People, planet and profits

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“Development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This is the essence of sustainable development and necessarily means that the social, economic and environmental outcomes of meeting those needs have to be considered.

What is WBCSD?

  • A CEO-led programme dealing exclusively with business and sustainable development
  • 200 members, from more than 35 countries, with representatives from 20 major industrial sectors
  • A global network of 58 national and regional business councils and regional partners
  • 130 relationships with different organisations such as UN, UNEP, IUCN, WEF

Further information is available at

We met Katherine Madden, Manager, Implementing Sustainable Development, World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) in February 2009. Katherine gave us an overview of the link between human resources and sustainable development and the challenges businesses face worldwide in the coming years. She stressed that sustainability is not only about climate change and poverty alleviation, but also about the fair treatment of employees, decent wages and human rights.

“It’s about a company being a decent responsible employer and incorporating a whole range of social trends into the business.The aim of the WBCSD is to explore a wide range of issues, all crucial to achieving sustainable development. The Council provides a platform to share knowledge, best practices and to advocate business positions on these issues in a variety of forums,” she said. “Contributions from people across all functions of an organization are important. Companies are already beginning to respond to sustainable development opportunities and are taking practical actions to implement them.”

The role of HR in achieving a culture of sustainability

The importance of HR to the success of sustainable development is crucial to WBCSD member companies and a recent survey by the Society for Human Resource in countries including Brazil, China, India and the US confirms this. 60% of HR professionals say they are already involved in their organisation’s corporate responsibility programs to some extent, while 72% say their company is planning to increase the role of HR in this area. According to WBCSD’s briefing, ‘Driving Success’, HR is responsible for integrating sustainable development into employee recruitment and retention, motivation and competency development through training programmes and creating a culture of sustainable development. As a result, the issue of sustainable development can be used as a marketing tool and as a method of improving employee performance.

The briefing goes on to identify the challenges which need to be met by HR, including:

Being a responsible employer

  • Recruiting and retaining top talent
  • Creating incentives for exceptional performance
  • Enhancing critical competencies

As a responsible employer, businesses can create jobs, pay wages and provide training, healthcare and pensions whilst still being competitive. For global companies, this means not only considering the working conditions of their own employees but also those of their suppliers because of the impact a negative consumer perception of workers rights can have on a company’s reputation (see graph on corporate responsibility below). At the same time, companies can also involve themselves in managing social and environmental problems. For example, L’Oréal started an HIV awareness and prevention campaign amongst its South African employees and families in 2002 and has since expanded it throughout its professional training network.

Secondly, sustainable development can be empowering and it can be an important differentiator. More and more job applicants are considering the relative importance which a company attaches to social and environmental issues when deciding upon a potential employer. In addition, current employees feel greater motivation and loyalty towards their jobs when companies are more socially responsible and according to a KPMG survey, 80% of respondents who thought their company had strong ethics would recommend it to recruits. In fact, the importance of environmental and social concerns to employees of the pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk was underlined by a 2004 survey. When asked to rate how crucial these concerns were to the future of the company on a scale of 1-5, the average score given was 4.2.
Networking skills and the ability to work with a range of institutions and people are more highly valued today by companies and some HR managers feel that these are just the skills which people with an awareness of sustainability possess. One example is with EDF energy, which encourages all staff to be involved with its not-for profit partner organisations by giving them two paid work days per year to do this. This increases job satisfaction and can help in the development of transferable skills, such as managing people, change and building relationships.

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