Tackling our climate emergency: HR's role

Time is running out to save our planet. So green issues can no longer be ignored by HR, who are perfectly placed to take the strategic lead

Tens of thousands of walruses are crammed onto a beach in Russia. A group has found refuge from the masses by scaling an 80-metre cliff. One teeters dangerously on the edge before plummeting to its death, its body bouncing off the rocky surface as it falls. Its lifeless body reaches the bottom where it joins the graveyard of thousands of other walruses who have met the same fate.

So shocking was this and other scenes in David Attenborough’s Our Planet – and so great the response from viewers used to slightly gentler BBC nature programming – that Netflix issued a content warning listing specific timestamps for more sensitive viewers to avoid.

But even those skipping the more harrowing parts couldn’t escape the docuseries’ overriding unmistakable message: that a lot of the trauma depicted is our fault.

In the case of the poor Russian walruses shrinking sea ice means the species’ natural resting points are diminishing, forcing them to gather on dangerously-high land. They were, in short, victims of climate change.

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Wider events around the world build on this shocking picture. An estimated 315,000 people lose their lives each year to weather-related disasters and environmental destruction caused by climate change, according to the Global Humanitarian Forum’s report The Anatomy of A Silent Crisis.

The UN has issued stark warnings that there could be just 12 years left to limit a climate catastrophe if we fail to halt global warming to 1.5ºC. And we are reaching a “jaws of death” moment where without urgent action humans will not have sufficient water by 2050, according to Environment Agency CEO James Bevan.

And so public pressure is mounting. Schoolchildren around the globe went on strike in February to protest government inaction, triggered by the growing influence of 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg. Climate change protestors Extinction Rebellion have made headlines by occupying prominent sites across the UK and gluing themselves to trains.

In response the UK parliament has declared a ‘climate emergency’, and announced a commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the UK to almost zero by 2050.

But the government, along with others around the world, is still accused of failing to act quickly enough. And business has been subject to similar accusations.

All employers must wake up to the scale of the threat and their critical role, says Tom Thackray, director of infrastructure and energy policy at the CBI, which is calling for the government to work closely with business to reduce carbon emissions. “Science shows the trajectory we’re on is not going to be sufficient to stave off some of the most critical impacts of climate change – we need to go further and faster,” he says.

Organisations must realise they’re both the cause and cure for climate change, he adds: “Businesses are responsible for a high proportion of emissions, but they’ve also been at the heart of developing the solutions that will make a big difference.”

Making the link

Unfortunately, despite the scale and importance of the challenge to every single member of society and – to an even greater extent perhaps – business professional, many in HR don’t yet seem to see this as an issue for them.

“Don’t you want to speak to our sustainability team instead?” came the response from press offices of major organisations when HR magazine asked to speak to their HRDs about HR’s role in the green agenda. “I’m struggling to see the HR link,” said others. The CIPD turned down an interview request because it “isn’t one [they’ve] explored in any detail”.

And yet HR teams can make the crucial link for organisations regarding why they should care. “Tackling the issues of climate change is all about people – it’s about the future of people,” says Gudrun Cartwright, environment director at Business in the Community.

She adds: “If HR doesn’t feel a sense of ownership then that’s a real shame as they are the changemakers – the ones who can build pipelines for the skills of the future, who understand people, enable behaviour change, and put the right processes in place to make it easy for employees to do the right thing.”

The problem is that, like diversity and inclusion, sustainability is often put in a silo, says Thackray. “You see it with a number of business issues; that they tend to be carved into a separate unit of the business,” he explains.

“The danger of doing that is you don’t get the leadership buy-in. And also you’re talking about behaviour change needed by everyone who works in the business, not just one certain group of people.”

It’s a sentiment shared by John Chilman, chief executive of the Railways Pension Scheme. He says that “absolutely people have not made the link” between HR and environmental responsibility. “Businesses have set up sustainability teams but it’s not in the mainstream, it’s just a sideshow,” he says.

“The idea that it’s someone else’s job is not going to get the job done,” adds Sarah-Jane Norman, group people and culture director at Innocent. “If you assume a small group of experts are going to be able to achieve everything that’s a real shame.”

In her mind “it’s almost a bit of an odd question” to ask why HR should be involved in environmental responsibility: “Of course it’s our responsibility as it’s everyone in the company’s responsibility. It’s better to have 500 employees thinking how to do things better than just two or three in the sustainability team.”

Hearteningly, there is a growing movement in some quarters where HR is not just involved in its organisation’s green agenda, but owning it.

