Sustainability Champions – Elena Guede Vazquez, Senior Vice President Sustainability Strategy at CRH

Welcome to the fourth 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 Elena Guede Vazquez. Elena is the Senior Vice President Sustainability Strategy at CRH, the leading provider of building materials solutions that build, connect and improve our world. She is a highly experienced corporate sustainability executive and a former cement plant manager with a career which has involved leading roles in the building materials industry around the world.

Who is Elena Guede Vazquez?

Elena Guede has a PhD in Chemical Engineering from the Basque Country University and an MBA from the European Business School. She started working in the building materials industry as the laboratory manager in a cement plant 28 years ago. Since then, she has held several different roles in quality, environment and sustainability, as well as new product development as part of an innovation team, all before being appointed as a cement plant manager in 2013. She was the first woman in CRH, and in Spain, to hold such a position.

In 2021, Elena was appointed SVP Sustainability Strategy, and is a driving force in the global sustainability team at CRH. Elena has kindly shared her experience, knowledge and advice with us, and how crucial sustainability is to CRH as an organisation.

Incentivising sustainability targets within the building industry

Hi Elena, thank you for giving us the opportunity to speak with you today. Firstly, what are the key sustainability targets for the building materials industry and for CRH?

CRH’s vision is to help build, connect and improve our world, providing sustainable solutions for the modern built environment and helping to create resilient communities that can withstand the challenges of climate change.

We are taking action across our own operations and also designing our products, services and solutions to help create a more sustainable built environment. In doing so we have identified three rapidly emerging and hard to solve global challenges for the built environment and society – decarbonisation, waste and water.

We have an ambition to be a net-zero business by 2050 and have set a target of reducing absolute carbon emissions by 30% by 2030.  This has been validated by the SBTi (Science Based Targets initiative) in line with its 1.5 °C science-based framework.

How are those targets measured?

We use the Greenhouse Gases (GHG) Protocol, a global, standardised framework for companies and communities to measure their carbon output.

We have developed detailed roadmaps to help us achieve our 2030 targets, led by our network of sustainability professionals across our business and delivered through locally managed plans in our operations. CRH has a long history and proven track record of target delivery. In 2022, we achieved a 7% year-on-year reduction in absolute carbon emissions.

A key area for us is reducing the CO2 content of our products and we have set a target to achieve 50% of product revenue from products with enhanced sustainability attributes by 2025. Bringing low-carbon products to the market is a fundamental part of this and in 2022, 47% of product revenue came from products with enhanced sustainability attributes.

Circularity is another sustainability priority at CRH, and we measure this based on the amount of waste we are able to recycle and reintegrate into our production processes. Waste material at one company could be used as alternative fuel or raw material at another. In 2022 we recycled 42.4 million tonnes of alternative fuels and materials. We are the number one recycler of building materials in North America where 25% of every mile of road we build is made from recycled materials. We also take a collaborative, whole life approach to the design of products, buildings and infrastructure to eliminate waste, maximise resource efficiency and prolong the lifecycle of structures.

Water conservation is another critical area of focus for CRH. In 2022, we increased recycling and conservation of water in our own operations, recycling c.140bn litres of water. We also strengthened our portfolio of products and services that help advance solutions to solve global water challenges including stormwater and wastewater management solutions.

What are the biggest challenges in achieving these targets?

Our main challenges are in accelerating the integration of more low-carbon production methods and technologies into our cement and concrete operations, and creating demand for low-carbon concrete and asphalt products, such as reclaimed asphalt paving (RAP) products going forward.

Addressing these challenges requires more than just the ambition of CRH and other industry players. It requires collaboration throughout the value chain and the wider energy and carbon infrastructure sector. We need to see stakeholders from across society – industry, governments, customers – coming together to address the challenges of climate change.

CRH is working with both suppliers and customers to progress towards decarbonising our operations while bringing resilient, low-carbon products and solutions to market.

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

It starts at the top. Achieving all of this requires commitment and conviction from both the CEO and Board of Directors, which we have at CRH. Our CEO and global leadership team play a pivotal role in prioritising and advancing the sustainability agenda and sustainability is deeply embedded in our business strategy. Our Chief Sustainability Officer and sustainability and technical teams lead the delivery across our business creating the framework, guidelines, toolkits and policies that help our more than 200 operating companies in 29 countries embed sustainability across their operations.

Should sustainability targets be aligned to financial incentives?

At CRH, our climate-related targets are linked to our remuneration policy. For our 2022 Performance Share Plan (PSP), 15% relates to ESG metrics, of which 10% are specific to climate. Our PSP is an effective mechanism for incentivising progress towards a more sustainable built environment, recognising the long-term nature of our targets.

How would sustainability targets create value for the construction sector and CRH?

Sustainability performance is increasingly being recognised as an essential driver of value creation. Critical to this is seeing sustainability not as a risk but as an opportunity. We see significant opportunities for our business to lead the way in solutions that help tackle the sustainability challenges faced in the built environment.

We can help our customers  build safer, quicker and cleaner to deliver a more sustainable built environment. In doing so there is a natural growth opportunity for CRH.

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

Firstly, align corporate strategy with sustainability strategy. They cannot be separate. This requires close collaboration between the sustainability and senior leadership teams.

Secondly, engage with stakeholders – including investors, employees, governments, suppliers and customers – to recognise their needs and to address them. This is critical to creating value and identifying opportunities for the business.

Thirdly, work hard to educate, support and engage all the people in your organisation. Sustainability is the responsibility of everyone across the business and everyone needs to understand the contribution they can make and the positive impact they can have.

Elena, thank you for your time and sharing your knowledge

If you would like to discuss any of the topics raised in this piece or if you need support with your leadership resourcing strategy, please get in touch with James Pope on: