29 September 2023

September 2023 marks eight years since the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) were adopted globally. The schema, which comprises 17 goals, focuses on a holistic approach to sustainability and sets targets for reaching each goal by 2030. However, as the target timeline has now passed the halfway point, progress on many of these goals is sadly falling behind what was envisaged and, worryingly, some have actually regressed from their original status in 2015.

What are the UN SDGs?

The UN SDGs are a set of 17 goals that all participants agree to aim for in order to improve the quality and future of life for all of earth’s inhabitants.

Figure 1 - UN Sustainable Development Goals (Source: United Nations, 2023)

In the latest ‘Sustainable Development Goals Report 2023: Special Edition’, the UN provide a bleak outlook in terms of progress, notably with impacts owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and a resulting weak global economy. The headline statistics from the report are as follows:

  • The total number of people living in extreme poverty has increased.
  • Childhood vaccination numbers have decreased.
  • Income inequality between countries has increased.
  • Gender inequality is estimated to take 300 years to resolve at the current pace.
  • We are on track to surpass a 1.5°C global temperature increase by 2035.
  • Only 15% of the goals are on track.

While some goals have seen progress, extreme poverty, gender inequality and climate change must be prioritized. The full report can be accessed here.

Architecture, specification, and the UN SDGs

NBS and the wider Byggfakta Group fully support the UN SDGs, and we have aligned our environmental, social and governance (ESG) efforts to the applicable goals. These goals are also recognised by many leading organizations within our sector. NBS has a long-standing relationship with the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). As a facilitator for the architectural community, our tools help RIBA members and other construction professionals to achieve many sustainable outcomes on their projects. The RIBA ‘Sustainable Outcomes Guide’ provides a clear alignment between the goals of the UK architecture profession and those of the UN SDGs. Obviously, not all the UN SDGs are fully aligned, but the sector-specific impact areas are clearly mapped out for users to reference.

Figure 2 – Alignment between the RIBA ‘Sustainable Outcomes’ and the UN SDGs (Source: Gary Clarke, 2019).

Referencing both the UN SDGs and the RIBA ‘Sustainable Outcomes Guide’, NBS has recently launched a series of free-to-download guides on achieving sustainable outcomes that align with these two schemes. Within these guides, readers can find practical tips on things to consider when designing for sustainable outcomes, along with examples of specification clauses (and the inspiration to use them) when producing their project specifications. The NBS ‘Sustainable Specification Guides’ can be downloaded here.

While the UN SDGs set out clear targets for sustainable outcomes at a global level, sector-specific targets can often be more difficult to grasp. For the construction sector in particular, there is a lot to consider. In 2022, NBS published its latest ‘Sustainable Futures Report’, which was based on survey responses from over 600 industry professionals. To date, this report has been NBS’ most downloaded report, which emphasizes the desire for construction professionals to learn more and adopt new ways of working to improve sustainable outcomes. The report is free to download and provides insights into the views and status of the industry in terms of sustainability and what expectations there are in terms of progression in this area. The report can be downloaded here.

NBS and sustainability

NBS is committed to being a sustainability leader. Our approach to sustainability is a prominent part of our business strategy, both in terms of our software and services delivery, as well as in how we conduct our own business. Most recently, our NBS Source and NBS Chorus tools have demonstrated a clear focus (through relevant updates) on strengthening and promoting sustainable outcomes for specifications.

NBS Source enables users to easily filter products by specific environmental credentials, from embodied carbon to recycled content, among others. The image below shows a snapshot of NBS Source during a search for insulation products. It shows how the user is able to filter the results to show only products that have Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) associated with them and/ or that have sustainability data attributed to their listings.

These searches can also be further enhanced via the easy-to-use sliders in the filters bar. All data is manufacturer-specific and approved by the manufacturers of the products themselves. Recycled content and embodied carbon statistics are also aligned to the relevant BS EN standards and use the units of measurement assigned within each.

In today’s industry, manufacturers must be extremely mindful of greenwashing. NBS Source, by providing clear, unambiguous and standards-driven data within each listing, enables users to easily find the relevant information needed to meet their requirements. Similarly, NBS Source enables manufacturers to meet their clients’ expectations.

NBS’ specification tool NBS Chorus has myriad functions and clauses that can aid sustainable outcomes, from contractual clause creation through to specifying sustainable products and materials. Directly linked to NBS Source, NBS Chorus can aid sustainable outcomes. NBS recently held a webinar on specifying sustainable outcomes. In this webinar, we were joined by Building Design Partnership Ltd (BDP), who provided insights into how they go about achieving sustainable outcomes. We were also joined by James Fiske, the chair of the Built Environment Carbon Database (BECD), who discussed the forthcoming database aimed at providing the industry with a clear focus on cost and carbon data. NBS has joined the BECD scheme and will be contributing to its development. You can watch the webinar on demand here.

As a business, NBS has reduced its measured carbon emissions since our base year of 2019 by 55% and are certified as carbon neutral to PAS 2060 by a third-party UKAS-accredited assessor. In addition to our carbon reduction efforts, we have also supported increased biodiversity in the northeast (where we are based), through two forestation projects (one in Crook, County Durham and the second in Doddington North, Northumberland). Together with our partner Forest Carbon, this investment has seen the planting of circa 7,000 native tree species in these forests, which will not only sequester carbon once mature but also support a wide range of local wildlife by providing a natural habitat for them in which to thrive.

NBS joined the United Nations ‘Climate Neutral Now Initiative’ in 2021, and we received a gold award for our carbon reduction efforts in the most recent awards. The ‘Climate Neutral Now Initiative’ is being phased out this year in favour of the ‘Race to Zero’ scheme and, as part of the wider Byggfakta Group, NBS aims to reach net zero by 2030. Finally, as a group, we pride ourselves on the health, well-being, and inclusivity of our workforce. To date, our employee gender balance is female-positive at 52/48, and our colleague engagement efforts are continually being adapted to ensure that we are an employer that prioritizes our talented and diverse colleagues. While these are all positive metrics and achievements, we acknowledge that there is always more to do, and we are continuing to drive forwards with positive change. More can be read on NBS’ sustainability efforts here.

Closing remarks

A great deal needs be done if we are to achieve the goals set out by the United Nations by 2030. For construction, a clear focus on reducing carbon emissions and ensuring that projects do not lead to bio-diversity loss (ideally, there should be bio-diversity net gains), combined with mindful water use and lower pollution generally, should be at the heart of every designed, built, and refurbished asset. Research indicates that sustainable outcomes are more achievable, both in terms of functionality and cost, if they are considered from the beginning of any project. As professionals, it is our duty to educate our clients and peers on this matter in order to reduce the negative impacts that the industry has historically had, and continues to have, on people and the planet. Together, we can make a difference, and NBS will continue to increase its ESG efforts and play its part in helping the sector to become more sustainable.