Further reading:

Case study: A joint HR and sustainability strategy at Ricoh

The environmental impact of pensions

Staff want employers to declare a climate emergency

At JLL the corporate real estate agenda, which includes much focus on the sustainability strategy, is led by HR. “I don’t think we have a choice anymore but to be involved,” says UK HRD Virginia Rothwell, adding that it’s still important HR works closely with the sustainability team: “We work together – so I chair it and have a leadership role but with the community colleagues. My involvement is around how do we help employees engage with the workplace through the sustainability agenda?”

Cartwright believes this agenda should ultimately be owned by the CEO but that a taskforce or “power team” of core departments – including HR, marketing and finance – should drive it together.

“My argument would be that every department is critical to turning things around; but without HR being the lynchpin that pulls all the other departments together… it will be really challenging to achieve what we need to,” she says.

Organisational impact and purpose

So, convinced of the importance of their role here, what should HR going (or getting involved in going) green look like more specifically?

“You have to zoom out a level first and ask ‘is your business model really fit for the future?’,” says Cartwright. “Green HR starts with the strategy level – what’s the people strategy for the next 10 years and how will it help to deliver the business’ collective sustainability goals?

Starting with the big picture of how the organisation’s overarching strategy affects the planet (think revelations around Burberry and other fashion houses burning unsold clothes rather than risk devaluing their brands by slashing prices or donating to charity), means HR influencing strategy formation at executive level.

A key part of this at JLL is sustainability being part of the executive team bonus structure and objectives.

“Leaders in the business are the ones who can role model this so if it’s embedded in our objectives and we use bonuses to incentivise it, this will push boundaries and help people to focus and deliver on their ambitions,” says Rothwell.

Targets relate to the specific areas of supporting the circular economy, such as travel, energy consumption, carbon and waste. She explains: “We collectively wear these targets and each executive team member is expected to be able to show how they have contributed to them.”

“The challenge is that the time frames for these issues are very different to commercial timeframes for most businesses, and most CEOs are in place for three to five years so they’re concerned with what happens on their watch,” Chilman explains. So-called “green metrics” for senior leaders could force it higher up the board agenda, he agrees.

For Norman, HR’s role in sustainability is threefold: purpose, vision and values; employee objectives; and policies. If HR needs a reason to care (slightly closer to home than plummeting walruses), the growing focus on organisational purpose – and the importance of the executive team’s actions around this to current and prospective staff – should definitely be it, she says.

Take Amazon, which hit headlines in May after almost 8,000 employees published an open letter to shareholders calling for them to deliver a strategy on reducing fossil fuel dependency. Indeed research from Kin & Co found that 13% of employees would resign if their organisation didn’t take action on climate change, while 24% of office workers would refuse a job at an organisation with a poor sustainability record, according to a TopLine Film survey.

“As with any big movement in history, whether it’s civil rights or female suffrage, action comes out of the mobilisation of a demographic of people who unite around a common mission and that’s what we’re seeing with the climate change crisis,” says Alexander Fahie, founder and CEO of Ethical Angel.

“It’s a bigger factor in employees’ decision-making now than it’s ever been. It wasn’t at all five years ago… but now more people than ever want to work for a company that’s environmentally friendly,” says Paul Hargreaves, author of Forces for Good and CEO of Cotswold Fayre. “There’ll be a haemorrhage of people from businesses not doing this stuff and from the younger generations primarily,” he warns.

For Norman this all starts with culture. “We’ve always been a purpose-led company, so thinking about sustainability was in the DNA right from the start,” she says. “When people interview they talk about the company purpose and they have a desire to work somewhere that does things the right way.”

This feeds into something of a green hiring strategy, Norman notes; to maintain its employer brand the company must continue to recruit individuals with the same values.

It’s a similar story at Lloyds Banking Group, where the purpose is “to help Britain prosper economically, socially and crucially, environmentally”, says people and productivity director Jen Tippin. “Feedback from our new joiners tells us that they value the group’s commitment to minimising our environmental impact and supporting the transition to a low-carbon economy. And while this is an important part of becoming an employer of choice, it’s even more important that we as an organisation live up to these expectations.”

The work environment

Living up to these expectations can be about making small practical changes to the work environment, says Andrew Pace, HR director of UK Power Networks. “Green HR starts with the easy things,” he says, pointing to providing employees with reusable water containers, installing LED lightbulbs, printing policies, and more efficient heating and lighting.

