It’s not simply switching off lights or recycling paper, reducing our carbon footprint and going green requires companies to take real responsibility.
Environmental responsibility may once have meant putting a bin near the printer for recycling paper, a “consider the environment” message on every email, and a sign exhorting staff to turn the lights off.
Not anymore. As carbon emissions drive global temperatures higher and governments struggle with climate change policy, businesses of all sizes are beginning to make a deeper commitment to helping tackle what is often claimed to be the biggest challenge of our time.
Going green has tangible benefits, including lower utility costs (see case studies) and new marketing opportunities. For HR departments, sustainability initiatives help boost employee engagement and attract new talent. Three-quarters of 6,000 students surveyed for the Australian Top 100 Graduate Employer Rankings Survey said Corporate Social Responsibility was “very important” when they chose an employer.
(Going green with your office design is also a way to improve employee engagement – read our article.)
“HR plays a central role in driving sustainability initiatives because it’s about how you harness and manage change,” says Chi Mun Woo, partner in KPMG’s Sustainability Advisory.
Cutting carbon emissions is the main game, and energy efficiency is one of the lowest-cost ways for businesses to do that, says Petra Stock, an analyst at the Climate Council. “There are huge, largely untapped, opportunities in Australia to both reduce emissions and cut electricity bills for households and businesses.”
Sustainability initiatives, awards and certifications are booming. “We Mean Business” is a global coalition of organisations that has signed up more than 500 companies with more than US$8 trillion in revenue to forge a low-carbon future, while chambers of commerce routinely hand out sustainability awards to highlight local businesses that are going green.
The New South Wales state government has run the Sustainability Advantage program – providing practical advice to organisations – for about a decade, during which members have made savings of more than $100 million in reduced use of energy, water and lower costs of sending waste to landfill.
“Our sense is that we’ve reached a tipping point,” says Alice Cahill, manager of sustainability programs in the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage. “We’re starting to see an increase in many organisations making public and, in some cases, bold commitments.” Unilever, for example, says its whole organisation will become a net positive carbon company by 2030.
Iain Smale, managing director of Pangolin Associates in Sydney – Australia’s only certified carbon neutral environmental consultancy – says the number of organisations his firm is assisting with certified carbon neutrality has increased threefold in the past year, including in the property sector and local government. “We’re also working with three universities on their carbon management,” he said.
Along with the Big Four firms and a few other consultants, Pangolin provides energy efficiency audits, greenhouse gas assessments, carbon reporting and accreditation and a range of other sustainability services. It also provides carbon neutral certification under the National Carbon Offset Standard, the only Government recognised certification in Australia.
Energy audits and carbon assessments can cost anything from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands depending on the size and complexity of an organisation, says Smale. Going green with a mixture of energy efficiency grants and reduced utility bills can result in immediate cost savings.
Just changing the light bulbs can make a difference, says Nick Keynes, sales manager for Ecovantage, which upgrades LED lighting and undertakes efficiency projects under state government schemes in NSW, Victoria and SA.
“We’ve achieved some impressive reductions in energy usage, and therefore CO2 and cost.” Installing LED lights in one warehouse halved the power bill and in a strata building they cut average daily usage from 215 kWh to just 82 kWh.
Any efforts by organisations to reduce their environmental impact are part of a move towards a low-carbon future, says Christopher Wright, professor of organisational studies at the University of Sydney’s Business School and co-author of Climate Change, Capitalism and Corporations.
“It’s true that many businesses are adopting initiatives to make their operations a little less unsustainable,” says Wright.
“But let’s be clear: real effort to promote sustainability of life on Earth – which is what we’re really talking about here – requires strong action by governments and will have to include regulation that many business executives and investors find too extreme.”
Case study: Ross Hill Wines
Going carbon neutral was a “no brainer” for James Robson, who manages the family-owned Ross Hill Wines in Orange, New South Wales. “The family has always had the view that we want to have as little impact on the Earth as possible,” he says.
The only Australian winery certified carbon neutral under the National Carbon Offset Standard (NCOS), Ross Hill is also unique in having both its business and products certified.
The company started with an initial energy assessment in 2011 and by adopting numerous efficiency measures – including installing solar power – managed to cut annual electricity and gas costs from about $40,000 a year to $9,200 by 2013/14. It offset carbon emission by purchasing credits from a wind power project at the southern tip of India.
Going carbon neutral has also proved commercially astute. “We’re definitely getting more interest in our product because we’re sustainable,” says Robson. “In the direct-to-consumer business people respond very positively to it. When it comes to wine, people want to know where it’s coming from, who’s making it and how it’s made.”
Energy isn’t Ross Hill’s only focus. A philosophy of sustainable soil management, minimal intervention and the use of wild yeast strains helped them win the Orange Chamber of Commerce Excellence in Sustainability award for 2017.
Case study: Maurice Blackburn lawyers
Legal firm Maurice Blackburn has 31 offices around Australia and more than 1,100 employees. It has been carbon neutral for eight years.
“Social justice is at the heart of what we do, so going carbon neutral was a natural extension of our culture,” says Steve Schuurmans, chief operating officer.
The firm started by creating an environmental management plan with the help of Pangolin Associates in Sydney. That led to a comprehensive suite of actions – almost all of which required educating staff and seeking their compliance – in order to reduce their collective carbon footprint.
These initiatives included conserving energy and water, reducing waste, buying sustainably-sourced furnishings and products for its offices, recycling used computers and reducing paper consumption. Double-sided printing is compulsory nationally and all paper purchased is 100 per cent recycled copy paper.
Consultants undertake an annual staff commute survey and a bike users’ group encourages employees to make an environmentally responsible choice.
The law firm measures its sustainability impacts, and tracks electricity and water consumption, the amount of waste to landfill and travel and freight costs more closely. As part of its efforts to engage staff, the office that cuts its carbon emissions the most, per full time employee, receives an award.
This article originally appeared in AHRI’s HRM magazine.