First published as an editorial for Project Management World Today Web Magazine. Updated here June 2001.


Musings Index

Ethics and Sustainable Development Initiatives in Construction

This month, our abstracts come from Sara Parkin's two excellent papers published in the ICE Civil Engineering Special Issue #2, Volume 138, November 2000. Photocopies can be obtained from the ICE library (+44 20 7665 2251, or for a fee of 5, but first download a photocopy request form from

Last month we took a depressing but, we think, a realistic view of our global environmental problems. This month we focus on what we can do as project managers, given our current "political-correctness" constraints. At a minimum we can polish up our ethics with respect to our environmental responsibilities and as background for this our comments this month come from two very thoughtful papers published by the Institution of Civil Engineers by Sara Parkin, Director of Forum for the Future, a sustainable development charity in the UK.

Parkin takes a pragmatic view of sustainability. Addressing engineers, but equally project managers, she says ". . .it is so important for everyone to understand sustainable development sufficiently to be able to ensure that their individual actions, and the decisions they make that influence others, add as little as possible to the total burden on the environment. We cannot avoid treading on the Earth, but we can ensure that we tread as little as possible." She points to the 1970s "all important equation" which states I = P x C x T where I is the impact on the environment; P is the number of people; C is the consumption of energy (or the surrogate measure "Gross National Product"); and T is the technology of consumption.

Given this, research in the 1990s by Paul Ekins and Michael Jacobs indicates that to achieve "sustainability" we would now have to reduce our impact on the environment by around 50%. If, however, the then anticipated growth in world population to 10 billion by 2050 is taken into account where 95% of consumption will take place in developing countries, then the reduction in consumption (T) would have to be around 81% if economic growth took place only in the "South". It would be 89% if it tool place only in the "North" and 91% if it took place in the "North" and "South".

Parkin counsels not to argue over the precise figures but to examine the orders of magnitude. For example, while a 50% reduction in environmental impact reduction might sound like an achievable target, 80-90% sounds highly improbable, if not entirely impossible. Yet, we should examine our technological processes more closely. Parking explains "It has been estimated that for every 1000 kg of "stuff" (about half of it food) consumed each year by an adult person living in a developed nation such as Britain, another 10,000 kg of "stuff" has to be mobilized. And while we pay across the counter for the first 1000 kg, the bill for the other 9000 kg (water, aggregate, waste, pollution, etc.) is picked up by the environment. Either that, or it is picked up by other people, sometimes out of other budgets (e.g. health) and often in other countries."

"Waste experts also point out that for every tonne of resource consumed as a finished product, only 100 kg is still in the household six months later." One suspects that the position in North America could be even worse. From all this we may conclude that as a result of our "economy support" processes, only 1% of the original raw materials end up in long-term durables, leaving ample room for efficiency gains, and progress towards sustainability. While this discussion may be comprehensible to technically minded people, part of our problem is that financial accounting systems do not include a reckoning of the missing or hidden costs and so, in construction, does not come into an owner's equation.

For example, project management clients typically want the lowest capital cost and timely delivery for a given project's "product". Ethically, it should be a natural step for project director's and managers to question other "project values" in its project charter that may not be stated explicitly. What is it they value in the end product? Is it really what they are looking for? How healthy or comfortable will a resulting facility be? Or what about the "human capital" involved? And how long will this product last and does it make the best use of environmental resources?

Most young people now graduating or leaving school know little or nothing about how the world's eco systems work. Therefore, the type of ethical approach described will require a massive cultural shift in public thinking. The project management profession should be the first in line to lead with cultural change projects that bring about this vital-for-survival transformation.

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