Back to Insights

Sustainability: HR’s Next Frontier?


Sustainability is becoming increasingly important in every organization, with many public company CEOs making bold statements about their commitments and goals to meet specific targets, often with aggressive timelines. Not surprising when The World Economic Forum states that, based on 2016 projections, there will be more plastic mass than fish mass in our oceans by 2050. There is no doubt that we all have a part to play in living our lives in a way that promotes sustainability. At ChapmanCG, we strongly believe that HR professionals have a critical role to play in ensuring senior leaders have the tools and the right training to support their teams on a journey that promotes sustainability as part of the corporate vision and values.

The Pillars of Sustainability

Sustainability can be defined simply as the ability to provide for the needs of the current generation using available resources, without causing future generations problems with providing for their own needs. The three pillars of sustainability, often referred to as the three Ps of sustainability, are:

  • Planet (or environmental protection)
  • People (or social equity) 
  • Profit (or economic viability)

Research has found that sustainability is most effective when integrated into a company’s strategic framework rather than created as a feel-good exercise or a separate line in a corporate strategy. Correctly implemented, it can boost the bottom line, supporting the argument that sustainability programs should be prominent and leveraged to attract and retain talent and to enhance an organization’s brand. 

Across the ChapmanCG organization, we are hearing common themes from our conversations with HR leaders who are seeing that sustainability is increasingly being incorporated into their organizations’ mission and corporate values. CHROs are making greater contributions to their organization’s sustainability report. All functions of HR have a crucial part to play in promoting sustainability and positively impacting all three pillars. 

Sustainability is fundamental to how we approach business decisions, operations, innovation and our broader engagement with communities and farmers around the world. Each and every person plays a part in the company’s sustainability journey. We work hard to provide our employees with lots of opportunities to work on sustainability projects and be actively involved in the communities where we operate. As well as increasing a sense of belonging, this also provides employees with meaningful development opportunities and the chance to work with leaders and colleagues outside of their usual functions. 

Karen Totland, Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer, FMC Corporation

HR as a Change Agent

Millennials are rapidly becoming the largest part of the workforce globally, bringing different perspectives and a new mindset to the workplace. The Deloitte 2022 Gen Z and Millennial Survey found that this cohort (born between 1980-2012) are especially concerned about the state of the world and our impact on it. The survey shows that these two generations are working hard to balance the challenges of everyday life with the desire to drive changes in society that promote sustainability. While they may be struggling with financial concerns, Gen Z and Millennials are equally busy advocating for more purposeful and more flexible work. There is a strong desire to work with their employers to get involved in projects that can positively impact climate change. A focus on work life balance and well-being is important along with the opportunity to address social issues through their work. 

Leaders across the full spectrum of HR play a crucial part in promoting the sustainability agenda through culture shaping and employee engagement initiatives. Talent teams, Total Rewards, and HR Operations are responsible for enhancing and developing processes that support and contribute to achieving corporate sustainability goals. Let’s look at how this can be achieved.

At Kent sustainability has become an integral part of our core beliefs. Kent’s HR team is working closely with business leaders to fully live into our culture of empowering people to thrive and nurturing their brilliant minds. It is important for our employees to feel they can contribute to meeting our corporate sustainability goals and our commitment to programs that positively impact the communities where we operate. We aim to provide many opportunities for active involvement, and co-ownership with our employees at Kent.

Sharon Paul, Chief Human Resources Officer, Kent plc

The Sustainable Talent Agenda 

A clear and honest statement on sustainability is important to the Millennials and Gen Zs both in terms of attracting and retaining talent, but also to maintain a high level of engagement. Numerous studies have found that top talent is increasingly attracted to organizations that take a strong stance on sustainability, for reasons such as aligned values, pride in the organization they work for, and a feeling of being cared for. Recent surveys have shown that 69% of the full potential workforce say they’re more likely to accept a job with an organization they consider to be environmentally sustainable. The Millennial candidates are quite savvy and will look to social media when doing their research so they will quickly spot organizations that are “greenwashing” and not living up to their commitments.

We’re charting a new course to drive positive action for the planet and people. A better food system means better outcomes for the Earth, and all of us. PepsiCo Positive (pep+) will guide our business — how we operate within planetary boundaries and inspire positive change. Our commitment positively impacts our ability to attract top talent, who increasingly prioritize sustainable choices and expect environmental action. There is a close partnership with leaders in HR, internal corporate communications and across our businesses to ensure our actions are communicated with meaningful and accessible ways for our associates to get involved.

Blair Bennett, Senior Vice President Global Talent Acquisition, PepsiCo

The Secret Sauce for Hybrid Work

Surveys by Glassdoor and the Harvard Business Review have identified that employees still focus on benefits when considering a role, but many are looking away from traditional packages towards offers of “social benefits” such as flexible hours and working from home. These types of options are more sustainable for smaller organizations and help them compete with bigger corporations who can afford expensive benefits packages. A focus on more flexible benefits and sustainable programs acknowledges that team members have competing interests and motivations and reassures potential employees they will be trusted to balance those interests in a way that benefits both the employer and employee.

