make a long-term positive impact on the industry and we care about doing the right things more than just focusing on the business. 

GERDA STELPSTRA: Many women have experienced resistance to be where they’re at now. I believe to be in the sustainability field, you must be resilient and inclusive. Our experience as women makes us both these things. 

How is sustainability interconnected with diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) practices? 

RACHEL SCHIFTAN: DEI doesn’t just happen—it has to be intentional, and it has to be embedded—and I believe, without it, we won’t be able to solve our sustainability challenges. An integral piece of sustainability is the ability to embrace diverse communities and that comes with embracing the challenges they face like climate change, resource scarcity and population growth. I believe sustainability experts must partner with DEI experts to build a more sustainable world. 

GERDA STELPSTRA: The people piece of sustainability is interconnected with DEI. If we believe people are a limited resource, then we need people of diverse backgrounds. We talk about creating a safe place to return to the office, and that means both a physically and mentally safe space for our people. Creating a mentally safe space is one of belonging and inclusivity. Creating an inclusive environment is all about creating choice, where people have the same opportunities.  

MELISSA GUTIERREZ-SULLIVAN: Sustainability and DEI are inherently related. From a macro-level, sustainability impacts our most disenfranchised communities disproportionately – whether they are single mothers, lower-income communities or people of color. Sustainability, or the lack thereof, has real repercussions on our most vulnerable communities. 

What does the future of sustainability look like for CRE? 

RACHEL SCHIFTAN: Sustainability has been a business concern for more than a decade, but back then it was more of a nice-to-have. Today, increasingly more sustainability efforts are incorporated through the ESG framework and stakeholders now expect companies to disclose their performance in all three areas. A company’s ESG will soon determine their business health, and in the next five years, we should expect to see new technology and software that allows stakeholders to collaboratively track all the ESG measurements that are important to them.  

Within the last five years in middle-eastern Europe, we’ve seen a huge development in CRE sustainability. We will continue to see a higher focus on the indoor environment, people and circular economics. Meaning that instead of buying products, we’ll think more about buying services. For example, right now we buy lightbulbs and throw them out when they are old. In the future, we’ll buy a service from a lightbulb provider, who distributes lightbulbs, installs lightbulbs, changes lightbulbs and recycles old lightbulbs. This will allow us to reduce waste in new ways.  

What are sustainability trends you’re seeing and experiencing coming out of the pandemic?

RACHEL SCHIFTAN: The pandemic has created much more stress and instability, which sheds new light on the duty of care between companies and their employees, especially related to mental health. And we aren’t just thinking about individual health, but also the health of our workplaces. 

GERDA STELPSTRA: From a people perspective, because much of the corporate workforce is working remotely, we now have flexibility in where we work —we call this digital equity. I’m excited to see new groups of people enter the workforce in the next couple of years because of this.  

REBECCA DAVIS-JINKS: The pandemic, especially the work from home (WFH) model, has had two huge impacts on sustainability practices. From a people perspective, we are seeing a bigger emphasis on wellbeing and companies supporting their employees. From an environmental and planet perspective, there is a significant change in the boundaries of sustainability accounting. Pre-pandemic, companies were thinking about their building and travel emissions. Now, we are forced to reimagine our reporting boundaries because employees have moved from the office to home. Previously, we had ruled out the home because ‘it’s too complicated,’ but we can’t get away from it now because so many more people are working from their homes. Our Australia teams are working with clients to start accounting for what is happening in this new larger boundary.  

MELISSA GUTIERREZ-SULLIVAN: Coming out of COVID-19, my clients are focused on two things – carbon and wellness. In terms of wellness, clients are focused on clean air flow and cleaning protocols. The conundrum is that increased air flow can increase energy consumption, and therefore negatively affect the planet. In terms of cleaning protocols - one common misconception is that you must use bleach to clean your space, which is actually more harmful to occupants’ health. We must find a balance between the health of our workforce, the cleanliness of our workspace, and the safety of the chemicals in our cleaning products. In terms of carbon, we have seen a large spike in interest from clients wanting to achieve carbon neutrality. Companies have not taken their feet off the brakes when addressing environmentally focused initiatives – if anything, they’re stepping on the gas.

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Gerda Stelpstra
Gerda Stelpstra

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

+31 208002000

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