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Making the case for sustainability and climate literacy

Professional institutions within the built environment sector are uniquely placed to lead and enable professionals to play their role when it comes to tackling the climate emergency. Achieving net zero will require an industry wide investment in skills and training that must be early, planned and based on demand. That investment will also need to consider both the current and future professional workforce, and at all levels of competence.

The professional institutions will need to consider how they will communicate and engage members and other stakeholders to achieve the greatest impact, and to make the changes needed to prepare professionals to understand and enable them to address the climate challenges we now face.

This will require the professional institutions to work in tandem with their individual and corporate members, a broader range of employers, education and training providers, and Government.

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Over recent years, the vast majority of professional institutions have made progress in light of sustainable practice, with:

  • Codes of Conduct routinely stating the need for members to ‘considering their impact on the environment’ or to consider ‘sustainable practices’ when working,
  • Guidance, documentary and web-based materials now available or recommended for members to access and use,
  • Professional accreditation criteria for education providers routinely referring to the need to teach sustainable practice in terms of the discipline at hand, and
  • Professional standards, by which professional members are assessed for, and agree to maintain, competence, also routinely state sustainable practice.

However, to make the dramatic changes required to address the global climate emergency, sustainable practice and climate literacy must become central to each profession, integrating directly with the technical and professional competences demanded of that profession, and communicated widely both within the institution itself, and to members.

Champions: Central to the sustainable practice and climate literacy mission

Within the professional institutions themselves, there must be a commitment to making sustainability and climate literacy central to the messaging, processes and products, and the resources released to focus on the challenges ahead.

Professional institutions that have made significant progress in this area have committed individuals, or groups of individuals, or champions, within them that have driven change, often over a number of years.

The drivers for change typically originate from two areas:

  • From the membership itself, who are seeking to lead and/or support their professional institution, and
  • From members of boards, committees and/or panels, where members raise the need to consider the challenges we face in terms of climate change, often in their specialist discipline areas

Both require members with significant passion, who can advocate to others, clearly explain why the climate emergency should be a focal point for institutional activities and can present a plan of activities that an institution can follow with suitable resources and timescales.

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Champions can enable and drive change; however, there is a need to consider how the professional institution works, the typical decision-making structures in place, and to make provision for the resources available within the professional institution. These factors do influence the capacity and capability of a professional institution to enable change.

Activity 1 outlines the questions that most professional institutions will need to consider when embarking on or making improvements to their activities in relation to sustainable practice and climate literacy.

In the case of the larger institutions, it is likely that more than one person will be involved, with the decision times probably being longer and more complex than smaller ones.

Activity 1: Enabling and improving focus on sustainable practice and climate literacy

The purpose of this activity is to help your professional institution to identify and enable progress in terms of making sustainable practice and climate literacy a focal point of activity. Your organisation should work through the questions below, which will enable your institution to assess its current position and where the institution might move towards.

Undertaking this activity should have demonstrated the gaps between your institution’s aims and its current capability and capacity. Where the gap is small your institution should be able to go on to construct a plan to achieve your aims, in a manner that is achievable and timely. Where the gap is is larger, your institution may have more complex processes in place, and these must be considered as part of such a plan.

Your institution will most likely seek to use existing resources, staff and expertise available, in order to reduce costs and mitigate risks. Where plans are more radical, institutions will need to consider how they might resource this, whilst also identifying barriers and time constraints at an early stage.

Where strategic and operational plans are already set out for the coming years, it may take another business cycle to bring in changes. Institutions will also need to consider and factor in other major programmes of works, such as that relating to the renewal of Charters and By-Laws, and the impact this may have on resourcing in particular.

With professional institutions comprising members, be they individuals or corporate organisations, placing sustainable practice and carbon literacy at the centre of a professional institution requires member engagement to support and enable successful outcomes.

To this end, the professional institutions as leaders and driver for change, need to make the case for sustainability and climate literacy prominently, and bring the membership and profession with them: communication and engagement with members is critical.

Embedding sustainability and climate literacy in Codes of Conduct for built environment professionals

Members and qualified professionals alike will need to clearly understand the key messages and asks of them in relation to sustainable practice and climate literacy, and how any changes will affect them now and in the future. They must be empowered and enabled to understand and identify the key competences being asked of them, with sustainable practice and climate literacy knowledge and skills supported and contextualised to their profession, their role, level of education and training, and how this might impact on their working responsibilities; for some, this will also require guidance on how they can support and influence others to make more sustainable and environmentally acceptable choices.

Many professional institutions have already made the case for sustainable practice for their members, with the vast majority of member ‘codes of conduct’, the pre-requisite for membership of the profession, already stating that members must consider the impact of their work on the environment.

Codes of conduct also often state the requirement to carry out CPD, all be it many do not stipulate the topics or quantity of CPD required in the codes of conduct. Professional institutions often support members with dedicated guidance and website materials that enable current and potential members to identify what sustainable practice is, how this relates to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs), and how sustainable practice can be applied to the specific discipline or profession that members mostly operate within.

Using these existing codes of conduct provides a reference point to individual and corporate members and can provide a clear reminder to their commitment to sustainable practice. Climate literacy is less well presented within codes of conduct, and it is here that improvements could be made in the built environment profession.

Membership categories for professional bodies can be wide ranging, from learners right through to chartered and fellowship professionals. However, membership entry requirements are often set by the professional body themselves, with a membership code of conduct generally applicable to all members and registered professionals: this creates a single touch point at entry for members to commit to, and to comply by throughout their professional career.

Codes of conduct often contain requirements for working towards and maintaining (through CPD) technical and specialist competences, whilst also working towards legal and regulatory requirements, and to good practice in areas including equality, diversity and inclusion, ethical and sustainable practice.

Codes of conduct might also be extended to employer organisations where corporate or organisational membership is offered. Here, companies commit to the code of conduct, with that organisation endorsing the principles in the code of practice; the staff body are trained and supported to ensure compliance with professional competence and conduct. Hence, staff have the required skills, knowledge and professional practice, maintaining competence through CPD and are practicing sustainability.

Case Studies: Making changes to your institutions Code of Conduct to reflect the requirements for sustainable practice, climate literacy and CPD

Take a look at the following codes of conduct from a range of professional institutions within the built environment sector. Many of these codes of conduct already include sustainable practice and the requirements for CPD. Some also offer guidance notes at the same time, with further website materials also highlighted and promoted to ease communication and engagement with members.

Activity 2: Ensuring your institution’s code of conduct aligns with your focus on sustainable practice and climate literacy

The purpose of this activity is to help your organisation to identify and improve your institution’s code of practice to ensure that sustainable practice, climate literacy and CPD are key components of all membership agreements, be that individual or corporate members. The questions below will enable your organisation to assess its current position with regards to membership criteria, and where the institution might move towards.

Learning Points

In professional institutions there are typically many different initiatives to work with members and employers being undertaken at any one time, often across many committees and boards, sometimes even duplicating activity and resources.

In order to make the best use of resources, it is essential that your institution aims to define its aspirations and assess how realistic they are. This can avoid expensive attempts to achieve aspirations that are essentially a step too far from the current position.

Your institution can use existing relationships with other professional institutions to help gain an understanding of the processes and outcomes they sought to achieve.