Where does the environment fit in?

HR needs to get employee buy-in for environmental policies to be truly effective.

HR professionals with an awareness of sustainability issues might have heard of the printing company, Beacon Press. It has won 25 environmental awards and a lot of positive press coverage for its committed approach to reducing its impact on the environment.

Mark Fairbrass, chairman of the company – which he founded with his wife 25 years ago – says the decision for the business to go green came from personal convictions. “While we are not environmental romantics, we strongly felt that business can do more to protect the environment than anyone else,” he says. “We have been building an environmentally-friendly culture for the past 15 years and it’s now very much part of our business and corporate social responsibility programme.”

Being green has also been a huge commercial success for Beacon Press. Fairbrass says that more than 50 per cent of the organisation’s work is generated by its environmental credentials and has become its greatest marketing asset. This is because other companies increasingly want to boost their own environmental performance by using green suppliers.

“Over a period of time, we have seen tremendous growth in companies wanting to bring the environment into their procedures,” says Fairbrass. Many organisations now want to be associated with the sustainability agenda. Legal and General, for example, is a company that mentions the sustainability policies of its supply chain in its annual reports.

Being seen to be green can be very important in terms of corporate reputation. Employers want to be perceived as caring about people and about the environment. The two are often seen as going hand in hand. It is not just consumers who are mindful of these issues – the workforce is also increasingly concerned about how responsible organisations are, with graduates being the most vocal group. “These days, if you have two companies that are similar, a graduate will probably go for the one that has a better position on sustainability,” says Fairbrass. “It is still below pay, location and market position, but it’s on the wish-list now and it’s an influence.”

While environmental performance may not be the critical deciding factor for most people in choosing where to work, people who do work in environmentally-friendly workplaces tend to report higher levels of pride in their surroundings and greater respect for their employers.

“If people think an employer cares about the environment, they are also more likely to think they care about their people,” says Ben Willmott of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. “It’s the old clichŽ about the employer brand, but it’s true. Employers need to recognise that it’s increasingly important for a proportion of employees, particularly graduates. And if employers want to become employers of choice, they need to consider the business’s impact on the environment.”

Beacon Press has created attractive gardens around its factory and a full biodiversity policy that staff are in involved in. Everyone is expected to play a part in looking after the site.

It is the same at the British Geological Survey (BGS), which has a meadow area, bird boxes and a wildlife pond. The latest environmental feature at the BGS’s 11-acre site is an electric-powered delivery vehicle onsite. “We have lots of blocks on the site and we now have an old milk float run on electricity,” explains James Orr, head of personnel at the BGS. “We have one drop-off point for deliveries and use the milk float to move the deliveries and staff around. We’re trying to do our bit.”

The employers’ role

There is no doubt that employers have a very large role to play in reducing the effect business has on the environment, but good environmental processes will only go so far. The critical success factor is getting employee buy-in.

“The way in which a working environment is used has a clear impact on how sustainable that building is,” says Garry Felgate, director at The Carbon Trust, a Government-funded organisation that helps businesses reduce their carbon emissions, and speaker at a TUC conference on sustainable workplaces. “Companies need to empower people to make a difference in their work environment. That’s the biggest winner, but it’s quite a challenge.”

Willmott agrees that companies need to focus on persuading employees to take responsibility for their actions. “Many people are quite happy to be environmentally conscious at home, but in the workplace, they think it is the employer’s job.”

A TUC survey of members’ attitudes towards workplace environmental activities revealed that many want employers and trade union bodies to improve performance. The TUC says that in order for that to happen, environmental representatives need recognised rights and time off to make a real difference.

Graham Cooper, group head of HR at the Met Office, thinks it is essential that HR gets other groups on board. “HR policies need to support environmental initiatives by working with staff representatives and trade unions,” he says. “Board-level engagement is also critical.”

If the board isn’t visibly committed to the environmental agenda, the likelihood is that projects will falter. At Legal & General (L&G), the board is very involved, as is the trade union, Amicus.

Gareth Hoskins, L&G’s group HR director, chairs the environmental committee, which meets four times a year and sets environmental targets. Hoskins thinks the union’s participation is vital to effect change. “It means it is not just perceived as management hectoring staff,” he says. “It also means that they get the message from more than one source.”

Each of L&G’s sites has an environmental committee that meets regularly to look at issues and co-ordinate requests. After conducting some research a couple of years ago, the company discovered that 90 per cent of its business waste was paper or paper-based. Roughly half of the company’s UK employees now have a recycling cardboard tidy on their desk and a landfill bin a few feet away. “This gets them to segregate their waste and raises their awareness about recycling issues,” says Hoskins. “About 65 per cent of waste is now recycled, including IT equipment, cardboard, vending cups, and toner cartridges.”

Campaigns to encourage staff to use less paper have also been very effective. “These include asking staff why they have to print out e-mails or read on paper,” continues Hoskins. “Four years ago, we ensured that every photocopier at every site defaults to double siding. Consumption of paper has reduced by 20 per cent since 2001.”

Hoskins says it can take a bit of time and effort to convince people why the changes are necessary. This was the case with the introduction of waterless urinals at all sites. “There were one or two concerns at first, but people get used to it.”

It all goes back to Felgate’s employee involvement comment. If staff can see the sense in what a company is trying to achieve, they are more likely to engage with projects.

Sue Welland, founder and creative director of environmental action organisation, Future Forests, agrees that employees need to be actively involved in order for initiatives to work. “You have to translate corporate strategy into personal actions in the office and excite people to take action,” she says. “It is about collective responsibility in the workplace.”

She says companies need to spell out the environmental benefits of any programmes, otherwise employees will think they are just more cost-cutting measures, with them being expected to put in the work.

Future Forest projects tend to engender a sense of workplace community. It recently created a scheme for the mobile telephone company, O2, in which it chose four forests across the world. O2 staff were invited to plant trees and dedicate a message on their intranet, specifically set up for the project. “It became a very powerful way for staff to be involved in what the corporation was doing and 60 per cent of staff responded within three weeks,” says Welland. “That is what happens when you get it right and make it feel personal.”

A staple Future Forests initiative is encouraging employers and employees to plant trees to offset the effects of business travel. It is called going ‘CarbonNeutral‘, when companies measure and then neutralise their carbon emissions.

Promoting initiatives

It is important to promote any environmental initiatives through clear, regular communication with staff, be it through the intranet, representative groups, newsletter, e-mail or company announcements. L&G runs annual Green Awards, which reward staff for their environmentally-friendly ideas and activities.

Beacon Press holds monthly brain-storming meetings for staff to generate new ideas. One employee proposed a scheme to recycle data CDs, such as AOL freebies. Called ‘Box It, Don’t Bin It’, the scheme has been so popular that Fairbrass is hiring an outside contractor to manage it. Customers and suppliers can also take part.

Now that Beacon Press is established as an environmentally-friendly company, it is often held up, particularly in the traditionally ‘dirty’ printing industry, as an example of best practice.

How to win over employees

  • Translate corporate strategy into personal actions in the office and excite people to take action

  • Spell out the environmental benefits of any programme

  • Promote environmental initiatives through clear, regular communication with staff

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