Talk ESG, embrace Sustainability – The PeopleX Series Instalment 1

By Kirsten Buck

The recent parodic movie on Netflix, Don’t Look Up – starring climate activists Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence – unveils a reactive response to a looming planetary crisis with catastrophic impacts. It is not just another apocalyptic satire looking to prove popular with audiences. It is a call to action. 


This call to action can be understood whether you have seen all two hours plus of the movie, or are yet to view. 


Do look up! 


Look to our balanced atmosphere above; an equilibrium so delicate ensuring our planet continues to dutifully spin with us here on it. Our planet, trusting us to act with respect, as its people. 


Also look inwardly, to what we can do, as a collective of citizens belonging to communities and including organisations and enterprises. 


In this first instalment of The PeopleX Serie by PTHR (following our launch post here), this is our first urge and invitation: To explore your thoughts and deeds, and create more urges for calls to action within our professional field of HR, People, Change and Learning towards the climate emergency. And more specifically, the role of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) and HR’s interplay with that.


The Doomsday clock is ticking away still and at the time of writing we are 100 Seconds to Midnight. Any impact we can have to slow this down even by a second in the Doomsday calculations, gives us a chance to further negate any planetary catastrophe. You might not think of it this way, but any embrace of caring more about our planet, and subsequent action, will help avoid a cascade of tragedies we are otherwise powerless to prevent.


Back to Don’t Look Up. It is in fact the second most streamed movie (of all time) on Netflix. 


Awareness around climate change is building. But so is anxiety. According to Google, searches for “climate anxiety” soared 565% between Oct 2020 and Dec 2021.


Increased anxiety is a by-product of this increased awareness, and does highlight the urgency in action required. Where there is not anxiety or worry; there is denial and ignorance yet both can be calmed by action: perhaps even quashed.


Yet with the climate crisis, the impact is well known, and indeed, experienced with rising levels of water and more frequent extreme weather incidents. 


Our climate is often chaotic, almost always complex, hugely complicated and (since continuing advances in science), we have a lot more clarity and clearer understanding of it from a cause/effect perspective.


This gives us the chance to introduce the Cynefin model. As truly a useful lens as any we know, in shaping how we might collectively respond to a range of challenges that occur and move around the 4 areas within the framework.


And part of this chaotic, complex and complicated state of play with our ecosystem is found beyond the natural states of climate, and in the assessment from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change who stated that we (humans) are “unequivocally” driving global warming. It’s more chaotic, complex and complicated because of our actions, inactions and thereby, choices.


As Greta Thunberg rightly says, this change can’t be left to solely political leaders. We all have this responsibility for future generations. Greta has galvanised a grassroots social movement. The business community can and should do similarly. 


Beyond even the mandate that all organisations must reach net zero by 2030. 


We know the when, so it is not an ‘if’; it is a ‘how’? 


How – more specifically for this piece – can the People function support meeting this mandate? 


Our answer: We can be the voice of change and steward of activism about our climate emergency. 

To paraphrase the esteemed analyst and speaker on people and work Tom Haak, we are seeing an impact transformation whereby organisations are recognising the responsible role they play in society. HR has a chance to become the activist in this scenario: Aligning societal responsibility with the individual values of their colleagues and the purpose of the business they operate within.


No longer can organisations extract for financial profit with disregard for that impact; they must serve to supply AND regenerate. But again, how?


We can start with this – Organisations must look to improve business practices in order to become more sustainable, yet maintain profitability or frugality of operation, by meeting expectations of investors, customers, and regulators. This triple-headed stakeholder demand can be met by having a triple- bottom line: Planet, People and Profit. In that order. 


This is where having an “ESG” strategy, body corporate or commitment emerges. Environmental Social and Governance is being positioned as the response to help navigate the chaos, complexity and complicated nature of the planet’s ecosystem and the business, societal, communal and individual actions that impact upon it.


The terms ESG and sustainability are often used interchangeably. But there is a difference of magnitude. Whilst ESG helps organisations categorise what needs to be done to commit to sustainability, sustainability itself is a way of being. 


It is this way of being that breeds shared knowledge, care and action for our planet that embeds sustainability into our way of being, often called our culture. 


We also know there are people whose view is that culture – and things that are associated with it like engagement, belonging and meaning – are unproven, immeasurable constructs. They are often used to validate violations of behaviours and actions of a more destructive kind “that’s just the culture here”. Whether you believe it exists or not, that truth is yours. We stand firmly that our sentiment, sensations and subsequent words and deeds often come from that sensory perception of what culture is and means..


Inherently good people can be complicit in actions that are deemed bad simply because they were following the norms that prevail in the psyche of an organisation.


In looking at businesses and institutions as organisational constructs, there is more than logic, processed tasks and routines at play. So culture and engagement deniers will have their reasons, but the overriding sense in many of us, is that where people are collectively assembled, there are factors of psychological aspects at play as much as ordained and created rules and prescribed actions. Hive minds, spirited coalesced efforts and codes of conduct that may never be written down but are still assimilated into actions.


So as professionals within the people function we can lead this cultural and procedural shift, in that chaotic and complex way of being.

HR as the Sustainability Activist is something we are seeing more of, yet as with all positive externalities on a system, this can and must be seen to translate into action! 


We all have to start somewhere. As esteemed author and sage Meg Wheatley evocatively depicts;


“Is it possible to use our influence and power to create islands of sanity 

in the midst of a raging destructive sea”

(Margaret J. Wheatley)


Our seas are undoubtedly raging (and rising). As will our organisations be in terms of attraction and retention of people (as colleagues, consumers, partners and investors) if businesses do not truly consider better social, ethical and environmental practices. 


