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9 ways that HR and People teams can drive sustainability

Businesses are lacking the leadership skills to deliver on long-term sustainability goals, says a new report. Should HR leaders step up?

Is there a more topical and urgent issue in the world right now than sustainability?

By 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. A quarter of global deaths are now linked to pollution, according to the World Health Organisation. The world is also losing arable land at a rate of around 40,000 square miles each year.

Organisations are causing negative, if unintended, consequences for society and the environment, according to a new report from the University of Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership.

The report’s authors argue that businesses are failing to deliver leadership to respond to the unprecedented changes brought by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and given the nature and scale of the challenges, organisations no longer have the luxury to choose whether to respond.

Is there a role for HR and People leaders to play?

Why is it important for businesses to be sustainable?

Less than a decade ago CEOs didn’t talk of ‘purpose’ beyond maximising profits and returns to shareholders.

However, there has been an increasing demand from employees who want work that is meaningful, customers that want brands that inspire, and societies that want companies that are responsible.

In fact, 64% of millennials won’t take a job if a potential employer doesn’t have strong corporate social responsibility (CSR) practices, and 88% say their job is more fulfilling when they’re provided opportunities to make a positive impact on social and environmental issues.

Similarly, 33% of consumers choose to buy from brands with a social or environmental purpose.

What can HR and People teams do to drive sustainability?

HR and People teams play an important role in recruiting, training and rewarding individuals to succeed in this context, the report argues.

Employees at all levels need to be equipped with the skills to not only nurture innovation and manage risk, but to transform the economic systems within which they operate, and to deliver on broader societal goals, the report authors argue.

However, what does that mean in practice? Here’s 9 ways that HR and People teams can drive the sustainability agenda.

1. Define your company’s social purpose

Work alongside your leadership team to define what your company’s social purpose is, and how employees together can achieve it. For example, Unilever’s purpose is to make sustainable living commonplace.

Once you have refined yours, create your company’s code of conduct around this.

Note that having a purpose doesn’t mean that you can ignore all your other sustainable goals, it just means that you have a focus.

Looking for inspiration? Try the UN’s global sustainable development goals.

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2. Review your workplace practices

As a first step, you should review all your processes and work practices to ensure that they are in line with your sustainability goals.

Any areas that are not up to scratch need to be addressed and a code of ethics needs to be developed and communicated to the entire workforce.

Remember to update the goals continually and assess them against the societal issues that they are solving.

3. Make sustainability a vital part of your recruitment and onboarding

Ensure that your sustainability goals are a key factor in your recruitment process and onboarding. For example, your sustainability goals should be discussed during the interview process.

This is also an important factor in finding the right cultural fit for your organisation.

Your goals and mission should also be a key part of your onboarding process, explaining to each new recruit the importance of them for your company.

4. Provide training

Many sustainability measures require specialised knowledge such as talking to suppliers about sustainable sourcing or fair wages.

Clearly set out how your company’s sustainability goals have a real societal and environmental impact and how each individual can play their part in achieving those goals, providing training where needed.

5. Look at the easy wins

Provide the tools to help your employees be more sustainable. For example, eliminating all paper from your talent acquisition process, including pamphlets, brochures, forms, company information, reports, to make the hiring process entirely electronic.

IBM, Marks and Spencer, and Nestlé have all invested heavily in systems and processes that enable sustainability decisions to be made at a large scale.

At Sage, we provide mid-sized multinational organisations with a global cloud HR and People system which automates processes, whilst designing better workforce experiences for your people. Not only does it often remove the need for physical paperwork, but it gives your workforce more ownership of their employee data through self-service.

6. Incentivise

Your sustainability goals should be incorporated into performance reviews and included as an objective for employees with clear incentives attached to them.

Offering a reward programme will not only deliver tangible and measurable business gains but will send out the message that your sustainability goals are just as important as any other KPI.

7. Nurture ownership

Unite your entire workforce behind sustainability as a cause you can all work together on.

At the top, the CEO and their leadership team are key to embedding a sustainable business model, but that’s not enough.

All your employees should be sustainability champions across all levels and geographies. For example, Marks and Spencer has sustainability ‘champions’ in every store and Unilever has sustainability ‘ambassadors’ throughout the organisation.

As a result, 76% of Unilever’s 170,000 employees feel their role at work enables them to contribute to delivering the sustainability agenda, and about half of all new employees entering the company from university cite Unilever’s ethical and sustainability policies as the primary reason for wanting to join the company.

8. Provide volunteering opportunities

Allow employees to join company volunteer schemes, to take time off to support charities, and to nominate charities or causes your company should support. For example, UPS staff worldwide take part in the global volunteer month each year, when the company allows employees to volunteer for causes they are passionate about.

9. Promote employee ideas

Enable employees from every level to contribute ideas to the company by sending ideas to their managers or to a dedicated email address. For example, Marks & Spencer implemented clothes recycling boxes in its stores on the suggestion of an employee.

Business benefits

Taking a more sustainable view of your business can help drive employee engagement and retention, as well as create a culture of innovation and a brand that employees, potential recruits and customers can identify with.

Ultimately, candidates and customers alike are attracted to organisations that consider how to meet the needs of people today without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs tomorrow. It comes down to developing the leadership we need today to create the future we want tomorrow.

HR and People leaders can carve a space themselves here, setting themselves up as trailblazers of sustainable businesses that put environmental and societal considerations up there alongside growth and profit.

How are you stepping up?

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Seismic shifts in the way organisations operate, work, and manage their people are occurring. We surveyed 500+ HR leaders to discover how they are responding.

Uncover insights on how to stay ahead and transform HR from a process focused function to a people driven business.

Download Report