Environmental Responsibility in the Workplace: Why It Matters

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In a year when the UK is experiencing another run of extreme heat and climate records are being broken yet again, the idea of environmental responsibility is at the forefront of public consciousness.

That’s particularly the case when it comes to businesses and their commitment to the environment – but evidence suggests there’s still a disconnect between thoughts and action. The 2016 Sustainability & Innovation Global Executive Study and Research Project, for instance, found that whilst 90% of business decision-makers thought that environmental responsibility and sustainability were important, only 60% had a defined strategy to help them implement it across their organisations.

If you’re in the process of building or improving your company’s environmental responsibility policy, or you’re interested in improving the general approach of your organisation towards sustainability, evidence is your best friend in building a convincing case to put to senior management.

Here are the 6 key reasons that environmental responsibility in the workplace matters.

1.  It’s the ethical thing to do

Let’s be direct – businesses and organisations profit from society in a number of ways. They rely on infrastructure, the labour pool and they extract natural resources from the environment, in most cases, for private profit. And it might be hard to hear but ultimately the biggest polluter, emitter of carbon dioxide and main driver of climate change over the last 100 years has been the global big business sector. For example, since 1988 alone, 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions have been produced by 100 companies alone.

It’s hard not to argue that despite how many jobs an organisation might provide to people, it still ultimately owes a lot of its success – and the money it makes – to the things that wider society and the world at large provides it with.

Modern corporate social responsibility policies recognise this, arguing that organisations should be forces for good in society and not act like tyrannical, Victorian-style, Scrooge-like employers who simply extract resources and don’t give anything back.

Thankfully, most organisations these days recognise the serious obligation they have to the environment and are taking measures to improve their sustainability. This article by The Guardian outlines some of the most exciting ways that companies are tackling climate change and sustainability.

2. It’s the law

Even if you don’t think that morals have a place in modern business, environmental responsibility should be one of your top concerns by virtue of the fact that it’s the law. Under UK legislation (and most other countries around the world), organisations are legally required to act as environmentally responsible as possible. Failing to adhere to the law can cost your organisation big: we’re talking fines worth tens of thousands of pounds and imprisonment.

There are a variety of environmental regulations that you’ll have to follow, including things like:

  • Emissions regulations
  • Recycling
  • Trade effluent measures
  • Hazardous waste restrictions and regulations

You can find out more about the UK’s environmental legislation and how it affects your business here.

A powerplant at night shrouded in smoke and emissions

3. It helps you better connect with your customers

Being concerned about environmental responsibility isn’t the niche topic that people like to present it as.

According to a study by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), three in four adults surveyed (74%) reported feeling ‘very or somewhat worried’ about climate change and the state of the environment. That’s a pretty significant amount of people. 

When it comes to business and the economy, findings like this are replicated. A 2020 report by McKinsey found that consumers surveyed overwhelmingly cared about the environmental impact of the products, services and organisations that they use.

And this isn’t just an outlier. There have been numerous studies and surveys over the past decade that have highlighted consumer concern about the environmental impact of the brands and products that they choose. In the 21st century, if a brand isn’t taking active steps to improve how it is perceived when it comes to environmental responsibility, you could be shedding support and failing to capitalise on the changing views of the general population. 

Making a clear and public commitment to environmental responsibility, and following this up through practical action, can help you to better understand the concerns of your customers and deepen your understanding of the market that you operate in. If done correctly, all of this can help your organisation to become more competitive, flexible and able to capitalise on new types of customers.

3. It shows that your organisation is responsible and principled

In recent years, it’s become clear that customers are becoming motivated by environmental principles and values when it comes to choosing particular brands for products and services.

A 2018 study by ConeComm, for instance, found that 66% of customers would be willing to switch brands in order to support an organisation that they felt was ethical.

In addition, a report by Accenture found that 64% of consumers surveyed said that they were attracted to businesses that showed strong ethical values and a sense of authenticity.

Whilst publicly highlighting your organisation’s commitment to environmental responsibility can help you tap into this new customer appetite, many company boards are still hesitant about taking a stand.

That’s because boards can naturally be quite risk averse when it comes to aligning an organisation with specific principles that are likely to prove controversial or provoke debate in some way, even if it’s the ethically right thing to do. Opinions that provoke debate are inherently risky when it comes to an organisation’s reputation – particularly in an age of social media where going viral for the wrong reasons is easier than ever.

