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.

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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.
As far as incentivising employees goes, HR needs to try and maximise the contribution which their employees’ talents can make to the success of the organisation. A company and its employees need to share the same values while the approach to doing business and targets has to take account of longer term social and environmental goals as well as short term financial objectives. For example, SC Johnson has built eco-efficiency, sustainability and awareness of the environmental impact of the products it uses into its staff training while similar considerations are also built into management’s bonus schemes.

Working at WBCSD

Eric Dérobert
Director, Finance and Administration, WBCSD

WBCSD currently employ 54 people, including those on secondment.

Typical employee profile:
People with extensive and varied experience in business
People who do not necessarily have a business background but who can apply their specific experience in project work or perhaps in education or communications in WBCSD
People seconded from member companies who stay between 1 and 3 years. WBCSD has welcomed over 30 of these so far. For example, the former Head of the Development Focus Area was from BP; someone from Toyota led the Sustainable Mobility for Development work stream.
Vacancies are notified to member companies. To ensure continuity of knowledge, WBCSD look for permanent staff to fill key positions.
At the same time, people can be recruited externally from job advertisements eg the Media manager.

Internships – 3 per year. Numbers are limited by coaching capacity, finance and the need to divide the workload to provide meaningful work. In addition, work visas can also be difficult to obtain.

As a result of the credit crisis, WBCSD are not actively looking to recruit at present. However, they always welcome CVs from qualified candidates.

Finally, HR has to identify the competencies which are required to fulfil a company’s strategy as well as dealing with a changing competitive environment. As already mentioned, the need for employees to consider environmental, social and economic angles when taking a sustainable development approach to business can help build important skills – for example, leadership, team work and problem-solving – which are transferable to a wide range of situations. Although there are different methods of providing training in sustainable development, which can vary according to the function and responsibility of different posts, there also has to be a common set of values throughout the company to make sure that the philosophy is fully integrated into people management. For instance, the carpet manufacturer Interface has a training programme which requires all their employees to evaluate how they can work more sustainably and at the same time, has modules which are job specific. Procter and Gamble have a programme, “Take the ‘R’ (Responsibility) for Tomorrow”, which promotes smarter workplace habits. One aspect encourages all employees to think about how they travel to work and what energy they use. The idea is then to link their own personal values to the values of the company and so bring a sustainability mindset into the business.

WBCSD and human resources

The WBCSD help businesses identify issues which can be addressed in the workplace through talent management and capacity building strategies to address their strategic goals and generate long-term value.
According to Katherine, “we help build the business case for sustainability and teach that to companies. We work with our member companies to build the skills with the objective of helping businesses innovate and grow. We provide supporting material and tools to achieve these goals.”

Two such tools helping to integrate sustainable development into people management in the entire organisation, are Chronos and the Future Leaders Team:

Chronos is an e-learning tool created with the Cambridge Programme for Industry. It aims to raise employee awareness and build the business case for sustainable development. Companies are able to customise the tool so it fits their own business model and to date, 250 000 licences have been distributed.

The WBCSD’s Future Leaders Team (FLT) aims to raise awareness of sustainable development in a targetted group of future business leaders from companies operating around the world. The objective is for the members of this group to become effective ambassadors for sustainable development through experiential learning, knowledge creation and the building of their networks and skills. The success of this programme in identifying, shaping and influencing future leaders is evidenced by the fact that 200 sustainability representatives have graduated into the alumni network over the last seven years.

‘Businesses cannot succeed in a society that fails’ – the challenges ahead for sustainable development

The WBCSD believe that businesses today recognise both the need for sustainable development and also the imperative that they are sustainable themselves since, “business cannot succeed in a society that fails”.
Ms Madden again, “Although there are hard times ahead and climate change is one of the most difficult challenges, I am positive of the business community’s capacity to contribute infrastructure, resources and efficiencies to sustainable development….and hopeful that governments will start to provide the frameworks and incentives that we need to make that happen”.

Human resource managers then, have the challenge of producing a strategy for sustainable development within their companies which takes into account the key stakeholders – the company itself, employees, investors, shareholders, customers, communities and governments.

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