As highlighted in Deloitte’s Global 2021 Survey, 35% of UK millennials and 39% of Gen Zs have already made choices over the organisations they’re willing to work for based on their personal beliefs and ethics. An arguably starker stat is that 72% of millennials and 58% of Gen Zs think commitment to climate change is low priority for businesses.. 


Value alignment is a people issue. There is more at stake for organisations than regulator penalties if ESG commitments are not made. Lack of relevance to customers; a disengaged workforce; an organisation, depleted.


So let’s start talking about sustainability at work! Like we do about our roles, families, even health – it is the health of our planet we are talking about, after all. Whether the board and senior management have kickstarted ESG, or if they have a closed door on the matter, by talking, we are taking small but incremental steps. Sadly there can be seen a jarring of interest between Boards interested in more financial driven gains, than sustainability agendas. Yet to reference Oxford Said Professor of Management, Colin Mayer, financial and material value are derivatives of better social, intellectual, human and natural (ecological) value. 


Whilst being an activist, be mindful that mutterings and even positive interjections, are just background noise without any ensuing action.


We can take more effective action within the areas we can directly influence, so reevaluate the following looking through a more sustainable lens:

-Facilities and use of materials (reduce your carbon footprint)

-Procurement and partners (are your suppliers ethical and carbon-positive?)

-Reward and benefits (carbon offsetting schemes and donations to environmental causes)

-Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (climate racism is prevalent) 

-Engagement (supporting sustainability advocates, bring to life sustainable practices)

-Learning & Development (opportunities to learn about ESG)


Where action is seen, further conversation is often stimulated, and this can propel your organisation forward to an ESG commitment that is measurable, just and impactful. 


Sadly where there are Boards who believe that acting sustainably isn’t as significant as market value, or are congruent to a high performing and profitable organisation, we see brands greenwashing consumers and their own people. Faking and spinning their way to appearing to be good corporate citizens. 


Truly sustainable organisations prioritise the planet, ensure their creation or operating process is ethical; engaging only with suppliers of known repute and impact on the environment, and that they take care of their people.


Beyond where people professionals have direct influence, we can also understand the impact other areas of an organisation can make on their journey to sustainability. For example, approximately 3% of greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to our digital footprint: this is more than the global aviation industry! Does IT know how they can reduce digital emissions? Wholegrain Digital’s “declutter toolkit” is a go to model for more positive action in this area.. 


Or, does Finance know that switching to a sustainable pension provider is around 50 times more impactful in combating the climate crisis than becoming vegan (as found in a 2021 study by Make My Money Matter)? Organisations must move money to funds that reflect the values you want to see in the world.


Where our attitudes and commitments to ESG are within organisations right now are simply a line in the sand. To turn the metaphor into reality, it is a line drawn in the sand of our sadly polluted beaches washing up plastic from our intoxicated oceans. 


But with every crash of a wave as it breaks onto the beach, the line disappears, and the sand is renewed. 


Taking this metaphor further we, as People professionals can renew our organisations’ values, aligning them with a growing climate action consciousness amongst our colleagues and customers; people are demanding change for our planet.


And so if we position the Executive Board as our extractive, non-regenerative system, we can position ESG not within that, but as its counterfoil.


We are declaring that ESG subsumed within the Executive Board is sustainability theatre. An inappropriate, confusing and superficial appreciation of what matters.


We are also declaring that ESG becomes a powerful internal regulator. Any decision the Executive Board takes, is only enacted upon when the ESG “board” concurs. The ESG board can advise, challenge and deny proposed courses of action. The ESG board can hold the Executive Board to account for matters of the environment and social justice.


ESG can become an internal force to be reckoned with and given sufficient power to ensure it is not overruled, ignored or forced into complicitness that makes a mockery of the actual stakes here: Our planet and our continued thriving on it.


At People & Transformational HR we beam with pride to say our greatest collective achievement to date is becoming a B Corporation Certified company, verifying that we adhere to the highest standards of social and environmental impact. This achievement started with talking, acquiring knowledge, and positive action. We looked inwardly at what we could do. We spent a lot of time discussing not what counts in our enterprise, but what matters. And our Terrain, Tribe, Team (PTHR’s ESG equivalent) matters to us. 


To refer back to Cynefin and the state of the world we are operating in as organisations, there is a paradox worth mentioning. 


We live and work in a globalised world, where the mutual benefits of a globalised capitalist system also result in extraction and damage. The idealistic globalisation theorist would argue that the promotion of trade, spread of knowledge and advancement in tech are glorious. 


Yet the paradox we see is that these benefits are cancelled out by the ricochet of misinformation, continued geopolitics and inaction towards overcoming global warming. 


Our actions to combat climate change can happen faster than a potential meaningful revision of globalisation will. We shouldn’t – and indeed can’t – wait for systemic global economic system change. We have to work within it for now, and indeed, use a more sustainable and regenerative approach to bring into effect that new system of commerce, value and living standards.


And so we must continue to live for the now, but sustain the future. Another paradox! As individuals, within organisations, as part of a more conscious populous extracting AND regenerating from our finite planet. 


Simply put, infinite growth is a folly and a myth because of its fuelling by extractive consumption. The planet’s resources ARE finite and its ecosystem has a delicate balance we have impacted upon negatively.


If upon reading this, you take just one message away, look up and around at our irreplaceable planet, look inward, and talk; starting small, thinking big; and a moment of change can alter our planet’s lifeline.

Talk ESG
Act on ESG

Be Sustainable.