Q&A with 2023 USA SDG Pioneer Winner Raven Adams
As the Global Compact Network USA local SDG Pioneer winner of the Large National and Multi-National Companies category, Raven Adams was recognized for leading the sustainability program at Granite Construction, one of the largest civil infrastructure companies in the United States. Using the SDGs as a framework, Adams spearheaded the development of a comprehensive sustainability program, including GHG emissions reduction targets, a climate governance framework, and a decarbonization plan.
We spoke with Adams recently to understand her company’s sustainability goals and how Network USA’s SDG Ambition Accelerator impacted how the company approached its decarbonization planning.
What does winning the Global Compact Network USA local SDG Pioneers mean to you?
In my mind, it means the priority that Granite’s leadership has put on sustainability is making a difference to our company and industry. What I have accomplished in my role has been enabled by the dedication of teams across the company who work to support our core value of sustainability, and this recognition is also a testament to their efforts. I’m grateful to be working with so many people who have conviction and want to make a positive impact.
Which SDGs does Granite Construction focus on, and what are your company goals for each of them?
At Granite, we recognize our responsibility to contribute to amore sustainable future, and we see sustainability as central to the purpose of our business: to provide infrastructure solutions that support more prosperous and resilient communities. While we support all 17 SDGs, we focus on 10 core SDGs that relate to our operations and areas of influence—namely, where our business has direct impact or can create societal benefits:
SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-being)
SDG 5 (Gender Equality)
SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation)
SDG 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy)
SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth)
SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure)
SDG 10 (Reduced Inequalities)
SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities)
SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production)
SDG 13 (Climate Action).
We have aligned our sustainability strategic plan with the SDGs, and many of the SDGs are reflected in multiple focus areas. Some of our priority targets revolve around improving safety performance, increasing there presentation of women and persons of color throughout the organization, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and increasing the use of environmental product declarations that improve the understanding of the impacts of construction materials. The details of that plan are available in our 2022Sustainability Report (p. 14-22). We also seek out strategic sustainability partnerships in the spirit of SDG 17 (Partnership for the Goals).
Can you give us more information on how your participation in the SDG Ambition Accelerator impacted the way you approach your company’s decarbonization planning?
The Accelerator enhanced my understanding of how to organize a systems-level approach to complex sustainability issues. This understanding was essential for decarbonization planning, which requires coordinated efforts by disparate parts of an organization.
We leveraged lessons directly from the Accelerator to explore the importance of applying system-level thinking in a workshop with Granite’s Sustainability Council—a multi-functional team of department leaders, experts, and operational representatives. In this workshop, our Council divided into smaller teams (each focused on one SDG Benchmark) to work through the same pathways format used in the Accelerator. The team focused on the climate action benchmark identified new opportunities indifferent parts of our business, and the activities sparked fresh ideas about new metrics to establish within our supply chain.
The Accelerator inspired me to adjust my approach to mobilizing our teams around climate action. We identified key impact pathways within the structure of our business, such as business intelligence (metrics and tracking),climate risk, and implementation of decarbonization measures in operations. By assigning workstream leads to these areas and structuring our discussions and communications around specific pathways, we have increased our momentum.
We are currently working on updating our sustainability strategy and will apply the lessons of the Accelerator to develop a strategy that takes a more comprehensive, systems-level approach to advancing the SDGs. I’m looking forward to being able to share more details about our updated strategy once it is finalized.
Our industry has a critical role to play in building more sustainable cities and communities, and I would urge other construction companies to consider joining the UN Global Compact—not only because of the importance of aligning our efforts for a better future, but because of the opportunity to create business value.
How do you see the infrastructure and construction industry adapting to a world where the environment and climate are rapidly changing?
Our clients, the infrastructure owners, will play a critical role in the industry’s evolution. We are already seeing increased demands for improved practices and tracking. Moving forward, I hope we see an increased willingness from owners to be adaptable in designs and specifications to drive innovation. In an industry like infrastructure, where activities are strictly controlled by specifications, it can be difficult for a company to single-handedly implement innovations. Increased collaboration among stakeholders is key to finding new ways to allow for and incentivize innovation.
The use of recycled material in asphalt provides a good example of the important role clients play in allowing more sustainable practices. Using more recycled asphalt product (RAP) in an asphalt mix reduces embodied carbon in the material. One of our goals is to increase the use of recycled material, but our ability to do so is ultimately controlled by client specifications. Many agencies still limit the allowable percentage of RAP based on historical specifications. Innovations in technology, balanced mix design, and performance testing have improved the performance of these mixes, with the potential for significant environmental benefit if deployed.
New procurement methods and related regulations will also advance sustainability in the industry. As we face increasing challenges from climate change and seek to reduce negative social and environmental impacts from the built environment, utilizing collaborative contracting methods will be key for advancing improvements in sustainable infrastructure. Many organizations still rely on competitive, hard-bid contracting methods, which can limit opportunities to deploy more innovative and sustainable construction materials and infrastructure solutions. Collaborative contracting methods (aka alternative procurement methods) are distinct from traditional methods in that they involve the contractor earlier in the planning process.
Considering sustainability early in the life cycle of a construction project allows for cost-effective implementation of more sustainable and equitable solutions. For the best outcomes, sustainability must be considered in the initial planning process, so that it can be reflected in design and construction.
Do you have any advice for new participants to the UN Global Compact?
Use your participation in the Compact to engage your teams in discussions about sustainability issues. When you create an environment where employees feel empowered to speak up about sustainability opportunities, you will accelerate innovation—after all, your employees have the best knowledge on the greatest potential impact.
The most common advice I see for sustainability professionals continues to hold true for me: don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Strive for continuous improvement, but also take stock of small wins along the way. Recognize your champions and let people know that you value their opinion, because making progress on sustainability requires input from all parts of an organization.
What guidance would you provide to other companies in the construction industry who may not yet recognize the suitability of joining the UN Global Compact for their organization?
Our industry has a critical role to play in building more sustainable cities and communities, and I would urge other construction companies to consider joining the UN Global Compact—not only because of the importance of aligning our efforts for a better future, but because of the opportunity to create business value. Participating in the program provides access to resources that can empower business leaders to better manage risks and create more value through sustainability-related opportunities.
I would also encourage other companies to consider joining the Compact as an opportunity to better align a company’s purpose with positive social impact. This is an imperative for attracting great talent— people are coming to work looking for not just a job, but a way to contribute something positive. Joining the Compact provides a unique opportunity to engage employees with your company mission, and increased engagement is associated with all sorts of positive business outcomes.
Network USA will celebrate the 2023 USA SDG Pioneers during an awards ceremony at its flagship conference, 2023 SDG Summit USA, during the UN General Assembly on September 20.