Best practices HR departments can implement to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability and corporate responsibility.
By Grant Goodrich
HR plays a large role in helping organizations achieve their business objectives, but one area where the function could have a larger impact is helping shape policies that contribute to climate-conscious behavior.
Improving the partnership between corporate social responsibility and HR in support of climate-friendly initiatives could have a major impact on business results. According to a 2018 study by Cone Communications, 62 percent of Americans feel that climate change is a problem and 58 percent expect companies to take the lead in the absence of government progress. Previous research from Cone Communications found that consumers pay attention to these initiatives and respond with their buying power; 87 percent will purchase a product because a company advocated for an issue they cared about and 76 percent will refuse to purchase a company’s products or services upon learning it supported an issue contrary to their beliefs.
Currently, few companies specifically commit the full capabilities of their HR departments towards meeting their greenhouse gas emission reduction goals.
Prominent carbon emissions reporting regimes such as the CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project) and the British Standards Institution (BSI) don’t specifically mention HR, but rather call out governance, management, business strategy, and communications as departments that are required to report.
“Only a handful of companies out of thousands who have disclosed on the management of climate-related issues have identified incentives provided for HR for achieving climate goals or reference HR’s role in integrating climate into business objectives and strategy,” notes Betty Cremmins, director of corporate partnerships with CDP North America. All too often, organizations simply expect the director of sustainability to address such matters without considering their ability to shape and implement HR policies.
However, in non-manufacturing environments, policies managed by HR have had a significant impact on organizations’ greenhouse gas emissions, lagging behind only facilities and procurement—especially when taking into account commutes. For smaller businesses and nonprofits where one person performs all administrative tasks, the choices HR makes can critically impact the organization’s carbon footprint.
For organizations looking to make a difference, here are some best practices HR can implement to lower greenhouse gas emissions.
1. Establish a culture of sustainability. HR is often the first point of contact for a prospective employee, and a good place to promote the organization’s sustainability commitment and culture to potential candidates is the careers site. This can have an immediate as well as long-term impact on values and behavior across the organization, as new employees understand up front that the organization’s core values are rooted in sustainability. With Harvard Business Review finding that nine out of 10 employees would take reduced pay for more meaning in their work, a culture that values sustainability can create competitive advantage and loyalty.
2. Provide training on the organization’s climate and sustainability policies and practices as part of new hire orientation. A great way to help new employees understand how they contribute to the organization’s climate and carbon footprint—and how to minimize it—could be done through some thoughtful training during orientation. This training should emphasize the company’s sustainability-rooted culture, present the emissions reduction practices adopted by the company, and invite new employees to identify voluntary commitments (e.g. walk to work) that they will make to contribute to the company’s goals.
3. Introduce wellness programs to encourage biking or walking to work. Many companies have adopted wellnessprograms that reward employees for healthy behavior. Why not improve employees’ health and reduce emissions at the same time? Offering higher rewards for those who bike or walk to work could be a smart multiplier on such programs.
4. Reduce travel in the interviewing and recruitment process. Much of the interview process for new hires can be done remotely by phone or by videoconferencing. A thoughtful refresh of interview policy and practice can have the benefit of improving the overall experience while limiting travel needs to only a finalist.
5. Require the purchase of carbon offsets for business travel. A carbon offset is a payment, typically to a trusted third party, to compensate for emissions made by the business or individual. These payments are commonly invested in projects such as renewable energy or reforestation to reduce emissions or sequester carbon.
For example, for a round trip flight from Chicago to New York, the Swiss firm myclimate estimates an individual’s emissions to be about 0.5 tons of CO2 emissions, and suggests the purchase of an offset ranging from $13 to $41 in one of four emissions reduction projects.
Requiring the purchase of offsets can be a great conversation starter for the larger discussion about organizational priorities in climate action. It can lead to excellent discussions about how business is conducted, how and why travel is justified, and whether or not an expensive—and high emissions—practice is the best way to do business. At the least, policy should explicitly allow travelers to purchase carbon offsets if they have the resources in their budget.
6. Divest retirement plans from fossil fuel companies. This approach could work for both defined benefit plans as well as defined contribution plans. HR could require that plan providers eliminate fund offerings within 401(k) and 403 plans that invest in fossil fuel companies. At the very least, HR could require the plan provider to identify the investment vehicles that include fossil fuel companies, and could require environmental, social, and corporate governance investment options be made available.
Grant Goodrich is executive director of the Great Lakes Energy Institute at Case Western Reserve University.