At the more unusual end of the scale, Stella McCartney operates vegetarian-only workplaces, meaning employees aren’t allowed to bring any animal products into the office (including leather shoes). The organisation also provides free vegan lunches for all staff on meat-free Mondays and for those in its London office daily.

But some caution against such radical steps. “It’s an interesting debate for us at the moment about whether every event we do should be vegan-only food,” says Norman. “I think this is the line for HR to tread as there is a huge movement around dietary choices. But it’s not for everyone.”

Most agree though that practical measures such as recycling bins aren’t enough to drive behaviour change. Rothwell concedes that “every now and then” it’s necessary to “use sticks”, such as removing ordinary bins to force people to recycle. “You get people complaining but then they get around it and you get a groundswell of people who also help to reinforce things with others.”

The challenge is that there’s often an incongruence between employee actions in and out of the workplace, says Rob Crumbie, director of marketing and communications at Greenredeem. “People come to work and their sustainability agenda falls off,” he says. “Part of this is choice-editing in terms of what people have available to them, so a lot is about the frameworks businesses put in place.

“But there’s also something else there that we can’t answer yet, which is why people change between leaving their front doors and arriving at work.”

“People do things at work that they wouldn’t dream of doing at home, which is really weird,” agrees Cartwright. “HR needs to encourage people to bring their behaviours from home into the workplace.”

Winning hearts and minds

Which means HR may well need more up its sleeve to drive green behaviours across the employee base than just infrastructure-based nudges. “The green angle will sway and influence some people but not all, so there needs to be a bigger attack,” says Lewis Kite, chief community officer at Faxi.

“Where organisations bring their challenges alive, engage people around them and monitor, track and reward employees for them, this can help businesses get to their goals,” says Crumbie, who is currently piloting a platform that allows organisations to track individual employees’ impact on sustainability goals and reward them when milestones are reached.

At Innocent every single employee has a sustainability commitment within their annual objectives. “So it could be someone’s objective to lead on recycling plastics, or on how we source ingredients, or to be an ambassador,” says Norman. “We expect everyone to have a role.”

Bonuses and KPIs aside, employee awards are another way HR can incentivise workers’ commitment. “We have a sustainability award in our staff awards, which could go to someone for a green initiative,” says Rothwell.

Previous winners include an employee who moved JLL’s head office onto a biogas contract, and another who led on the introduction of bio-bean collections where coffee grounds are converted into biofuel.

Behaviour change can be driven most effectively by linking sustainability to other areas of HR, particularly employee wellbeing, feels Thackray.

“We know that a well-insulated, high-performing, energy-efficient building has an impact on workforce productivity and health. So by linking up the two agendas you can save energy and costs but also deliver more for staff and they can then deliver more for you,” he says.

At JLL sustainability is made up of the four focus areas of: clients, workplaces, communities and people. The latter includes, among other things, wellbeing, D&I and social mobility.

“For me the sustainability agenda and wellbeing agenda sit hand in glove as we want people to be breathing clean air and eating well, which means we shouldn’t be flying fruit from the other side of the world that also creates carbon emissions, so it’s all circular,” adds Rothwell.

Making a connection with other critical business issues can help HR get the attention not just of staff but also of senior leaders, feels Valerie Mann, head of people at Mention Me: “It’s like D&I; if you try to push it as a topic on its own it’s not going to work – it needs to be linked to the success of the business.”

Volunteering and green champions

Another increasingly popular way of driving engagement with sustainability is through employee volunteering for environmental causes. At UK Power Networks all employees have two paid days off for volunteering a year to participate in a community-based activity. “A lot of this time is spent doing environmental projects but they are projects the teams choose,” explains Pace.

“Don’t underestimate how motivating it is for employees to feel they have a bigger impact than their core roles – if they feel they have had an impact on helping the planet that’s massively motivating for them,” says Norman. She points to Innocent’s engagement survey, where employees often make comments about sustainability in relation to the question about feeling proud to work for the company.

It’s important employees have autonomy both for what green volunteering projects they choose and for how the business goes green internally, says Cartwright, who highlights the power of suggestion boxes, competitions and storytelling.

Organisations must strike a “balance” between communication from the top and employee ownership of the agenda, feels Pace. “If we’re to be responsible employers the way we do that is share information and give opportunities to staff. But at the same time it’s about listening to the ideas they have,” he says. “The best ideas often come from the ground.”

Which means a growing number of employers have introduced environmental working groups or green champions: employees who volunteer their time to come up with green ideas.

Take Stella McCartney’s Green Leaders network, led by HR and sustainability. HR director Abigail Lerman says employees receive sustainability training and are given access to more information than other staff.

