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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Sept/Oct 2002 : Corporate Acts

Corporate Acts


A Critical Emphasis

Staff development, sustainability and the bottom line-the human approach to progress.

By Shawn Fitzgibbons

The past decade has seen increased discussion of sustainable business and “corporate social responsibility” (CSR). Still the discussion has, for the time being, outpaced the solution to business-relevant environmental problems. Progress made thus far has been through gradual steps by business, civil society and citizens working together toward a common goal of a profitable, sustainable economic system in a healthy environment.

This article presents one more opportunity for businesses to achieve profitability through sustainability. It focuses not on technology, but rather on the people who manage risk, spark innovation and solve problems.


Sustainability in the HR Department
The worldwide conversation on sustainable business has, for the most part, focused on the physical side of product life cycles. The people who conceive and implement sustainable strategies do not get as much attention.

For a company seeking industry leadership and enhanced profitability through CSR strategies, it is critical that increased emphasis be placed on the development of an energetic, innovative and dedicated staff. Human resource programs that educate, train, energize and inspire staff can be as critical as the impact-reducing physical systems they enable. Doing so will create a staff that is firmly committed to both their employer’s bottom line and its social and environmental goals.

Furthermore, as a business tool for sustainability, human resource programs should be sustainable in and of themselves, both for the sake of environmental protection and for the propagation of staff ingenuity and innovation. Otherwise, they self-contradict—i.e., teaching, but not practicing, sustainability.


Combining HR and CSR Goals
Mitsubishi International Corp. (MIC) has worked with Earthwatch Institute for several years, annually selecting and sponsoring employees to grow personally and professionally by acting as field assistants on research expeditions. Recently, MIC staff members have worked in Kenya with researchers studying medicinal plants, in Washington state helping scientists understand captive chimpanzee behavior, in Costa Rica helping preserve leatherback sea turtle populations, to name only a few.

By giving staff members the opportunity to support science related to its business, MIC has also given its staff an understanding of the environmental issues that affect their work—arguably a key risk-management tool. In addition, the program provides participants with valuable cross-cultural, team building, leadership and communication skills that are difficult to come by in an office setting.

Most importantly, MIC gives its staff the opportunity to make a direct and meaningful contribution to society. For an overwhelming majority of participants, this makes the experience tremendously positive. MIC has fostered a corporate culture of inspiration and innovation, and at the same time actively protected the environment through the promotion of scientific understanding.


Bottom Line Benefit

CSR programs must benefit the financial bottom line. Be it directly through increased sales, or indirectly through risk management, value addition or staff development aspects, the program must be profitable. If not, managers will quickly—and correctly—chop money-loosing initiatives from the agenda. CSR-focused human resource programs are not, and should not be, an exception.

Like many social and environmental business programs, the need to demonstrate financial value is often a sticking point. It can be difficult to establish a definitive link between profit and CSR initiatives. However, the recruitment and retention of a well-educated, inspired and innovative staff does have a proven link to profit. Therefore, a HR program that creates this type of work environment and has an effective CSR focus can add significant value to the company and its shareowners.

If business and civil society are to successfully collaborate and develop practical sustainable business strategies, then people must be prioritized. The provision of an innovative and inspirational work environment makes good business sense. Regardless of whether you look from a financial, human resource or sustainability standpoint, a positive work environment is something a company must have if it is interested in providing long-term value to its shareowners. In so doing, the people of the business world will be empowered, inspired and effective agents of long-term profitability through sustainability.

Shawn Fitzgibbons is the director of corporate programs at Earthwatch Institute. To learn more about staff development, sustainability and the bottom line, contact Fitzgibbons at
978-450-1252 or sfitzgibbons@earthwatch.org.

 


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