Winning hearts and minds for sustainability
14th December 2020
Companies may be desperate to get back to business as usual after the pandemic, but there are even greater challenges they must confront. As we face up to the existential threat of the climate crisis, business models, operations, and cultures need to change radically.
Given the nature of our business, SUEZ has been in the front line of environmental protection and travelling this path for some time. Over the course of more than a decade, our business has transformed. We recognised that the value of discarded material resources must be maximised and led our industry in embracing the circular economy. Along the way, what was a waste disposal contractor became a resource manager and recycling service provider, energy producer, manufacturer of alternative fuels, technology pioneer and innovator, international materials trader, and more.
Not every business needs to reinvent itself. But a fundamental rethink is required. Many are going through that process, and we need to encourage the rest to get on board. The scale of the emergency, the vanishing opportunity to curb its impacts, and the scientists’ ever-starker warnings of accelerating biodiversity collapse, soil depletion, record high temperatures, rising sea levels, ocean plastics and omnipresent micro-plastics, toxic air … shouldn’t need rehearsing.
The task is daunting, whether you consider it from a corporate or personal point of view. But as a HR professional I see positive forces for change – not least the transformative power of people.
Passion for the environment is one of our four core SUEZ values. These weren’t dreamed up in the boardroom. We got people together from all levels and parts of the group, and explored what was most important to them and shared in common. These values inform and help shape our policies – on everything from safety management to volunteering, and how we frame and communicate the wider strategy of the business, from commercial to social value and responsibility.
This in turn reinforces our collective sense of purpose and motivates people to perform to the best of their ability. Job satisfaction, morale, and recruitment and retention all benefit, as evidenced by our regular employee opinion surveys and external benchmarks, such as being recognised as one of The Sunday Times Top 25 Best Companies to work for.
While sustainability has long been one of the ‘7 Critical Success Factors’ of our UK business, we realised that we wanted more focus and visibility. So, this factor was split into two: Sustainable Environment and Social Value.
To drive this agenda forward, we’re recruiting Sustainability Champions across the business who will help promote a range of initiatives, including: ‘smart travel’ choices for commuting to our sites, sustainable purchasing, avoiding single-use plastics and unnecessary packaging, biodiversity improvements, and community support and interaction. A new app has been developed to record these efforts, from trees planted to beach cleans.
During 2020 we have also replaced 90 company cars with electric versions, saving around 400t of CO2 emissions per year. In September we launched a free education tool for primary schools with detailed lesson plans and resources – to fantastic feedback from teachers. For secondary students, we produced a series of career videos, promoting the value of STEM subjects and showcasing some of the varied roles available in the recycling and resource management sector.
We are in the business of sustainability and public service, but still have a long way to travel towards net zero. Any business starting out or now giving greater attention to their environmental impacts and sustainability must tap into their own people power. Employees, for any of a multitude of reasons – as parents or grandparents; lovers of gardening, fishing or the countryside; relatives or friends of asthmatics; or shocked by Sir David Attenborough’s ‘Extinction: The Facts’ on TV – want to make the world a better place.
A new generation of employees are even more conscious of the environment, and more likely to choose employers that have a positive sense of purpose. Young people are choosing to work for companies that want to be part of the solution to problems facing the environment and society.
Business ethics more than ever are influencing consumer choice. Sustainability sells. Waves of start-ups as well as established global groups realise this is now the best way to grow or maintain their share of various markets. From chocolate and coffee to bath products, as a US retail study showed, more sustainable products outperform in their categories, more than doubling sales growth.
The number of companies seeking to be certified for their social purpose as B Corporations is growing. B Corps were 63% more likely to weather the last financial downturn, reinforcing the belief that purpose-driven companies will emerge stronger from the pandemic and are better prepared for the transition to the low-carbon economy as well.
The business case for sustainability is now compelling. Last year’s Davos gathering of world leaders heard how the world’s 100 most sustainable corporations outperform comparable companies. A review of similar research showed that 88% of studies found companies setting high social and environmental standards had better operational performance. The reason is not just that they become more efficient by reducing waste and saving or recovering energy, they also focus on the long term and mitigate risk; are attractive and purposeful employers who motivate their people; build loyal customer bases; and invest in innovations that have a positive impact around them. Now there is no business case for not being sustainable, as a leading management consultant observed.
We need both hearts and minds – people’s passion for the environment and responsible, strategic decision-making by business leaders – to fashion a truly sustainable society.