People & Leadership

What role should HR play in sustainability? 4 top tips for the future

Should HR lead on sustainability? We look at what the data tells us, and everything HR leaders need to know.

Without doubt, sustainability is the challenge of our times.

In fact, 92% of people are worried about sustainability – with a third very concerned.

More than 60% of consumers have reduced their use of single-use plastics, 39% have reduced the volume of goods they buy to become more sustainable, and 30% are consuming less meat or animal products.

Sustainability really matters to so many people; people who are also your employees.

In fact, 67% of Gen Z respondents of a study by consultancy group Anthesis said that sustainability was important when choosing a company to work for, and other generations weren’t far behind.

So, not only is taking a strong stance on sustainability the right thing for companies to do, employers need to become more sustainable to keep up with their employees’ needs to attract, retain and engage top talent.

However, who should take on responsibility for what an organization does about sustainability? Should it fall to HR?

Here’s what we cover in this article:

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Sustainability – should HR take the lead?

There are various views on the role of HR when it comes to sustainability.

Discussions aren’t helped by the fact that environmental sustainability and business sustainability are often blurred – as in, making the business resilient long-term, particularly in terms of people.

There’s a clear case for HR taking the lead on the second.

But the case for HR taking the lead on sustainability across the entire organization can be uncertain.

The main reason for this is simple: environmental sustainability simply must be a whole-organization issue.

Sustainability is changing the way people do everything; it determines the jobs they choose as well as the products they buy.

The idea that sustainability is an HR responsibility because ‘it’s about people’ doesn’t really hold up.

HR can’t take on company environmental sustainability as part of their ever-growing workload, especially as 60% of HR leaders have seen an increase in their workload since the start of the pandemic, our research found.

There does seem to be confusion in organizations about this today, however.

Our research also found that a quarter of HR leaders are already leading sustainability efforts in their organization – and 40% of C-suite execs believe HR is leading sustainability.

So, HR teams are already driving sustainability efforts in companies, and in some cases, there’s an expectation from the executive team for this to be the case – even if HR teams feel this shouldn’t fit in their remit, or have the resource to do so.

A state of play many HR leaders may be familiar with, as the role of HR continues to expand and take on more and more areas of responsibility outside their traditional wheelhouse in organizations.

What role should HR play with sustainability?

Of course, this doesn’t mean HR can’t take a strong stance and play a part in building more sustainable workplaces.

In fact, we’ve already published an article on this subject and there’s so much HR can do to showcase their stance and lead by example.

It makes perfect sense for any responsible organization to integrate sustainability into all processes where possible.

In our HR in 2030 report, April Marcot, chief people officer at recruitment and HR services firm McArthur, highlights sustainability as “something else that workforces will expect a much more serious attitude towards”.

Meanwhile, Linda Holbeche, co-director of the Holbeche Partnership, explains that HR will need to play some role: “HR will also have to support in pushing through an environmentally friendly agenda to align with focus on these areas within society as a whole.”

So, what can HR and People leaders do to drive sustainability in the HR function, as part of wider strategies across the business?

Here’s four areas HR leaders can get involved in within People strategies and processes for a more sustainable future.

1. Ask your employees what they need to help make their organization more sustainable – and act on feedback

While you’ll want company leadership as a whole to lead the overall discussion on sustainability, HR can be a great facilitator of an open dialogue between the team leading sustainability and your employees.

As the values and demands of both the business and your people will change over time, it’s important to keep the conversation going and find out what your employees really want to help make their organization more sustainable.

You’ll find employees will have no shortage of ideas on this topic.

Keep listening to employees to gauge sentiment shifts. For example, if you’ve implemented something new, has this increased positive views on what the company is doing?

What new things are they concerned about, or do they have ideas on adopting more sustainable approaches to new company developments?

It’s important to act on feedback, but remember, you can’t do everything at once.

Use employee feedback to understand what their priorities are.

What areas are they most concerned about? Where can the biggest wins be made?

This will help you prioritise your sustainability efforts.

By asking your workforce to rate different strategies according to what they feel is most important, the company can then attribute change directly to employee input.

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2. Work with the organization to create a sustainability team

There will be no shortage of advocates for sustainability within your organization. Tap into their enthusiasm and desire for change.

A green team, a group of individuals focusing on the company’s greener efforts, could be a good place to start for them to make suggestions and changes within your organization.  

While this might not be something you’d look to lead, HR could certainly help to form the group and bring ideas to the table, such as charity days focused on sustainability and team beach cleans.

Larger companies may also have a person or a team dedicated to sustainability.

If you’re a midsize or larger company and you don’t have this in place, then there’s a role for HR to play in establishing this and getting buy in from the board.

This also means any sole responsibility can move away from HR and into this team – a win-win situation.

3. Seriously consider the role of hybrid working

This is an area where you really can lead from the front.

We already know that hybrid working can enhance your recruitment and retention efforts, but it can also help reduce pollution if employees have the flexibility to work from home.

Find out what your employees want in terms of hybrid working and travel, then set out clear policies for your organization, so employees know where they stand.

After all, with 90% of employees saying they want flexibility in when and where they work, hybrid working models are here to stay.

4. Read up on sustainability practices and HR’s role

Even without leading sustainability in organizations, HR and People teams still have a role to play.

Business leaders are attuned to the fact becoming greener as a business attracts more customers and can power growth – if efforts are authentic and drive real change.

As a result, sustainability is top of mind for many company bosses. And all business leaders have a role to play, including HR.

There’s a wealth of information available to HR leaders, so keeping your finger on the pulse is vital.

Take time each week or month to understand what other HR leaders are doing, discover best practices, and take time with your team to elevate work you’re leading on, or playing a part in, on your business.

Our article on the top nine ways HR teams can drive sustainability, and our research report, HR in 2030, – which looks at how HR’s role will shift and change in this area – are both great places to start.

Sustainability is a team effort and the responsibility of everyone

The sustainability of organizations is crucial to the future of our planet, and important to both your existing employees and future hires.

If COP26 is to meet its targets, private enterprises must be involved, and so all organizations must make sustainability a priority, led by those with the scope to enforce business-wide policy and governance.

And while HR have a part to play, it absolutely shouldn’t sit within your remit.

HR leaders have too much on their plates to entirely lead efforts on this, too. Instead, HR should focus their efforts on where they can make a difference in their HR processes and practices, and lead by example to encourage and bring employees together on the topic.

Learn from the best and better your business

Discover how to create a sustainable, resilient business that can withstand uncertain times.

Visit Member Masterclass
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