Beyond the Bottom Line: Business Impacts of ESG

While ESG has been a hot topic in Europe for quite some time, more and more business leaders are starting to tune in here in the United States. ESG, which stands for “Environmental, Social, Governance,” represents a lens that investors are using to examine business health and risk management as they make investment decisions. Joining us to dig into this important topic are Kelly Worden from the US Green Building Council, and Phillipe Bernier, Vice President of Strategy, Operations, and Sustainability for JLL Canada.

What is ESG?

In a word, ESG is synonymous with sustainability, but it’s an approach that unpacks the concept a bit more and helps give investors a concrete way to talk about and measure its business impact.

Environmental covers topics including energy, carbon, water, and waste.

Social includes the health and wellbeing of team members and audiences; employee engagement and development; community giving; charitable work; etc.

Governance entails business ethics, reporting, transparency, and policies around corruption.

These seemingly disparate ideas have one common theme: Getting them right means a much higher chance of long-term business success. The opposite is also true. As Philippe explains, “There’s obviously a lot of value attributed to financial performance, which is relatively easy to measure. ESG is the non-financial piece. And these non-financial attributes, the environmental, social, and governance performance of an organization, nevertheless impact the financial performance of an organization. Organizations that think broadly about the ways they engage with the communities they serve, their supply chains, etc. have a better understanding of risks and opportunities, and can ultimately better serve their customers, which makes them a more resilient profitable, long-term business.”

One important clarification is around what ESG is not. Per Kelly, “It’s really important to recognize the difference between ESG and impact investing, and the difference there is in the expected return on investment. Impact investors are knowingly accepting a lower return in exchange for some sort of social benefit, whereas investors are interested in the ESG conversation because they believe that these considerations actually lead to greater returns over time.”

Why ESG and Why Now?

ESG has always mattered, but there’s a reason it’s becoming such a salient point of conversation at the moment. ESG has emerged as a key factor that investors look to when considering risk. “ESG is really a mechanism of internalizing some of the economic externalities associated with environmental, social, and governance-related impacts of business,” says Kelly.

That’s important in every industry, and the fields of real estate, construction, and architecture are no exception. Especially in the last two years, many companies have come to BWBR to talk about the effects of the pandemic, the economy, climate change – and it’s really about risk. A lot of our client conversations are about looking at current risks and future risks (even the unknowns), and addressing ESG goes a long way toward addressing and preparing for those risks.

Kelly agrees: “When you’re creating buildings and infrastructure that are supposed to last for decades into the future, you have to take a forward-thinking approach.” That means looking beyond immediate profit margins and making decisions that will positively impact the business in the next 10, 20, or even 50 years.

An Authentic Approach to ESG

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to ESG prioritization and implementation, just like there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to architecture and real estate. Philippe says, “Whether it’s bribery and corruption, energy efficiency, carbon emissions, health and safety, these are all topics that nest within ESG. Each organization that we interact with in real estate is slightly different.” Yet there are frameworks that can help businesses home in on their priorities and execute to those priorities efficiently and responsibly, one of which is the Global Reporting Initiative.

He goes on, “There’s a very good process around how to have conversations to identify what’s important to you and everything you work with.” Using frameworks can help distill and clarify an otherwise potentially overwhelming undertaking. It’s worthwhile to have hard conversations up front to ensure that an ESG initiative is true to your organization and its goals and is also realistic to implement. “It’s so important for organizations to undergo a process of understanding their impact and getting clear on how they can have influence in the most meaningful way.”

The word meaningful is critical here. ‘Greenwashing’ has become rampant in recent years, with organizations ostensibly concerned about issues of sustainability but really only in it for the marketing boost. The same concerns extend to health washing and equity washing, says Kelly. Here too, platforms and reporting tools can help cut through the fog and enhance transparency, authenticity, and accountability.

Beyond Certification

LEED and other certifications are becoming ubiquitous in the design and construction industry and can lend an air of authenticity to a project as well as providing design and benchmarking value. And yet, Kelly notes, “certification only tells us so much about what was actually done at a building.” Done properly, ESG reporting lends another layer of granularity. It requires a full understanding– and reporting–of exactly what was done, and how the building is actually performing from an operations perspective.