Hybrid working remains a big topic that challenges all areas of an organization and can significantly impact the sustainability agenda. There is no doubt that forced remote working during COVID had a silver lining with a positive impact on the environment with improved air quality in many cities around the world. Post-pandemic, there is clearly a push across the workforce for a continued hybrid working solution, not only for environmental reasons but also to enhance that sense of well-being and work-life balance that is so important. But for this to be successful in the long-term, HR have a big part to play to ensure there is a culture of inclusivity where everyone has equal opportunities to participate and grow. There needs to be a focus on the continued development of existing and emerging leaders to make sure that employees who spend less time in the office are not penalized. Unconscious-bias training will need to focus on proximity bias. From a talent management perspective, it will be important to track promotion rates to ensure remote workers are promoted at the same rate. 

Hybrid and remote arrangements are all well and good for those that can utilize them; however, it is clear that the manufacturing industry has struggled to adapt to the demands for flexible working. With just 46% of manufacturing employees able to work remotely versus more than 60% in other industries, the World Economic Forum forecast this could leave 2.4 million unfilled roles between 2018 and 2028 as new entrants to the workforce focus on industries that they feel offer solutions that reinforce the sustainability agenda. Changes are being made by means of automation and the use of data analytics to make additional roles suitable for remote working. HR leaders will play a critical part in this journey as they drive a culture change towards a more sustainable model and work with leaders to upskill employees, creating more generalists on the shop floor with the skills to handle a broader range of issues.

No organization has discovered the “secret sauce” yet and from our conversations with clients and candidates this remains a hot topic. It will be interesting to watch how the issue of hybrid work evolves over the coming years.

The Impact of Digital 

Going paperless, digitizing records, and implementing e-signatures are not only more eco-friendly but also more efficient. Digital documents are more accessible and allow for greater sharing and collaboration. They require less physical storage space and help remote workers be more efficient with easier access to key documents. Here’s how a few successful companies are embracing digitization whilst at a same time enhancing their attraction in a fierce talent market.

  • Unilever has radically changed its recruitment process by experimenting with (among other things) social media, online games, and AI to further digitalize how they are recruiting. 
  • IBM has developed a digitized learning platform to allow for a customized experience. 
  • Cisco has developed an app to help employees and managers with the onboarding process. 
  • ChapmanCG, who operates a fully remote work model, has developed a robust remote onboarding program that effectively deals with all paperwork electronically to ensure that new team members feel connected with their colleagues from day one. 

While going digital strongly promotes the sustainability agenda, it also has a much broader organizational impact, including reductions in physical paperwork as seen in the examples above. 

Practical, Paperless, and Accessible

We now know that having a clear commitment to sustainability is becoming increasingly important for talent attraction, with potential employees making decisions to join and/or stay with organizations based on their belief in that promise. It is equally important for HR to help leaders incorporate sustainability initiatives into the culture and everyday life of employees to keep that commitment alive and help drive employee engagement. This does not need to be big projects or grand, expensive initiatives. Simple things can make a big difference, such as:

  • Define sustainability goals:
    • Alongside a company mission statement, clearly define company goals for sustainability. Make them straight to the point and easily accessible at all levels.
    • Employees are more likely to support programs if they understand how these initiatives benefit the company and how they, as individuals, will benefit in the long-term.
    • Regularly report on results and progress towards achieving goals.
  • Make sustainability easy and visible:
    • Reduce the use of single use plastic, e.g., get rid of single use water bottles in the office. Many companies are providing employees with reusable and branded water bottles that can be refilled from water fountains. Some are going an extra mile to include company branded reusable lunch kits to use and these are forming part of the onboarding materials for new employees.
    • Make recycling easy. Provide easily accessible waste disposal containers that are clearly labelled to encourage employees to use them. Set a target on waste reduction and increased recycling and publish results monthly.
  • Encourage healthy competition:
    • Competition often sparks creativity.
    • Create teams tasked with developing new idea and publicly recognize employees who contribute ideas to initiatives.
    • Reward employees for achieving a target everyone can help contribute to.
  • Co-create sustainability practices:
    • Engage employee teams in developing processes and systems that simplify the integration of sustainability into daily working life.
    • Create “sustainability champions” at all levels to help drive engagement across the organization. 
    • Drive equal participation from senior management and early career employees.

Final Thoughts

More and more, employers are rightly making sustainability and social responsibility core values for their businesses. To achieve often publicly stated goals and commitments, senior leaders rely on a high level of employee engagement. HR has a key part to play in this process. ChapmanCG would advise HR leaders to ensure they and the function are leading by example to ensure that HR systems, processes, and policies support the sustainability agenda—such as digitization of paperwork, a clear policy on hybrid working, and leadership and development programs that support the sustainability agenda. In addition, we are seeing that organizations who are leading the charge have a clear stance on sustainability that is visible throughout the organization—internally and externally. This is recognized as a differentiator to attract and retain team members who often rate this very highly when pursuing a career with a new employer.

We have seen over the last couple of years how critical HR is to company success, helping leaders pivot to address new challenges. HR will continue to be at the forefront as drivers of change as companies propel into an even more competitive future, building cultures and eco-systems that drive the increasingly important sustainability agenda.


Keep up with the latest HR insights and updates.
Sign up

Recent Posts