Can Human Resources Departments Save the Earth?

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by: Joel Makower

One of the things you're likely to see at your workplace in the next few days is some focus on the environment. It's coming up on Earth Day, of course, the time of year when even hardnosed CEOs' thoughts turn green, at least for the moment.

At companies around the world, management will be hosting green fairs, lectures, and other events; passing out literature about what employees can do at work and at home to reduce their environmental impacts; handing out compact fluorescent light bulbs, recycling bins, and other green gizmos; and generally promoting the companies' good, green deeds and accomplishments over the past year — all while talking about how if everyone pitches in, we can make a big difference.

Too bad they don't heed that advice the rest of the year.

For most companies, that all-too-brief foray into raising employees' green consciousness highlights a key shortcoming: the failure by most companies to sustain employees' green thinking all year long.

Even the most committed companies struggle with this. I recall talking to the environmental head of a large consumer products company based in the Pacific Northwest. The company makes athletic clothing, is located in a hub of outdoor recreation, has a youthful workforce (the average age at headquarters is around 27), and has many impressive environmental commitments in place. You'd think that such an environment would have no problem keeping its environmental ethic top of mind for employees.

But that wasn't the case at this company, or for most other companies I've seen. They continually struggle to have everyone — designers, product managers, operations staff, facility managers, salespeople, and all the rest — fully engaged in the company's environmental ethic, not to mention its specific policies and programs.

It turns out that the key players in the greening of corporations aren't necessarily top management or the environment departments. It's the human resources folks, the department responsible for hiring, training, enhancing morale and productivity, limiting job turnover, and helping firms increase performance and improve business results. Having a strong environmental ethic can help companies achieve all of these things.

But HR generally isn't engaged in green stuff, as far as I can tell. And a web search of the topic, including on HR-specific sites, turned up very little related to their role in the greening of companies. (One of the few good resources can be found here.)

There's a lot that can be done. Environmental matters can be integrated into employee handbooks and training. There can be learning modules employees can take to improve their knowledge and skills. There can be cross-functional green teams that meet regularly to exchange ideas and share learnings. Companies can provide environmental help desks to answers to typical employee questions about how to recycle something, where to find green supplies, and the like. There can be a brownbag speaker series all year long, bringing in local and national experts on a range of environmental topics. There's no end to what's possible.

Which of these things is your company doing?

In Sunday's New York Times, Tom Friedman's fine cover story on The Power of Green features a quote from my friend and colleague Andrew Shapiro, CEO of GreenOrder, the sustainability strategy firm with which I'm affiliated:

Whatever you are making, if you can add a green dimension to it — making it more efficient, healthier and more sustainable for future generations — you have a product that can't just be made cheaper in India or China. If you just create a green ghetto in your company, you miss it. You have to figure out how to integrate green into the DNA of your whole business.

Too many companies relegate sustainability to a green ghetto — a single department charged with "greening" everyone else. More often than not, those folks swim upstream within their company's culture. They're not seen as part of the mainstream, or part of the company's core mission. Rather, they're viewed as nonessential and pushy instigators — folks who come around to mess up your day by telling you that you need to do things differently, in the name of saving the earth.

These companies miss the kinds of opportunities to which Shapiro was referring in the Times article. They miss the creativity that comes from everyone viewing their jobs, departments, and operations through a green lens. No one knows these opportunities as well as those on the front lines — the ones who talk to customers, who order supplies, who empty trash bins. They know where there's waste, more efficient ways to do things, and toxic messes that no one's paying attention to.

I've long maintained that "the environment" is too important to be relegated to environmental departments.

It doesn't have to be this way. I've seen examples of companies in which employees are rewarded for coming up with ideas that reduce a company's environmental footprint. I've seen CEOs personally present awards to such employees, shunning press releases and other publicity along the way. Some of these companies can point to millions of dollars in savings or increased revenue that have resulted from employee ideas.

Perhaps my favorite articulation of all this came a decade or so ago from John Imes, who was then head of environmental initiatives for Quad/Graphics in Wisconsin, one of the largest printing companies in the U.S. At the time, Quad had 9,000 employees, and Imes had engaged them broadly in a range of environmental initiatives that had resulted in significant reductions in waste and costs.

During a tour of the plant, I recall asking Imes how many employees there were at Quad working on environmental initiatives.

He didn't miss a beat. "Nine thousand," he responded.

That's the idea: To make environmental thinking part of everyone's job all year long — not just the third week in April.

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