Have you ever started on a project with great intentions but later realised its potential was never achieved? Delivering sustainable, innovative outcomes on projects and a positive legacy that goes beyond business as usual (BAU) doesn’t just happen. It needs someone to facilitate, champion and coach the whole project team to deliver benefits across the triple bottom line. Emma Dade and Janine Barrow explain how having an embedded sustainability manager is just the ticket.

There is growing interest in environmental, social and governance (ESG) frameworks in the infrastructure sector, particularly in projects funded by institutional and private sector investors undergoing shareholder and investor scrutiny.

At an organisational level, ESG factors can be a useful driver for realising sustainable outcomes. Translating corporate intent into outcomes at a project level requires proactive leadership on sustainability management and integration. Success relies on having people focused on leading teams to deliver on sustainability commitments, thereby realising long-term value for investors, people and the planet.

Embedding an innovation, integration and sustainability manager on a project team can help to bridge this gap. Their understanding of stakeholder and corporate ESG drivers at an organisational level and their connectedness across project functions enables a clear ‘line of sight’ between project objectives, global priorities, client corporate policies, and relevant industry or finance standards and policies.

Greater integration at the project and organisational level can also strengthen the reporting of project outcomes against organisational ESG goals.

What is a sustainability manager?

Innovation, integration and sustainability managers drive and implement smart, sustainable approaches throughout the project lifecycle and a clear framework to guide all aspects of whole-of-life project delivery.

In recent years, the responsibility for delivering sustainability outcomes in the planning, design and construction of infrastructure projects has moved away from environment or stakeholder teams to a defined role within the engineering and design team. We’re now seeing it emerge as a critical leadership role within the project integration or innovation team, with oversight and insight into all project functions.

Positioning the role at this level can facilitate value creation across all disciplines and integration into risk and opportunity management, procurement, community and stakeholder processes, social value creation and decision- making frameworks.

Working closely with the project manager, this role navigates project complexity to achieve positive outcomes. It spans multiple disciplines to translate and implement the project’s sustainability vision and objectives throughout all project functions and outcomes.

A successful and empowered sustainability manager provides inspirational leadership, prompts and challenges the team, builds the business case for sustainable outcomes and reports achievements and benefits.


The benefits of embedding a sustainability manager on your project team

The benefits of embedding a sustainability manager on your project team Regardless of whether the role is mandated by a client or project owner, there are significant benefits to having a sustainability manager:

  1. Saving time and money by developing smart solutions across the project lifecycle which can lead to cost savings in energy, water, materials and resources.
  2. Putting policy into practice and making corporate policy and sustainability commitments real by implementing them into major projects.
  3. Adopting a proactive approach to issues that are often considered as externalities, but which are often the most complex challenges on a project, such as carbon emissions impacts and reduction.
  4. Achieving linked key performance indicators for innovation and sustainability.
  5. Inspiring and engaging the project team encourages enthusiasm for innovation and sustainable outcomes.
  6. Delivering better documentation and improved measurability for key successes, cost savings and greater transparency for auditing and external communications, particularly where public transparency for major capital expenditure is required.
  7. Fostering lessons learned and knowledge sharing to realise more effective, innovative sustainable solutions.
  8. Driving improved stakeholder and community engagement and effective participation to inform project outcomes.


Here is a representation of the impact of the sustainability role across project phases. Of course, there could also be a rapid gain in value at the start, with the line then starting to plateau.


What to do if you don’t have a sustainability manager on your project team

If you are running medium to large projects, consider if an embedded sustainability manager would work for your team. Not every project can afford an embedded innovation, integration and sustainability manager, and of course there will be projects focused solely on sustainability where everyone is a sustainability manager.

Having clear sustainability responsibilities and KPIs within the senior leadership team is critical for building the case and gaining buy-in for a dedicated, embedded role. This can be supported by a clear framework and management system for embedding sustainability and by incorporating sustainability coordination and facilitation into existing project coordination roles (for example, design coordination).

To help build the case and momentum, clear communication of the risks and unrealised opportunities is required. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Benchmark demonstrated achievements
  • Gain government and stakeholder support
  • Give clarity and structure to teams about their contribution to specific sustainable project outcomes

A case study from Jacobs

Establishing and embedding the sustainability manager role early in project planning phases can maximise sustainability impact. We recently implemented this approach on a major road upgrade project in rural Australia. Incorporating sustainability principles into the project vision, charter and objectives ensured the whole project team was on the same page from the start and encouraged innovative thinking.

Having a sustainability manager optimised the project’s sustainable outcomes, which will progress in the next project phase.

These outcomes included:

  • Setting the strategic direction for the project
  • Designing a management system that integrated sustainability into everyday work and fostered a strong sustainability culture throughout the project
  • Facilitating sustainability, materiality and resource efficiency workshops
  • Supporting the early work of stakeholder identification, issues and solutions that will go beyond BAU
  • Identifying the important sustainability issues and opportunities for the project

BAU won’t move the needle on the climate crisis

Doing what we’ve always done won’t be sufficient to achieve the step change needed to deliver the sustainability outcomes stakeholders and shareholders expect.

Embedding an innovation, integration and sustainability manager as a key project team member can facilitate value creation beyond BAU and drive project teams to deliver more sustainable outcomes across all project functions.


This article is taken from the Autumn 2023 edition of Paradigm Shift