Bringing sustainability and people profession practices down to earth

Drive sustainability through people management behaviours and strategies

The glare of global attention is trained on climate change and sustainability in November, when the United Nations’ (UN) COP26 conference is in Glasgow. Already, climate- or eco-anxiety is increasing, especially among young people. One of the UN’s five pillars of sustainable development is empowering people, and it is ultimately through people and their management that the worldwide problem of climate change can be grounded in solutions.  

Environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) at an organisational level seeks to include sustainability considerations in business conduct and performance. It’s possible to incorporate sustainability into people profession practices as well. The idea of sustainable HR is not new but the readiness of the profession for it has been questioned. We believe that it is now ready. 

The people profession is primed to contribute to sustainability in organisations 

CIPD’s People profession 2030 future trends report predicts that sustainability will increasingly influence the future of work and the people profession. Coincidentally, COVID-19 has created an opportunity for remote, home and hybrid working, vastly reducing the carbon emissions and environmental impact of millions of people commuting to and from work each day. Adopting these widespread new patterns of working has substantial and sustainable benefit, and there is potential for organisations of all sizes, everywhere, to do more – not just the world’s largest companies

Embracing sustainability can be made explicit in approaches to people management. ‘Common good HRM’ is one approach. Basically, this means contributing to wider communities and society to help tackle big challenges such as the damaging effects of poverty on climate change. Providing employment and good work as well as ensuring decent working conditions in supply chains alleviates poverty. Other approaches centre on people management behaviours, practices, strategies and culture that together form particular types of sustainable HRM. In their article on sustainable HRM in the Human Resource Management Review (2020), Ina Aust and co-authors call these: 

  • Socially responsible HRM – eg health and wellbeing initiatives, creating enhanced social reputation and employer attractiveness 
  • Green HRM – eg green awareness training and green rewards, increasing employee engagement with reduced carbon footprints 
  • Triple bottom-line HRM – eg cross-generational transfer of learning, to impact constructively on economic, environmental and social sustainability 

Sustainability can be more implicit in an organisation’s people management approach. If many organisations adopted sustainability steps in people practices – and others relevant to them – this could produce a scalable, worldwide contribution to reducing climate change. 

Integrated Environmental Solutions (IES) is one organisation that has already adopted this approach. It is based in Glasgow and has around 360 employees operating across 12 countries. Sustainability is the core of its business - it provides technology and services for building design and operation that minimise the carbon emissions and impact of buildings on the environment. Buildings produce 40% of the Earth’s carbon emissions, so there is massive potential to make a tangible difference to the planet. 

But, additionally, IES integrates sustainability into its values of people, purpose and innovation. This is based on the fundamental belief that they can make a difference to the planet now, through how they manage their own work and people.  

CEO Don McLean, who is participating at the COP26 event, says: “Emerging from the Covid pandemic, there is heightened awareness of the climate crisis and the limited time to mitigate climate change. We recognise we need to raise the bar, particularly with respect to the sustainability of our internal business operations. For instance, we’ve signed up to the ‘SME climate commitment’, pledging to halve our business greenhouse gas emissions before 2030 and achieve net zero emissions before 2050. Importantly, we also evaluate possible climate effects in all of our HR policies and practices.”  

Where does the HR team come into sustainability? 

Lorna Celnik, HR Director, highlights that “through regular employee engagement surveys, the HR team at IES knows that making a difference to the planet is a key motivation for their employees.” The company has various HR initiatives and actions with a sustainability focus or element, for example:  

  • Adopting a long-term view on the needs for, and of, future employees 
  • Recruiting people with a committed mindset and physical investment in sustainability  
  • Embedding an organisational culture and climate that encourages healthy living and more sustainable behaviour (both governing principles of COP26) 
  • Ensuring employee participation and social dialogue to harness sustainability concerns and ideas 
  • Implementing an office environmental policy, eg with recycling education and use of sustainable suppliers 
  • Planning team celebration of Earth Day on 22 April each year with a theme such as consuming only plant-based food for the day 
  • Power saving and sharing in using electric company cars and promoting cycling to work with facilities such as office pool bikes, cycle training, clothes dryers and bike storage 
  • Rolling out enhanced hybrid working so employees can work up to 60% of their hours at home without formal request. 

You can find more ideas in the CIPD Sustainability guide 

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