How can we deliver the “S” in ESG?

We are well-informed about the global impact we are having on the environment. The property industry contributes to climate change, resource depletion, waste, pollution, deforestation, and biodiversity, to name a few examples. But how can we be responsible for the impact on the societies in which we operate – for example, in terms of communities, diversity, small businesses, and local economies? We invited a small group of social impact experts for an absorbing, thought leadership conversation to discuss this topic.

Housing is an incredibly emotive topic, and that can often be misunderstood by the industry. While discussions around environmental impact become ever more profound, the conversation around social impact is often overlooked and largely misrepresented. The challenge that many businesses face, including LOWE, is: how can social impact be measured and demonstrated in a meaningful and tangible way without being accused of ‘Swashing’ (social washing)? Tim Lowe posed this question to the table, and several fascinating and insightful points were added to the discussion.

Vivienne King, Head of Real Estate Social Impact at The Good Economy, stated that social impact is more measurable now than it has ever been, but there is not one singular framework to fit all locations and projects. It is crucial that social impact is considered at a local level, for example, by talking with local groups and celebrating cultures and communities associated with the area. The Good Economy is a social advisory firm specialising in measuring and reporting impact, and Vivienne has more than 30 years’ experience working in urban development, regeneration, and management, where she has been at the forefront of integrating ESG as a strategic imperative. Martyn Saunders, Regeneration Director at Avison Young, agreed with Vivienne, stating that it is down to human connection and that our responsibility and priority should be preserving the soul of each community. Martyn commented that the process of ‘change’ should deliver value for all those that it impacts, stating that success should not only be measured in money but also in how it enriches lives, empowers people, creates opportunities, and improves quality of life.

Preston Benson, founder of Really Local Group, offered a different perspective, stating that social impact is about action. Really Local Group delivers ‘true regeneration’ and focuses on localism, specifically launching venues that have the local community’s best interests at their core, in particular the revival of Catford Mews. Preston commented, “We picked Catford over Ladywell or Lewisham because the centre was earmarked for complete demolition. For the community, it had become a no-hope, no-go zone.” On completion, Catford began drawing people back in from all over Lewisham, as well as from more affluent parts of the city. Preston added that human connection was key to its success: “We talked to the local community before we started the project, designing a space that was open and flexible enough for people to visualise their own needs, wants, and aspirations with the space.” For social impact to be successfully delivered, it should be a consideration right from the start and throughout the project, with communities involved in the pre-planning rather than as an afterthought.

The discussion moved to gentrification vs. regeneration. Gentrification is creating something without any internal input and imposing your brand on the community. Working alongside the community and developing something together is regeneration. Unlike gentrification, regeneration can provide financial inclusivity, for example, by providing services that don’t alienate the local community and offers that target the widest sense of the population, as well as free space for community events and groups. To conclude, Preston circled back to his initial point about action: “Do something now, and don’t wait until the end of time.”

This absorbing and engaging session left us with three key points to consider:

1). Social impact metrics should represent long-term social value generated for communities over generations (in the form of community engagement, well-being, and employment opportunities) rather than focus on the short-term transactional development value.

2). Social impact consultants and developers require greater clarity in terms of a universally recognised and agreed-upon industry-wide social value metric. Currently, there are several methods in use, but to successfully deliver social impact in a recognisable and tangible way, perhaps the industry should agree on how best this could work.

3). The property industry is changing and evolving to a marketplace where social value is now taking a front seat along with financial delivery, with greater levels of importance assigned than ever before. However, it is only the beginning of the journey, and enormous opportunities are still to be maximised.

We are hosting roundtable discussions as part of The LOWE Down, Property with a Purpose events calendar. If you would like to be kept informed of these, please contact us.