Sustainability Champions – Anne DeKeukelaere, Managing Director & Owner of Cementis

Welcome to the third instalment of our Sustainability Champions Series, where we speak to leading sustainability executives across a range of industrial and manufacturing businesses.

Our goal is to understand what sustainability targets these organisations have in place, what they are doing to achieve them, and how companies can incentivise executives to achieve these targets.

In this interview, we speak to Anne DeKeukelaere. Anne is the Managing Director-Owner of Cementis Switzerland, a senior specialist in sustainable building materials with many years of knowledge resulting in her becoming an expert in cement decarbonization, constantly searching for low-impact solutions.

Who is Anne DeKeukelaere?

Cementis Founder, Anne Dekeukelaere, MBA (ICHEC, Brussels) and Master in Sustainability (ALM) (Harvard, Boston), has 25 years’ extensive experience in cement. She spent 13 years at market leader, Holcim, where she held executive positions in finance, concrete, strategy, business planning and alternative fuels usage.

Anne developed multiple strategies around the cement sector for both private companies and international organizations. She is also consulted by many international organisations like the EU Innovation fund, on decarbonisation options for the cement industry. She is coordinating the Global Cement and Concrete Association Roadmaps-to-Net Zero internationally.

Her international recognition as an expert in decarbonisation led to her nomination as Cement Lead within the COP 28 Presidency.

Incentivising sustainability targets across the building materials industry

Hi Anne, thank you for giving us the opportunity to speak with you today. Firstly, what are the key sustainability targets for your industry?

At Cementis, we divide sustainability targets into short, medium and long term for both the supply chain and for demand.

The short and medium term sustainability targets for the supply chain must all be focused on how to lower the carbon content in cement and concrete with current available technologies. This includes changing the standards and construction codes, reducing the clinker in cement, the cement in concrete whilst also optimising the concrete used in buildings.

When it comes to demand, the short-and-medium-term sustainability targets must be to push for green procurement. We consider this one of the most urgent targets to be implemented worldwide. In order to create demand for more sustainable products across all construction projects, we believe public sector construction has an important role to play in leading the way. In fact, we think that all governments should at least disclose the embodied carbon for public construction projects and commit to procure a certain share of low emission cement and concrete.

The long term sustainability targets for both the supply chain and demand are to prepare for implementation of carbon capture, storage and utilisation, which is unavoidable for the sector to achieve net zero. The overall target of becoming net-zero by 2050 implies working on preparing the policies and infrastructure for this purpose.

How are those targets measured to track their achievement?

Thankfully, measuring the CO2 in cement is straightforward. When considering supply, we measure the CO2 per tonne of cement used or CO2 per cubic metre of concrete used. EPD (Environment Product Declaration) is a great tool to achieve this. Measuring these targets from a demand perspective involves calculating the embodied emissions in building and infrastructure. This is something France did with their RE2020 – a national regulation that aims to reduce the carbon footprint of new buildings.

What are the biggest challenges in achieving these targets?

Policies and regulations. At the moment we have several countries that, due to their current regulations, building codes and standards, do not accept the use of low-carbon cement and concrete. Without unlocking this, we will not be able to progress further with the industry sustainability ambitions.

Of course, policies and regulations stem from government level; however, building codes for example, are often in the hands of organisations and prescribers who have the ability to change them to include lower-carbon materials. The biggest challenge in some countries is the fact that the confidence in producers (cement and concrete) is not always present. Many prescribers, governments and policy regulators decide what materials should be used, rather than having the confidence and trust in the producers. Instead, they should trust that the industry can provide optimal, resistant, low-carbon building materials with strong capabilities that are more than suitable for the job. This lack of trust and confidence is also stifling research and development.

When the trust in producers and the industry is there, only then will we be able to change the building codes which will enable the increase of low-carbon cement and concrete being used, resulting in the production of the low-carbon buildings that the sustainability targets are aiming for.

Who do you think is responsible for owning sustainability targets and driving the agenda within large organisations?

Everyone within an organisation is responsible. Yes, the ultimate responsibility for these targets and achieving them in coordination with stakeholders and shareholders lies with the CEO, but the responsibility falls at every level within the organisation to meet their own specific area targets. Roles such as a Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) have been created to support the achievement of these targets. I believe they should not sit under the procurement or marketing head, but need to be under the CEO directly, to indicate the importance of these targets to the whole organisation. The lack of CSOs on the board or in executive management at some of the largest cement producers will have to change to assist in driving the sustainability agenda further.

Should sustainability targets be aligned to financial incentives?

Definitely. To achieve real change these targets must be aligned with financial incentives and bonuses reflecting this. For example, those in marketing can not only have their salary based simply on volume of sales or client satisfaction, otherwise sustainability will not be prioritised or factored into their everyday work. Sustainability has to be a part of the salary set up at every level to give the best chance of achieving these targets.

What advice would you give to other leaders looking to make a commitment to achieving their sustainability targets?

  • Do your research thoroughly. This includes calculating your CO2 output and baselines in-depth for all aspects throughout your business. This is crucial in order to provide credible data within your results and move forward sustainably. “what can be measured, can be managed”.
  • Clearly elaborate your own pathway until 2050, considering what you need and where you have to go. Be open-minded in your approach with this. Try to not get struck within the restraints of business ideas, such as your cement portfolio, but continue to explore other options and opportunities to find more sustainable, reduced-CO2 solutions.
  • ‘Walk the talk.’ It is vital that year after year you continuously make these steps to embed sustainability in your business and the industry itself.

Finally, believe in the building materials industry. Although many people may wish there was less concrete in the world, the main factor is that we need it. Thankfully, the industry is well advanced and positioned to make positive steps with sustainability and should be proud of the products they have. They are not only mitigating the emissions but crucially they are offering resilient products. With increased sea levels, fires, hurricanes, and earthquakes, the sector is ensuring cities and buildings in these areas are protected by strong cement – the only material that can provide that protection.

That is a brilliant point to end with. Anne, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us today.

You’re welcome, thank you for letting me share this with you.