HR as the Sustainability Activist
Perry Timms and Kirsten Buck, PTHR
I like this image, but I also loathe it. The Earth obviously isn’t on fire, but you get the point. The thing is, the world doesn’t revolve around us. We have actually evolved with planet Earth. I heard Professor Brian Cox once share this wisdom and it really struck a chord because there is no other perfect planet for us. This is it. No tech advancements or trips to space will create us a new world elsewhere.
Global warming is fact, scientifically proven and unequivocally being accelerated by humans. We are the problem, but we’re also the conduits for possible positive change. But to change our behaviors, we have to feel it too. I’m a big believer in that. So I ask you, do you remember when you first heard about climate change, where you were, how it made you feel? Maybe it’s surfacing and really vividly, but sit with this because for me it’s about 2004, 2005, The Day After Tomorrow movie and Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth. Since then I’ve always needed to know more and live more sustainably.
As individuals in organizations, we have both a business imperative and moral obligation to do what we can to be more sustainable. This is the case regardless of business function. So I ask you to turn to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which have been around since 2015. They’re a universal call to action to ensure that all people by 2013, 2030, sorry, enjoy peace and prosperity.
But we don’t all need to be sustainability experts, we have CSOs around us, but we do need to fact check and create a baseline competence for ourselves in this area. So from weaving in UN SDGs to our strategies, for example, to understanding the Scopes 1, 2, 3, what that means, net zero, circularity, alternative economic models, and even committing to change, so the Better Business Act for example, and really being an activist in your organization.
From knowledge to commitments, that’s what matters and greenwashing becomes very apparent. Greenwashing simply put, saying the right things but failing to deliver. People see this, from ESG investors to consumers turning away from your organization or brand to people and future talent and conscious quitting, as you’ll have heard of, is a real thing.
We’ve spoken about sustainability more broadly, but when we’re talking about ESG, environmental, social, and governance, it’s important that these tensions balance. There’s some exemplary organizations where they do and that’s where leadership is absolutely key. Paul Polman at Unilever, after he left, sustainability was still very much part of the agenda. And Yvon Chouinard at Patagonia, the Earth is our only shareholder. How inspirational.
HR specifically, we can be part of leading the change on the sustainability agenda. To quote the HR Trend Institute from 2023, “It’s time for HR to break boundaries. Your organization needs it, people need it, communities need it, and our planet needs this because the polycrises we see, they won’t fix themselves.” And also looking at CIPD’s Hackathon for 2030, green HR and HR as sustainability advocates was a common calling. It’s out there. We just need to act.
HR can be the activist here. And from being intentional about embedding green competencies to green behaviors will then turn into green attitudes, innovation, and outcomes. These outcomes actually lead to green innovation trickling through every decision we make, capabilities, investment, and so on. And an authentic culture of sustainability is the aspiration and the end goal.
The doomsday clock, whether you believe in it or not, we’re 90 seconds to midnight, the closest we’ve ever been to catastrophe actually on a global scale. Yikes. Net zero is the mandate. As people and professionals, we can harness the power of people to lean on the social component of ESG. From that, purpose will really trump profit.
I’ll take you back to 2014 actually for the Belgian philosopher, I guess you’d call him, Frederic Laloux, who wrote the book Reinventing Organizations. I think he said there’s something in the air. It was a shift in how organizations wanted to be.
He came up with the concept of a teal organization and it has three elements. The first one you see on screen there that we will be self-managed. We will have teams self-organize and remove themselves from choking bureaucracy and management interference. That’s one way we can be activists within the workplace.
A second aspect of teal is wholeness, where people find themselves through the work and they flourish as individuals. This is an important calling for people. And the sustainability agenda is often where people find themselves incredibly drawn to and incredibly active.
The last bit is what Kirsten’s been talking to you about all the time, evolutionary purpose. There is no purpose without our planet. The planet’s purpose in sustaining life is also what organizations should do, sustain life and help people develop and outperform sustainably.
But greed is our enemy. So if we want to look at why the planet is absolutely struggling, yes, there could be natural occurring phenomena, but really it’s the fact that we’ve extracted and polluted the planet in pursuit of greed. When you look at Oxfam’s report recently about the richest 1% bagging nearly twice as much wealth as the rest of the world put together, we can see we’ve got a problem economically.
We’ve also got culture wars being thrust upon us by people who are in denial about what the world should be as a multicultural and connected way of trying to solve the planet’s problems. But they’re shouting into a void because these companies with the logos that you see here are breaking the mold and are doing people-centric, planet positive ways of working and changing the paradigm that we operate in.
When I talk about operations, one of the things we operate with is our mind and our personality and our psychology. If we look at something called adult development theory, we can see how there are three elements to play for people to become part of a socialized mind, which is all things together that we have an ideology in our self-author in mind. If we are the lucky 1%, we’ll also get to be like the Dalai Lama and self transform and become part of something bigger than ourselves, map into self-management, wholeness, and evolutionary purpose.
One of the problems is workers become turgid and tolerated when really work should be craft. There’s nothing finer a craft than has all coming together to repair this planet. Richard Sennett as a professor from London Business School asked the real question, which future of work is best for people doing the work rather than those extracting greater profits? That’s HR’s big calling to create that activism towards.
US analyst Joss Bersin also has described the shifting way that organizations are assembling themselves, teams not hierarchy, work not jobs. This is all about purpose, not profits. This is how we are rewriting the code of work and we want to be part of it as an HR profession.
Just in case we needed some help, I devised a model that will help us do that, not verticals and the exchanges between them, but intersectionality and a product orientation. What on earth happened there? This is where we can find a way to make ourselves much more connected to the source of our challenge because our challenge is the planet and we need HR as a sustainability activist. As Mark Carney, governor of Bank of England, said in a recent speech, “We’ve got to tackle everything everywhere all at once.”
See Kirsten and Perry delivering their presentation at DisruptHR Aberdeen here >>>> https://vimeo.com/876126875
More talks from DisruptHR Aberdeen here >>>> https://hunteradams.co.uk/blog/disrupthr-aberdeen/