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By Benoit Montet, Global Customer Success Manager, Top Employers Institute
By Benoit Montet, Global Customer Success Manager, Top Employers Institute

What Is The Role of HR in Sustainability?

(Inside the Mind of an HRD – Sustainability)

Sustainability is one of the primary issues on everyone’s minds, as we look to the future and try to avoid the consequences of what the world may look like if we do not make significant changes. While the topic of sustainability has been discussed in various circles, we are now at a time where we need to make actionable changes. And the importance of moving these conversations into reality has not escaped the world of work. Instead, they have fuelled HR leaders to become a significant partner in creating and implementing sustainability strategies within their organisations.

The Three Pillars of Sustainability

Sustainability is a multi-layered concept. It is focused on meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. There are three pillars of sustainability that are most interesting to us these are: economic, environmental, and social. More informally these pillars are profit, planet, and people.

The weight of sustainability issues has been focused on the environment, for good reason, as we try to maintain nature around us but that is not the full picture of sustainability. We are realising the need to focus on the other pillars of profit and people. While focus on the sustainability of people is more obvious, as people are one of our greatest resources, we also need to consider how we create sustainable profit. Without a sustainable profit there is no future for a company.

The Impact of Sustainability on Businesses

In 2012 the United Nations published their 17 sustainability goals for the world to reach by 2030. These sustainability goals have impacted all levels - from large governments, to corporations, and the everyday citizen. In many companies they have translated those 17 goals into session level goals for their business activities. This comes at a time when it is also now mandatory for listed corporations to publish information about their environmental, social and governance (ESG) behaviours. Meaning that they are now being held accountable for the impact of their actions in terms of sustainability. Bringing the importance of enacting these practices higher than before.

The emphasis on sustainability in the world has impacted many aspects of business that were previously taken for granted as we see the emergence of a new kind of business. These businesses are public benefit corporations (PBC) where their primary focus is geared towards having a positive impact on society, their workers, the community and/or the environment. These aspects of their business are legally defined in addition to their other, more traditional, goal of maximising profit for their shareholders. These companies are embedding sustainability into all their businesses practices and while they have been set up to work in this way, we can still make changes in our existing businesses structures to achieve similar goals. HR teams will become a big part of more traditional businesses making this shift.

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Corporate Social Responsibility versus Sustainability

As companies begin to embrace sustainability practices it is important to note what they have done previously and why their move to sustainable procedures will help them to secure their futures. Many businesses have been engaged in corporate responsibility practices, which has been focused on reporting what a business has done to contribute to the wider society. While this has created some good initiatives it has caused people to look backwards – rather than looking at future possibilities open to the company. It is also driven by the need to protect the reputations of the business in developed markets as the projects of the CSR are managed by communications teams.

This contrasts sustainability practices that are focused on looking towards what will happen next as they make plans that secure the future of their company. Some of the practices they may adopt as they lean into sustainability are centred around reducing waste, assuring supply chains, developing new markets, and building their brand. The driving force of sustainability is the need to create opportunities in emerging markets, and this work is managed by various players in the operations and marketing departments.

In simpler terms we can understand CSR as giving a man a fish, whereas sustainability is teaching a man to fish. One makes someone, or for businesses purposes something, reliant on you to be maintain the system while the other builds a system that can maintain itself.

HR’s Role in Sustainability

In our recent study around the practices of our Top Employers we saw that 92% of companies are making social responsibility an important building block of their business. For this many rely on engagement from their employees to make these goals actionable. This is one of the important places that HR will contribute to the overall goal of facilitating sustainable business practices. HR teams have always been focused on people and without their involvement in engaging the employees in the sustainability project, it would be nearly impossible to achieve the businesses’ sustainability goals.

When we talk about integrating sustainability practices into a business, we need to realise that it is a multi-layered process that is inclusive of other social responsibility components including CSR and ESG. The process also involves asking questions about whether the company is committed to enacting these changes, how will they involve employees in this process and how will it be communicated to them. Approaching it from this angle we can clearly see where HR plays a fundamental part in the sustainability goals of their organisations.

HR will be involved several pieces of the puzzle needed to help the sustainability goal. It will differ for each individual organisation, but some aspects that HR will be involved in are around facilitating conversations with employees and the board; defining a code of conduct; launching equity initiatives; and engaging with employees through training, competency models and leadership development. HR is crucial in aiding in the technological and cultural changes needed to help in the sustainability goals of their organisation.

While we have discussed some ways that HR will facilitate current employees to be involved in the greater sustainability project. It is key to acknowledge the role they will play in redefining their employer brand. They will also have a hand in identifying and attracting new talent to the company.

Final Thoughts

The need to make and meet sustainability goals is an issue that we are all juggling with as we look to building the future. It is a complex matter that concerns everyone. While we have taken a big picture approach to introducing the topic, it is one that we, and the Top Employers we work with, are making a concerted effort to expanding as we get closer to 2022 and beyond. Sustainability is not something that we can push to the next year, it is necessary to engage with it now.