Why Lydia Dutton of CBRE believes sustainability should be at the top of the corporate agenda

The pandemic forced many businesses to re-assess the nature of work.

When COVID-19 struck, spare bedrooms and dining rooms around Britain suddenly became hives of corporate activity, as hundreds of thousands of people adjusted to the challenges and opportunities of working from home. Patterns of behaviour established during the pandemic are here to stay, as more staff and employers become aware of the merits of hybrid working.

These changes have prompted companies to use every inch of workspace efficiently, to drive down costs and protect the environment. The days when lights burned in empty offices are long gone.

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By acting to reduce the pace of climate change, businesses are cutting their bills, improving working conditions for their staff and reducing the chances of their premises being destroyed by extreme weather.

Lydia Dutton of CBRELydia Dutton of CBRE
Lydia Dutton of CBRE

For Lydia Dutton, sustainability is built around common sense.

"It's driven by a fundamental question: What right do we have to mess up the environment? Why don't we do things more efficiently?,’’ she said.

"Net zero and energy efficiency are more than just buzz words. It's about making enhancements to a building to make it more efficient. Efficiency within the building fabric is so beneficial, particularly during a time of energy price rises and fuel poverty.”

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Ms Dutton is on a mission to ensure that every business protects the natural world around it. She became regional sustainability lead at commercial real estate giant CBRE in April 2022, after working for more than 15 years in the sustainable real estate sector and co-founding a circular economy technology start up.

She joined CBRE after leading the University of Birmingham’s sustainability strategy. Ms Dutton has also worked for Argent as an environment project manager at its King’s Cross scheme in London, where she was responsible for identifying and delivering opportunities to maximise sustainability within a 20-year regeneration programme.

“I've had a bug for sustainability and everything linked with the environment since I was at school,’’ she said.” I set up a gardening club at my school and encouraged my friends to help me develop it. I read geography at university which is a reflection of my interest in the environment.

"After leaving university, I was really interested in venture capital and early stage companies. In the mid 2000s that felt like a really important place to be. Young business people were bringing ideas to the table and there were more routes available to accessing finance and capital.

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"Working at the University of Birmingham allowed me to meet some exciting entrepreneurs looking to disrupt sectors such as Hazaar, who are a zero waste marketplace for students.”

She joined the commercial real estate services company JLL, where she was inspired by two women who believed sustainability must be at the heart of every business.

Ms Dutton recalled: “At JLL, I was part of the ‘Upstream’ team led by Julie Hirigoyen and Sarah Ratcliffe. They wanted to drive change in the industry and have both gone on to become leaders in the sector.”

Ms Hirigoyen, who later became chief executive of the UK Green Building Council, showed that you can carve out a long term executive career by advocating for greener methods of building.

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Closer to home, Ms Dutton is full of praise for the work of Better Homes Yorkshire, which aims to help residents across Yorkshire pay less for energy and live in healthier, warmer homes. Working in partnership with local councils’ delivery partner EQUANS, the programme has improved energy efficiency in 3,000 homes over three years.

Ms Dutton believes sustainability policies in real estate must also focus on the welfare of workers.

She added: "This is not just about efficiency and reaching net zero, it is also about the wellbeing of the people inside the building. As more people adopt the hybrid working approach, you need workplaces to be more inviting for people to come into.

"You need spaces for collaboration and learning, because people still need to meet to be trained and mentored. There's a new generation of employees who are seeking leadership by example.

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"It's important to focus on social value; by doing work for charity and going out to schools. Diversity, equality and inclusion is so important in a sector that has been traditionally male and white.”

She has been impressed by the work of the Green Skills Academy, which has been created to help prepare workers for the opportunities of a carbon neutral economy

Based in Trafford Park, the academy is part of a strategy to ensure the North of England leads the UK’s transition to “net zero”.

The Yorkshire & Humber Climate Commission is also providing advice to businesses who wish to protect the environment after a period when flooding and heatwaves have damaged workplaces and reduced productivity.

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“My role at CBRE as regional lead provides an opportunity to engage with the real estate sector across the UK looking to further accelerate change in the industry,” Ms Dutton added: “My retirement date is set for 2048, and by the time I retire, I hope we will have gone a long way beyond the 'net zero' target set for 2050. Real estate is a critical part of that journey. There is a really exciting number of people who want to embed sustainability in everything they do. Organisations who do not focus on sustainability are set for a rude awakening.”

"Biodiversity and the environment is also moving up the agenda,’’ she said. “There are so many excellent sustainable developments in Yorkshire such as Wellington Place and Toronto Square in Leeds. Social value and biodiversity is only going to increase in importance over the coming years. The levelling up funding recently announced by Government is a great opportunity to drive sustainable development both in environmental impact but also in society.”

Ms Dutton believes fortune will always favour those who embrace sustainability with an open mind.