This post is the first in a three-part series on the topic of Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG), authored by Robert Half’s Senior Director of ESG, Stephanie Dolmat.
Every April 22, we are reminded that our collective actions, no matter how seemingly small or local, have a global impact. From planting trees, to cleaning up polluted waterways and trails, to recycling cans, cardboard and old smartphones, to exploring renewable energy options, Earth Day marks an international day of action to remind ourselves to contribute to a healthy planet by protecting our environment.
At Robert Half, we are targeting ways that our clients, candidates, colleagues and communities can collectively work to plant the seeds to a brighter future and treat every day like it is Earth Day. We are committed to conducting business in an environmentally responsible manner. From our board-approved environmental policy and beyond, we know this is not only the right thing to do for our planet but is also of increasing importance to communicate across all our stakeholders.
For businesses ramping up their environmental programs and initiatives, these actions should go beyond the sentiment of “going green.” They must also be integrated into a coherent, companywide strategy that aligns with your business priorities to drive and sustain long-term change in your organization and beyond.
Put another way, before you decide on the what, you need to decide on the why.
Principles to drive your environmental programs can be broad (“We want to play our part in reducing global emissions so that our people and planet can thrive”) or narrow (“We’re committed to improving the air quality in our town”) and in all cases, they must be sincerely held. If leadership understands how helping the environment is part of the company’s purpose, there’s every chance investors, current employees and potential hires will, too. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic more than two years ago, workers increasingly seek employers whose values align with their own. That means creating a meaningful corporate purpose can boost your ability to attract and retain top talent.
A 3-step approach for building an environmental program
Once you’ve defined the purpose of your environmental program, you can start to build it. We recommend a three-step approach: design, implement and measure. Let’s take each step in turn.
A poorly designed environmental program can turn out to be costly in terms of your organization’s reputation. However good your intentions, setting unrealistic goals or launching initiatives that sail over budget can damage your credibility. Take some time, therefore, to:
- Set specific goals — Start by identifying measurable outcomes that you would consider a success if achieved. Be as precise as you can — “We aim to reduce our energy footprint by 20% over five years” is more compelling than “We will reduce our energy footprint.” Once you’ve set a specific goal, then comes the hard work of measuring your footprint. Work with your landlord and/or real estate and facilities team to understand what data you have and what you’ll need to move forward.
- Listen to your workforce — Boards, CEOs and operational teams determine the overall scope and strategy of ESG initiatives. However, if you want your employees to be advocates and enablers for your program, it makes sense to get them involved at the design stage. Invite people to suggest ideas via employee surveys and team meetings. Even a simple step like checking in with your electricity provider/utility to see if there is a renewable electricity option for your office and then letting employees know that you’re switching to renewable electricity can help embed ESG principles in your daily work culture.
- Consider the environmental impact of remote and hybrid workers —Research shows that working from home isn’t a clear win for the environment. When you consider the carbon footprint created by each household — from sending business emails to using heat and air conditioning — the impact is greater than if workers are located at a central location. Be sure to consider this when setting your environmental goals. You can respect your employees’ private space while still offering to help them reduce their waste, energy and technology footprints.
- Don’t forget about your supply chain — No company is an island. Regardless of your own policies, working together with suppliers with a poor environmental history could damage your reputation. Viewed positively, however, this is an opportunity to drive change outside your organization. By helping a local supplier become greener, you may find you can advance the environmental and social elements of your ESG program simultaneously.
- Understand costs and benefits — Often, leaders may think environmental projects will cost more, but so often, there are not only cost savings over the long term but also benefits to attracting new clients or strengthening relationships with existing clients who also value environmental action. Look at both costs and long-term benefits and consider funding or grants from the government or other third parties such as local nonprofits.
- Plan your messaging — Resist the temptation to postpone publicizing your program until you have some wins under your belt. Instead, provide internal updates from the outset — it will keep employees engaged and reinforce their sense of contributing to a companywide goal.
If you assign the implementation of your program to an internal team, don’t underestimate the number of employees who will volunteer to join it! To balance the need for inclusiveness with the need for operational efficiency, consider assembling two teams.
The first will be a dedicated unit tasked with deploying, managing and monitoring the program. A second, much larger group will consist of workers who are passionate about environmental initiatives and want to champion them in your organization voluntarily. Often known as a “green team,” this second group can organize webinars or Earth Day events, identify volunteering opportunities, collect employee feedback for the dedicated team and harness enthusiasm to take action.
Not every organization has the budget for a dedicated environmental team, in which case they may hire an outside consultant to help handle implementation. In that scenario, a self-selecting green team can be more important than ever, helping to ensure that your environmental program remains aligned with your broader organizational culture.
A lack of consistency around ESG measurements makes it hard for companies to define best practices and benchmark their performance. It’s one thing to hit your goals. It’s another to demonstrate to potential employees or investors that this is a meaningful achievement that sets you apart from your competitors.
Look for compelling ways to measure and communicate your performance against your goals:
- First, try to focus on objective metrics that clearly demonstrate success — carbon footprint reduction, for example, or energy efficiency improvements.
- Second, ensure you have a “single source of truth” (usually your ESG team) for your metrics so that different parts of the company don’t measure and present data in different ways.
- Finally, actively seek feedback on your program from your stakeholders at regular intervals.
If your data-driven measurements show that your program is making significant progress, but your workforce remains underwhelmed, that’s something you need to address through sharper messaging or wider participation.
It’s good to focus on environmental initiatives. But if that just means a smattering of programs, it may not be enough. By trying to anchor your environmental program in a long-term, purpose-driven commitment to sustainability, you can help do the right thing for the planet while attracting the investment and talent you need.