“That’s a key distinction,” says Phillipe. “What we design and how something actually performs can be quite different, despite best intentions. It’s difficult to simplify something complex, like a building with tenants, into a single rating that actually reflects impact.” There will always be imperfections – even exceptional ESG frameworks and reporting don’t eliminate all missteps and tensions. And yet, committing to a reporting methodology and following through is a big step in the right direction.

Full-Circle Impact

It’s one thing to sell the idea of sustainability, or employee wellness, or business ethics, with all the associated marketing buzz. It’s quite another to infuse it into every aspect of your business. In construction and design, doing so means looking at how spaces will actually be used, and considering elements like accessibility, equity, long-term environmental impact, fiduciary responsibility, the experience of people using the space, and the impact of the space on the larger community.

ESG reporting is theoretically about looking beyond simple profit and loss numbers and examining other, less quantifiable, elements of the business. Yet, by prioritizing those other elements, businesses often find that their traditional business metrics start looking stronger – and doing so in a way that reduces risk and sets them up for long-term success and growth.

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Post-Pandemic Lessons: Redefining the Student-Centered Learning Environment in Higher Education

Although we have seen many challenges over the past 23 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has also revealed opportunities to redefine higher education’s value proposition and re-envision how and where we teach and learn. The pandemic allowed us a moment in time to break from long-standing traditions, to move forward, and also to look back at what we missed. By doing so, we can see valuable lessons learned and find opportunities for change, creating a foundation for the future of higher education learning environments.

Learning from the Pandemic

As we think about challenges and opportunities, there are several themes that arise including: resources, social fabric, mental health, and pedagogy.

  • Resources: Resources became a challenge for many students, instructors, and faculty due to limited digital knowledge or physical resources. However, technology also presented opportunities for accelerating student-centered learning.
  • Social Fabric: Creating a community culture became difficult in the Zoom world and the demands of parenting, caretaking, and homeschooling came to the forefront of our learning environments. But opportunities for distance learners and adjunct instructors to engage and feel a new sense of equity with their peers was one positive outcome.
  • Mental Health: The pandemic revealed challenging times for many (not just within the education sector). Loss of in-person contact, grief, digital fatigue, and burnout were all prevalent. These challenges reminded us that higher education environments play an essential role in the wellbeing of students, staff, and surrounding communities.
  • Pedagogy: Although hands-on activities were limited and engagement difficult during the pandemic, technology simplified connecting quickly and gave new meaning to flexible learning. Instructors were able to meet students where they were and often discovered empathy for how, when, and where students learn best.

As we move forward, we can balance concerns of isolation and passive learning with opportunities for new forms of interactive engagement, keeping the best that technology can offer to both students and faculty.

Space Implications

As we think about the transformation of higher education learning environments, we consider the complete learning ecosystem. Traditionally (though not always) campus planning has prioritized the in-person or on-campus experience.However, lessons from the pandemic redefine higher education’s value proposition by transforming what our learning ecosystem will look like in the future.

Technology alone is not the complete answer to the future of higher education learning environments. People are social – we need interaction, and a technology-only solution leaves room for long-term inequities and limited opportunities for hands-on learning.

HyFlex learning ecosystems (aka “active classrooms” –learning environments that can accommodate both in-person and digital learners at the same time), began to transform where and how students learn. In past generations of HyFlex classrooms, there was a particular focus on technology solutions. However, new models of HyFlex learning environments provide technology solutions as well as multi/cross functional spaces that bring forward interactive and hands-on learning; more nimble furniture and equipment than the traditional active classroom; acoustic comfort (including appropriate material considerations, quiet zones, or adjacent rooms for heads-down small group work.); and adjacent shared resource rooms.

By considering the complete learning ecosystem, higher education environments transform into student-centered learning experiences.

Designing a New Future

Like never before, we are starting to see silos between departments, colleges, and units rethought to create a more holistic and unified campus. Imagine the new HyFlex learning ecosystem as a place where students can make, experiment, collaborate, and communicate with their peers and instructors from on campus or a remote location. By seeing through the challenges and into the opportunities emerging from the pandemic, together we can re-envision a system that works harder and smarter to support students regardless of their physical context.