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Promoting Sustainability

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Sustainability is a major focus for most companies today, and HR professionals are at the heart of their organizations' sustainability efforts. An upcoming survey report by the Society for Human Resource Management in partnership with San Francisco-based consulting companies Aurosoorya and Business for Social Responsibility found that almost three-quarters of surveyed companies engage in sustainable practices. These practices include recycling, "eco-efficient" waste management and the use of alternative energy sources.

What's driving this? Leaders of many organizations want to make positive social contributions. They find they can gain a competitive advantage by investing in sustainable and socially responsible practices. With more consumers concerned about the impact products and services have on the environment, executives who are committed to sustainability add strength to their business brands. Equally important for HR professionals: This commitment strengthens their organizations' employer brands.

In fact, many of the top benefits of sustainability initiatives are closely related to employees and how they do their jobs. In this 2010 survey of 728 companies of all sizes, the top four benefits reported by respondents were:

  • Improved employee morale (cited by 55 percent).
  • More-efficient business processes (43 percent).
  • Stronger public image (43 percent).
  • Increased employee loyalty (38 percent).

Employees are crucial to any sustainability initiative. That means HR professionals must be involved in developing sustainability strategies and working with employees to put them into practice.

But 28 percent of survey respondents reported that their organizations are not pursuing sustainability. One obstacle is the perceived cost. Other hurdles involve the difficulty of measuring return on investment (ROI) and a lack of support from leaders.

If HR professionals want to promote sustainable and socially responsible practices in an organization with resistant leaders, they must build a convincing business case that demonstrates a clear ROI.

Fortunately, this is proving to be less difficult than anticipated. "Most green projects deliver a very positive ROI," says Jack Phillips, chairman of the ROI Institute, based in Birmingham, Ala. And some initiatives with positive impact—including those involving HR and the way employees work—are already in place at many organizations. "There are a few surprises in the major areas of ROI," Phillips says. "Perhaps the most significant is the impact of telecommuting programs, as they represent a huge payoff for the organization, as well as for the environment."

When it comes to sustainability strategies, HR professionals can continue to make progress by building on what they are doing, measuring results, and getting business leaders and employees involved.

The author is manager of the Workplace Trends and Forecasting program at SHRM.

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SHRM surveys: Sustainability surveys


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