The Sustainability Challenge – A HR Perspective

The Institute of Human Resource (HR) Management, the professional body for HR practitioners in Kenya, recently invited me to speak during their 22nd annual national conference.  The HR professionals wanted to understand sustainability and how it touches on their work.  This presented an interesting opportunity for me to get into meaningful dialogue about the ‘people’ aspect of sustainability strategy with those who understand this most.  We began our conversation by simply defining Sustainability and distinguishing it from Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).  Sustainability is the process of maintaining a balance between environmental (planet), social (people), and economic (profit) demands as part of the business strategy. CSR is more concerned with philanthropy and community relations.

Sustainability is the challenge of our lifetime! The statistics are daunting – we need 1.7 Earths to meet our needs (Global Footprint Network), around 168 million children are engaged in child labor (UNICEF), the amount of solid waste generated globally is approximately 6 million tons per day (World Bank) and 1 in 9 people in the world today lack access to safe drinking water. One statistic that caught our attention is Kenya has been ranked eighth globally among countries with the largest number of people living in extreme poverty (World Poverty Clock). Yet, according to a Business Daily report, Kenya also created 180 new dollar millionaires in 2017. This income inequality makes the social and economic framework of the country unsustainable.

Becoming more sustainable for people and organizations is a necessity. Our survival and prosperity depends on changing our current trajectory. Business has the largest impact. However, sustainability is not just important for multinational enterprises but for all organizations, whatever their size. Sustainability reporting helps all organizations to set targets, plan how to achieve them, and monitor (and report) on progress. For HR this means reporting on issues to do with human rights legislation as it applies to practices of employment such as the employee act, labor relations, employment equity, skills development, occupational health and safety, grievance procedures and affirmative action. Sustainability requires employers to conduct an analysis of employment policies, practices, procedures and the working environment

HR professionals therefore can play a significant role in promoting sustainability in their companies by incorporating sustainability education in the employee training process, involving employees in workplace initiatives such as recycling, energy efficiency and reducing waste. HR can also facilitate the formation of committees that look for ways to improve company sustainability. Volunteer initiatives like tree planting and support for community-based initiatives can be highly encouraged (and measured) by HR and within their own domain, HR professionals can eliminate all paper from its talent acquisition process making the hiring process by making it all entirely electronic. The bottom line is that if sustainability is good business, then the sustainability team is the change maker while the HR team is the lever needed to propel the change

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