Innocent has a slightly different take on green champions. The firm’s “office angels” aren’t volunteers but employees within the people and culture team whose role is to ensure the office is as sustainable as possible. “And we have an office superperson – that’s their official job title – whose remit is to look after facilities and fleet and so on,” says Norman.

Travel and working practices

Which brings us to another key opportunity for HR to have an impact: travel and fleet policies.

Some firms have updated their company car and fleet policies to include electric vehicles instead of petrol or diesel alternatives. Others offset the carbon of all business travel, or allocate employees a carbon allowance rather than a financial allowance in their travel expenses policies. Some are shunning company cars altogether, opting for cycle-to-work schemes.

“We don’t have company cars at Innocent, which is unusual for an FMCG company. So if people come from another FMCG company it means our offer has an instant hole,” says Norman. “But the idea of encouraging everyone to have a car just doesn’t make sense from a sustainability point of view.”

Kite recommends incentivising carpooling, rewarding employees with prioritised parking or financial benefits: “If employees do the right thing they should get rewarded for it so employers can say ‘thank you’ to them for helping to achieve their CSR goals and for helping the planet.”

It’s important to sell the benefits of such initiatives to employees in a language they can relate to, notes Hyder Mohammad, sustainability and carbon manager at Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals (BHRUT)NHS Trust: “It’s about putting the message out there from different angles; as if I say we’ve saved a certain amount of carbon not everyone will understand. So we need to translate emissions into terms that reach all employees.”

An obvious next step beyond car shares and more eco-friendly vehicles is to discourage employees from travelling at all – even to work. Hence recent calls from the TUC and think tank Autonomy to shorten the working week to four days.

But HR must strike a careful balance between policy to encourage more remote and part-time working and flexibility, feels Norman. “Going from a five-day to four-day week sounds like a simple lever because you’re then turning the power off for a day. But for someone who wants to work flexibly that might not work for them,” she says.

“I’d rather be able to both make sure how we run the office environment is as sustainable as possible and also prioritise the flexibility employees want.”

The skills agenda

Nonetheless it’s still at this more radical strategic end of things, around rethinking the very structure of work and the way it’s done, that many feel HR should be exerting influence. The need to think about the skills implications of a rapidly-emerging green economy fits squarely into this strategic camp.

For some organisations this means training employees to conduct their roles in more environmentally-responsible ways, with the concept of green L&D making its way onto the radar of more progressive firms.

At JLL sustainability training – developed by HR and sustainability – is now mandatory for all employees and is part of onboarding all new staff. Rothwell explains that this can be tailored to roles.

“For customer-facing people there is deeper, richer, client-focused learning to ensure they understand how to also support clients with their sustainability agendas,” she says. “Then for more general staff it’s around energy, recycling and more broad learning.”

Education is also an integral part of HR’s sustainability focus at Stella McCartney. Training is delivered by the internal sustainability team and external experts are brought in to run sessions.

But HR must also be prepared for the creation of completely new jobs – for example sustainability officer roles. And of course for entirely new industries such as the renewables sector, and for the sudden obsolescence of others.

“This is creating a recruitment challenge for lots of businesses,” says Thackray.

“And there’s a longer-term challenge that businesses need to understand around what kind of human resource requirement they will need in the future. If we think forward to a world where there’s only electric trucks, not petrol, what does that mean for engineering requirements?”

HR needs to start mapping its skills pathways now, Thackray warns, as this will “require big changes to the people strategy”.

“There’ll be an adjustment challenge with the transition, as moving to a zero-carbon economy will mean some jobs won’t exist in the future, so we need to make sure we can retain and transition people to the jobs that will be needed in the future and that the transition is fair for people involved,” he says.

HR’s influence extends far wider than its own organisation, then. But for the majority of HR leaders yet to put sustainability on their function’s agenda, there’s plenty to turn their attention to internally as a starting point.

It seems it’s time to green the entire HR lifecycle from driving it onto the board agenda with sustainability targets and KPIs, to engaging the workforce through environmental networks, and everything – culture, office environment, recruitment, L&D, fleet, and reward and recognition – green in between.

“My call to action for HR leaders would be: if you haven’t been involved in sustainability in your organisation yet, get a seat at the table,” says Laura Timlin, director at the Carbon Trust. “There’s plenty to do and it’s only going to get more important and front of mind.”

So the case is (hopefully) made. HR will be critical to business’ efforts to help stave off that 0.5ºC climate change effect. The only question that remains: who’s up to the challenge?

This piece appeared in the July – August 2019 issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk