Climate change initiatives in the workplace: How can HR turn words into actions?

Speak to board executives in the UK, and they will probably have discussed reducing their company’s carbon emissions in the past year. But ask them how well they engage the hearts and minds of their employees to join in the fight against climate change at work, and the challenges become obvious.

Less than half of the 1,200 employees who responded to a recent TUC website survey said their employer had an environmental policy. Workers admitted that even with a policy in place, they rarely took steps to reduce their impact on climate change, such as printing on both sides of a sheet of paper.

Employees are failing to see how small actions can make a big difference, the survey suggested.

Changing attitudes

Perhaps not surprisingly then, the role of HR in changing employers’ and employees’ attitudes to becoming environmentally friendly in the workplace is crucial.

The TUC blamed employers’ poor attitudes towards ‘greening’ the workplace, urging more organisations to encourage staff to be environmentally responsible. But firms are increasingly recognising they need HR to advocate their environmental policies, using the function’s knowledge of the audience to make green strategies relevant for each employee.

HSBC, for example, has created a five-year £50m partnership to respond to the threat of climate change with environmental charities WWF and Earthwatch.

The partnership will give 25,000 bank employees the opportunity to volunteer on local environmental projects to promote action on climate change in 20 cities across the globe. In addition, 2,400 employees will work with Earthwatch’s scientists on a two-week project to gather climate change data from forests in countries such as Brazil and China.

The bank is keen for this experience to translate effectively back into the workplace. Returning employees will become ‘green champions’ to teach valuable knowledge and expertise to colleagues.

Nigel Pate, corporate responsibility senior manager at HSBC, told Personnel Today: “We’ve been working with HR departments so that the two-week experience doesn’t sit in isolation.”

Before they go, employees will have access to an online learning programme, including tools, information and modules about what climate change is, and why it is relevant to them at work.

“HR teams have been helping us to implement and develop that material in a way they know works – what capacity of learning their audience has, and the format of material,” Pate said.

“When they return, they will have developed certain skills such as leadership or teamworking skills, applicable to life at HSBC.”

The bank measures its carbon emissions annually, and was one of the first banks to go carbon neutral by offsetting greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere to cut CO2 emissions.

Carbon report

HSBC and more than 1,000 other large corporations report on their emissions through the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) website each year. The project was set up in 2000, with US charitable status, and allows companies to report their emissions, enabling investors to see which organisations are tackling the issue.

The CDP report last year attracted the support of 225 investment institutions globally, representing £16 trillion of assets under management, suggesting that the moral and economic pressures of climate change are strongly linked. The report confirmed “the private sector is now engaging on climate change at a fundamental level”.

But figures from a Carbon Trust survey of more than 1,000 staff in April showed one in four workers felt their company was not doing enough to cut its carbon emissions. Less than one-fifth said their company ran programmes to help staff become more energy efficient.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has recently joined up with the government-funded Carbon Trust to develop a standard for businesses to measure the total carbon emissions emitted during the life cycle of their products and services.

Its development, overseen by BSI British Standards, will begin this summer, taking into account views from business, non-governmental organisations and scientists.

A Defra spokesman said: “Businesses need to make the decisions that are right for them, and we want to make sure they have the information and resources to do that.”

Small firms

The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) said the Carbon Trust should be doing a lot more to help small businesses measure their environmental impact.

Gareth Elliott, BCC environmental policy adviser, said: “There is a huge willingness in the private sector from small and medium-sized businesses to reduce climate change. But there is little government assistance in terms of getting that message to employees.”

Matthew Farrow, CBI head of environment, said there were several organisations ready to help businesses of any size deal with climate change, but there was a lack of awareness about which one to approach. He said the Energy Savings Trust, for example, was better placed to deal with small businesses, since the Carbon Trust deals primarily with organisations generating energy bills greater than £50,000 a year.

Farrow said: “The government needs to make it easier for companies to know who to turn to for advice.”

On the role of HR in tackling climate change, he added: “Potentially, HR could go as far as giving line managers a series of objectives to make sure they educate their staff on climate change, and encourage small steps like switching printers off.”