Ultimately, a company board has to decide whether they are willing to take a stand on an issue that could potentially cost sales in the short term but will bolster the organisation’s reputation and customer loyalty in the long-term; or whether they consider that short term cost to be too high.

And the available evidence we have suggests that organisations having the courage to follow through on their convictions when it comes to environmental responsibility can help an organisation grow its influence, rather than hinder it.

Two female office professionals speaking seriously

4. It can save you money

Even if you’re unconvinced by the moral arguments about the need for your organisation to take environmental responsibility seriously, there’s one argument that will probably make even the most sceptical take note: environmental responsibility can save you money.

One of sustainability’s core ideas is the circular economy. This is a type of production and consumption that prioritises the recycling and regeneration of items for as long as possible, in order to reduce waste and maximise the lifespan of finite materials. It effectively aims to break the link between the economy and consuming finite materials that will run out one day. It’s similar to concepts like ‘make do and mend’ that are considered old-fashioned now but that were actually the usual way of producing and consuming items up until a few decades ago. This article by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation explains the idea in more detail, but the basic principle is that waste is bad, costs organisations money and needs to be reduced by reusing items.

Ultimately, sustainability practices like the circular economy will help to save your organisation money because it reduces dependence on finite materials that will one day run out and it enables you to get the maximum return on investment from any materials that you invest in.

Take the case of fossil fuels as a case study for instance. As the world weans itself off fossil fuels, the price of renewable types of energy will become cheaper as this type of technology becomes more widespread. Electric cars, for example, have significantly come down in price over the last few years, as the technology has become cheaper, making them increasingly accessible. In contrast, as finite resources, fossil fuels will become more expensive as time draws on, making petrol and diesel-powered cars more expensive to fuel, tax and drive.

This has widespread implications for multiple aspects of your organisation: from any company vehicles that you use through to the heating and electricity systems in your workplaces. Being one step ahead of the curve and anticipating those areas where finite resources will run out in the future is an essential skill that will help you to save money, whilst also being environmentally responsible.

5. It can improve employee retention

A commitment to environmental responsibility not only helps you win and retain customers – it can also help you win and retain talented employees.

In particular, improving your environmental responsibility policies could potentially help you to engage with one of the hardest to reach, yet strategically important, employee groups: GenZ.

With the Baby Boomer generation retiring en-masse, there is likely to be a severe labour shortage in coming years, as employers scramble to replace the talent that they’ve lost. Born between 1997 and 2012, Generation Z are the latest generation set to enter the labour market and are set to play a pivotal role in plugging these talent gaps. That’s why it’s vital that employers take steps to make their organisations places that are attractive to them.

A Deloitte3 survey cited in the Guardian found that nearly a third of respondents (28%) cited sustainability and safeguarding the environment as their top consideration when choosing an employer to work for. That figure should be a wake-up call for organisations that are currently scratching their hands about how to attract and retain a new generation of talent.

A melting iceberg in the sea

6. You can mitigate climate damage…

In 2016, the UN Environment Programme estimated that the cost of adapting to the impact of climate change would cost businesses around $280 to $500 billion every year, by 2050. That’s an awful lot of money.

By implementing sustainability policies and procedures, you’ll be able to take practical steps to mitigate the worst damages of climate change when they appear. In other words, adopting sustainability procedures and policies can help to improve the resilience and adaptability of your organisation, helping it to weather unforeseen shocks.

For example, imagine a sandwich factory that imports all of its vegetables from Central America, racking up a lot of air-miles and creating a large carbon footprint in the process. One year, a megadrought and heatwave sweeps across this area but doesn’t affect the British Isles.

The sandwich company is hit by huge disruption to their supply chain and the cost of their ingredients rockets. Without any ingredients (apart from bread) they are unable to sell their products and go bust. At the same, its competitors, who all locally source their fresh ingredients for a small extra cost, are able to continue offering their products, despite there being shortages in the supermarket and carry on as normal.

What’s the moral of this story? It’s that focusing on sustainability can really pay dividends in the future. If the sandwich company in this example took steps to reduce its carbon footprint by sourcing more ingredients closer to home, it could make its supply chain much more resilient and able to cope with unexpected shocks a lot easier.

Take responsibility for the environment today in your workplace

We hope you’ve found this blog useful and that you can apply some of what we’ve covered to your own practice, wherever you work. In an age of climate uncertainty and the transition to a net-zero society, the need to take responsibility for our actions as an organisation is more important than ever.

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