Q&A: Over Coffee with Justin Bowen, Development Manager from Emira Property Fund

Emira is a JSE listed Property Fund with over 140 retail, industrial and office buildings throughout South Africa. We chatted to Justin to gain some insight into Emira’s sustainability journey…

Emira’s humble beginnings, where did the sustainability journey start?

The journey started before I joined Emira.  The willingness of executives and leadership has always been there and a part of the culture of the company.  I think that the value of adopting a sustainability approach to business was initially seen as great way to differentiate against competitors, to create a market differentiator based on something other than returns only, but over time it has evolved to make business sense on so many other levels.  Initially the approach was a desire to “do stuff” but there wasn’t much clarity around what or how to go about it.  Emira started responding to CDP before I got involved, this is our 6th annual consecutive CDP submission, in the beginning it wasn’t done on a scientific basis and more of a conceptual. We’ve definitely seen huge improvements in the scope and quality of non-financial data collected over the years and seen this data become part of decision making.

What are the most significant shifts or changes you have observed over the past 3 years at Emira

It’s no longer the one greenie guy sitting in the corner talking about this stuff.  It’s now a company-wide ethos with the buy in from executive and board.  We brought this to a head in one of our management meetings with senior staff where we said “guys there is a lot of work and time that goes into this “green stuff”, is everyone on board?  Should we bothering with this?”  And it was unanimously voted that this is something we believe in and want to do.  The mind set change in the last 3 years has been most significant.   I think a lot this shift has taken place because of the financial benefits these projects are producing.   Income and savings are being seen in the numbers, suddenly a PV farm is bringing in 1 million rand a year and guys are starting to get excited.  We have put systems in place now, accuracy has improved a lot and we are finding ways to use the information.  Before it was more of an obligatory reporting thing, but we are now using the information in the way that we are managing our assets and run the business.  It used to be Shumie and I championing projects, now the asset managers are doing rainwater harvesting, putting in PV farms and doing it themselves.

What is your vision for the future?

I suppose it’s an ever moving goal isn’t it?  There is no definitive end point where you can arrive and say “We’re there! Were sustainable!”  I suppose net energy positive would be the world’s sustainability goal, but that’s almost impossible for the property sector.  I think that it’s a constant striving to be better and do better, and keep improving.  Technology keeps changing, the market changes, market perception changes, it’s about aligning ourselves with best practice and constantly evolving to tackle the next challenge.

Where you are at now in terms of your journey?

We started with energy, we then moved to water, the R-22 gas issue.  We are now looking at waste.  There is always something more to do.  I think waste is our next big one where were are going to start focusing and tightening our understanding of what’s happening on our properties.  We currently have 2 rainwater harvesting projects and saving 1 million litres of water per year on one of them.   This water is being treated on site and then used for drinking.  We’ve just completed our second biggest PV farm which is going to save 2GW of electricity per year and signed off on our third farm at Mitchells Plein shopping Centre.  Our next quarters focus will be the Megamalls and see what we can start doing around there. What’s great is that in addition to sustainability spinoffs these projects are having financial pay backs.

Are there any obstacles you currently identify as hindrances to realising sustainability?

On an Emira level it’s an ever changing milestone to achieve.  Just when we think we have got on top of one area or aspect a new gremlin emerges that needs to be tackled.  I don’t think there are any real obstacles that we have identified as such.  I think the obstacles lie more at a global level.  If you look at Trump, the states and pulling out of the Paris Accord – that’s the big problem. The noise this creates doesn’t help in trying to achieve results as a planet.   It discredits the efforts made in trying to sway mass action.  We spent so many years sitting on the fence deciding whether or not to accept that climate change is caused by people, and then that it IS something we need to take serious action on.  And Trump has made so much noise that he has knocked us back a decade in terms of the trajectory.  I only hope that this noise hasn’t affected sectors or companies that have been making inroads and gives execs a reason to get back onto the fence.  You know, you can do your best as to be a socially responsible corporate, but if the U.S, China and India don’t get on board this is all for nothing.

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