HR’s green revolution: How they are leading the sustainability change

HR has emerged as a pivotal force in driving ESG integration, fostering sustainability, purpose, and employee engagement in modern organisations.
By: | March 6, 2024

In the boardrooms of today’s most successful organisations, a new conversation is taking place. It is not just about profits and market share, but about purpose, responsibility, and positively impacting the world. This shift towards environmental, social, and governance (ESG) considerations is transforming the business landscape, and in this dynamic environment, a surprising champion has emerged: the HR department.

Traditionally seen as the guardians of policies and procedures, HR is now stepping into the spotlight as a catalyst for sustainable success. Zsofia Balatoni, Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Rothman & Roman, believes this is a natural progression.

“A high-quality workforce, well-educated, motivated, and trustworthy employees, requires a just and equitable work environment,” she told HRM Asia. “If an organisation falls behind on the ‘S’, the social aspects, or the ‘E’, the environmental performance, they risk losing investors and the best workforce out there.”

The ‘S’ in ESG holds particular relevance for HR. While environmental issues like carbon emissions and sustainable packaging are often tackled by operations and engineers, social performance falls squarely within HR’s domain. This presents an opportunity for HR professionals to demonstrate their strategic value.

But how does ESG involvement compare to other employee engagement initiatives, like wellness programmes or team-building activities? Balatoni argued that ESG offers a deeper level of engagement, resonating with the aspirations of a generation yearning for purpose and positive impact. She explained, “In developed countries like Singapore, where the standard of living is already high, people, employees, customers, and investors are all looking for purpose in their lives and the ability to create a positive impact.”

While wellness programmes and team-building exercises offer value, they pale compared to the transformative potential of ESG. Leading organisations are integrating ESG principles into their core DNA, shaping everything from product development to HR policies. This fosters a culture where purpose drives employee engagement, with diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives, ethical practices, and addressing critical issues like mental health and work-life balance taking centre stage.

This cultural shift has profound implications for HR professionals. It is no longer enough to simply implement policies; HR must become a champion for social sustainability, actively nurturing a culture of responsibility and engaging employees in the journey.

“The word sustainability itself was first used in 1713 in Germany, in a forestry handbook, to describe a practice of harvesting just enough trees to ensure the forest would regenerate,” Balatoni said, emphasising the long-term perspective inherent in the concept. “The idea hasn’t changed much. Environment and social sustainability are keys for the long-term operation of every enterprise.”

For HR professionals seeking to translate this philosophy into action, Balatoni offered a three-pronged approach – to create policies, nurture a responsible corporate culture, and actively engage with the employees. Implementing social responsibility requires a sustained effort, including ongoing training to address unconscious biases and fostering a work environment where employees feel empowered to contribute meaningfully. She also urged HR professionals to align their initiatives with the evolving expectations of the workforce, particularly Gen Z employees who prioritise meaningful work and social impact.

“It’s our job, as HR professionals, to create a work environment where the most talented employees can fulfil their ambitions for the benefit of our organisation.” – Zsofia Balatoni, Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Rothman & Roman

“It is our job, as HR professionals, to create a work environment where the most talented employees can fulfil their ambitions for the benefit of our organisation. Embedding social responsibility in our policies and culture is probably a good way of doing it,” she concluded.

Leading by example

Rothman & Roman released the Employee Communication Trends Report 2024 which delves into how organisations integrate ESG principles and engage employees in the process. The report highlighted a case study from ALBA, an organisation in recycling and waste management solutions, demonstrating how they are at the forefront of this movement.

ALBA’s commitment to ESG is evident in its dedication to environmental stewardship, community development, and employee engagement. They go beyond mere compliance, actively striving to create a “World Without Waste” through innovative solutions and responsible business practices.

Daniel O’Connor, Chief People Officer at ALBA and Co-Chair of the Singapore Eurocham Human Development Committee, underscored the importance of a clear vision and authentic commitment to sustainability. He said, “The sustainability dialogue is often highly complex and multi-layered. It requires organisations to form a clear vision of how they perceive their role within the larger ecosystem in which they operate and benefit from, and use this to reshape their business models, with a focus on ‘win-win-win’ activities that generate value on multiple levels rather than adopting more traditional zero-sum tactics.”

READ MORE: HR steps up: Driving sustainable change in corporate culture

ALBA exemplifies this commitment through initiatives like the ALBA Basketball Youth Development Programme. Spanning 30 cities in Germany, this programme promotes physical activity and life skills development for young people, fostering a sense of community and purpose among both employees and participants.

The organisation also utilises innovative communication tools like multilingual AI avatars to enhance communication and foster a sense of unity across the organisation. This holistic approach underscores the importance of building a robust employee engagement framework within the broader ESG strategy.

O’Connor will join Dr Bob Aubrey, Founder and Chair of the Advisory Board at the ASEAN Human Development Organisation (AHDO), along with panellists Yulius Bulo, Operations Director, Pertamina Foundation; and Fong Tuan Chen, Senior Executive Vice-President, Group Human Capital, Maybank, for a panel discussion titled People, Planet & Profit: Ethics and Strategy for Human Development Leaders during the AHDO Human Development Summit at HR Tech Festival Asia 2024. To find out more about HR Tech Festival Asia 2024, click here