Think of an average day at a busy sandwich chain and it conjures up images of abandoned wrappers, and piles of leftovers, plastic and paper everywhere. Hardly a model of ecological sustainability.
But Simon Hargraves, commercial director at Pret a Manger, is a fierce advocate of the sustainable approach to doing business.
While Pret doesn’t actively elicit media coverage of its environmental and community initiatives, which currently include buying electric vans for delivering leftover food to the homeless, its commitment to the sustainability movement has been described as a ‘leader business’ and a ‘trailblazer’ by the green think-tank Forum for the Future.
Like other corporate ‘eco worriers’, which include Nationwide Building Society and Toyota, Pret sees sustainability as being about far more than recycling cans.
“It’s how we do business and it’s an intrinsic part of our commercial strategy,” says Hargraves, “and not something we add on from time to time when it’s fashionable.”
Not just a feel-good factor
Although ‘going green’ was once seen as a soft way of earning plaudits, Forum for the Future deputy director for the private sector, Stephanie Draper, confirms that sustainability is “a hard business issue for many firms, not simply a feel-good for staff”.
In organisations where the green issue is way down the agenda, there’s a ripe opportunity for HR to grasp and claim it.
Bob Govan is director of marketing and development at Portman Travel, a business travel consultancy. He believes that ownership of environmental policy “is still up for grabs at many firms”, but believes that as sustainability becomes more welded into the UK business culture, HR could drive the ‘eco’ agenda in organisations.
HR is not responsible for Nationwide’s sustainability programme, for example, but is actively involved at all stages. Andrew Litchfield, head of community and environmental affairs at the building society, sees his team as the catalyst, but it’s often HR that helps employees make the connection between sustainability and good business.
“In practice, it is often HR that takes the lead in sustainability with suggestions from staff,” he says. “Our graduate intake is very interested in our environmental work and HR’s direct link to them, and to other members of the workforce, makes HR a very important partner in all green matters.”
About 65% of Nationwide’s 16,000 employees have already been involved in some sort of volunteering work, whether community or environmentally based. In addition, all electricity used by the society’s head -office sites comes from renewable sources such as wind, tidal or hydro-electric power.
Teambuilding activities can also help the environment. “The whole notion of a team ‘away day’ has utterly changed from having dinner and drinks at a nice hotel followed by a hurried meeting the next morning, to putting up bird boxes and ‘bashing scrub’,” says Litchfield.
Hargraves agrees that HR is a valuable support mechanism for green initiatives. “HR shouldn’t ‘own’ sustainability policies in my view, but as the function that is closest to employees and their concerns, HR’s support for green initiatives, and its skill in using them to help drive recruitment and retention, is vital,” he says.
“In Pret, we see ‘being green’ as intrinsic to our core everyday business. That’s why we have rooted our eco policy in the commercial division, rather than in a small green group located somewhere in HR.”
For HR professionals that do get involved in sustainability programmes, it’s crucial to ensure you have staff buy-in and to avoid overloading employees with too many well-intentioned initiatives.
At Nationwide, for example, the community and environmental affairs department sends out regular surveys via e-mail, asking which green initiatives matter to staff and which don’t.
“We really like to know what makes people angry, so we can respond in the right way,” Litchfield says. “Whether it’s the continued use of non-recyclable polystyrene cups in meetings or people not turning the lights off at home time, we need to know what they feel passionate about so we can direct our work accordingly.”
Although employers are keen to urge staff to reduce their environmental footprint – appointing monitors to oversee the recycling of bottles or providing incentives to promote car sharing – too many initiatives can turn the mildest-mannered of staff into eco anarchists.
“After months of repeatedly being told to re-use printing paper or flush only when necessary, our department of 12 got really bolshie,” explains Alison Hammond, a former bookings clerk with a travel agency.
The appointment of an environmental co-ordinator to hammer home the message only infuriated Hammond and her colleagues even more, and in response they deliberately left lights on and littered canteen tables with plastic food containers just to get up her nose.
“Although most of us cared about things like global warming, we simply became sick of being lectured,” remembers Hammond.
Another approach to becoming a sustainable employer is to divert profits to combat environmental damage. A recent survey by Portman Travel suggests that 62% of UK employees believe that their employer should divert some of their profits to combat the effect of carbon emissions caused by business travel. Yet only 5% of them would be prepared to devote a proportion of their own salary to combating climate change.
To Hargraves, the problem of “dictating to people about how they should behave” is a growing one for would-be green businesses. “Employees get intensely irritated if they’re told to recycle mobile phones or paper and don’t find a recycling bin right next door to their desk. Keeping it simple and easy is very important at this stage.”
One innovative way of doing this has been championed by supermarket chain Co-op. It turns all the memos and paper rubbish from its headquarters into toilet tissue or kitchen paper and then sells them in its stores.
Ideas like this make all the difference, so create a suggestion scheme and get staff thinking ‘green’. It’s not just about eco-sustainability it could sustain your employer brand too.
How HR can go green
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has come up with a series of suggestions as to how HR departments can build awareness of environmental issues in the workplace:
- Develop job descriptions that take environmental considerations into account.
- Have a green transport policy that encourages the use of public transport or car sharing.
- Develop and promote induction and training programmes that build general awareness and focus on specific environmental issues.
- Develop reward and recognition schemes that include an environmental perspective.
- Communicate positive environmental values throughout the organisation.
Case study: Toyota
Toyota, which has already sold 500,000 low-emission Prius cars, believes it can make the ultimate ‘eco’ car.
But its mission to promote ecological sustainability doesn’t stop with its products, but extends to environmental initiatives involving staff. One imaginative employee has already helped save a prestigious water feature located at the firm’s HQ in rain-starved Epsom, Surrey.
Concerned that the man-made lake and waterfall had become stagnant, revived only by regular infusions of expensive chemicals, Toyota asked staff to come up with suggestions. The idea that was adopted involved drilling a set of bore holes to a depth of 400ft to reach a natural water supply.
Today, the lake tops itself up via a pump and uses no tap water or chemicals. The total cost to the company was about £50,000 and the set-up will have paid for itself within two years.
Workers want employers to go green