HR can be leaders on environmental responsibility

Empowering employees to engage in green issues and take individual action can make a huge difference to the pressing issue of our age, says Ann Kiceluk – and the people profession has the power to make it happen

With the government announcing a climate emergency, the ‘war on plastics’ and this autumn seeing millions of people globally take part in the youth climate strikes and Extinction Rebellion protests, the climate crisis and caring for our environment have never been more front and centre as social issues. But as employers, what can we do about it? 

At the RSPB, as a conservation organisation, we’ve been running an environmental management system for eight years. A healthy environment is essential for wildlife and nature to thrive, so it is part of every employee’s DNA to ‘think green’ and consider the impact their work has on the environment. But to make a difference it needs to go further than policies; behaviour and system change is an important part of achieving a green culture.

We have set out an environmental policy with hard targets on carbon emissions, renewable energy, waste, water, single-use plastics and procurement of non-sustainably sourced products and we now have a carbon objective of being net-zero by 2045. We’ve introduced ‘carbon accounting’ where managers are accountable for the amount of carbon they are allocated each year, the same way they are for finances, with all work journeys counting towards the budget allowance. With more than 2,000 employees and 12,000 volunteers at more than 200 sites, managing travel in a sustainable way is an important priority. 

The rollout of flexible desktop technology has enabled every employee to work remotely in any location, and videoconferencing is a tool accessible to all and widely used. It has the added benefit of helping to address recruitment shortages as geography is no longer a factor in filling roles. Last year, we reduced our travel and the costs associated with it by 30 per cent, which is also more efficient as time spent travelling to meetings is significantly reduced.

Every department has an environmental action plan reviewed annually, which looks at actions that reduce environmental impact, so everyone is engaged. This has included ensuring the use of smart meters, insulation and a wide range of energy efficiencies, and making sure the products we purchase aren’t contributing to environmental breakdown, and that the food in our cafes meets strict ‘Food for Life’ standards. Assessing environmental impacts is a formal part of our project management approach, and we’ve introduced a renewable energy capital investment programme on our physical estate. Last year, we installed seven large-scale solar arrays at our sites, and our HQ energy is supplied by our own wind turbine. All our health and safety advisers are now environmental advisers monitoring environmental impacts alongside health and safety issues.

Working toward the Green Dragon accreditation, which we have at many of our sites, is an important way of focusing effort and demonstrating commitment as well as getting employees involved and engaged. 

But it’s our people who make the difference. We have ‘green champions’ who promote greening activities and news in their local workplaces, but all our employees and volunteers feel empowered to take individual action, whether it be setting up local recycling or composting initiatives, promoting sustainable living and eating, organising events like bike or walk to work, or running lunchtime craft workshops to support the Climate Coalition’s ‘show the love’ campaign. 

Last month, we demonstrated our commitment to the environment by giving all employees paid time off to attend the youth climate strikes if they wanted to take part. It was a bold move that was central to our mission, but was embraced with imagination by the many staff who took part in different and creative ways, as well as being a great boost for morale and wellbeing.

Why do it? Apart from helping to save our planet, being a green employer boosts your reputation and therefore your appeal – more and more applicants are looking at the green credentials and ethical stance of a future employer and statistics show they are more likely to stay with one who has an environmentally responsible programme. Increasingly, your green credentials are an important consideration in winning contracts or grants and public scrutiny of organisations’ employment practices is on the rise. It is no longer a ‘nice to do’, but an essential part of being a good employer in an increasingly environmentally aware society. 

Ann Kiceluk is executive director (people) at the RSPB