Putting People at the Heart of the Sustainability Transformation

Sustainability is top of mind for many people these days – and for good reason. The challenge is that many still most often associate it with environmental responsibility alone. But sustainability is multi-facetted and extends to social considerations, as well as good economic management and corporate governance. Unfortunately, the respect for the rights and needs of people seems to have ended up as a side note in a discourse centred on decarbonization.

It’s time to fundamentally rethink our decision-making, product and process design as leaders and put people squarely at the heart of the sustainability transformation. To ensure a just transition in every respect, we need a humanity-centred lens to sustainability.

This article is authored by Karin Reiter, SVP Sustainability & ESG at the Adecco Group.

Focus on people

Employees are not merely stakeholders of a business – they are the business. They are not a cost, but an asset, and merit being treated as such. A recent survey by Gartner revealed that workforce-related issues are indeed increasingly moving up the list of priorities for businesses. In fact, these issues are now a higher priority than financial issues such as cash flow and profitability, and corporate initiatives such as M&A and restructuring. The ‘Great Resignation’ has already given us a glimpse into the potential risks to businesses that do not heed the call for a stronger focus on workforce wellbeing, diversity, equity and inclusion, decent working conditions, and fair pay, among others.

This focus on the workforce is reflected by consumers, too. PWC research reveals that the way a company treats its workforce has just as much impact on building consumer trust as price, quality and service.

But the responsibility does not end at the business gates. Companies need to be more aware and more considerate of the ramifications of their actions on people in the past, present, and future. It's time to be more deliberate in the design, development and implementation of processes, products, and services, and their impacts on people – regardless of whether they are employed by a business, its clients, or suppliers, or are simply affected by its activities in one way or another. It is people and their needs that should be at the core of planning, thinking, and doing – and not the benefits to the institution alone.

This doesn't mean that businesses can't turn over a healthy profit. But actions should be about more than just maximum efficiency. Behind every number on the balance sheet is typically a person -- someone’s livelihood. For example, artificial tax structures, while they can be good for the bottom line, can detrimentally impact the ability of communities to fund critical public services such as infrastructure, education, or health systems. The Adecco Group recently published its first tax transparency report to show how we create value through the taxes we pay and the underlying approach we take.

Marrying the S with the E

Just to be clear: human-centred does not mean human-selfish. Shining a light on the S in ESG doesn't mean we shouldn't give the E its due place at the top of the agenda. But the two should not be looked at as completely distinct from each other; becoming planet-positive must go hand in hand with becoming people-positive, towards the end goal of being humanity-positive.

Environmental responsibility by nature includes human-centric aspects: being mindful in our use of natural resources today ensures they remain available for future generations to meet their own needs. But we must go further than this. Too often climate strategies are developed without considering critical people aspects.

Many companies have committed themselves to operating net-zero or even climate-positive over the coming decades. To achieve this, they talk of the need for investments in new technologies and R&D.

However, very few connect these efforts with their human capital strategies. But without people and their skills, the green transition will not happen. Companies will thus need to build a deeper understanding and more purposefully consider what this significant transition will mean from a people perspective. What skills do they need to make this happen, what skills do they already have, and how will they bridge this gap? How do we facilitate people’s continued access to employment and employability and company’s access to talent if supply chains are being re-engineered? For example, because production hubs such as Bangladesh will increasingly be flooded or because certain jobs or industries may no longer be considered sustainable? How do we smoothen the labour market integration of refugees in the face of increased migration from highly climate-impacted areas? How do we strengthen the safety and wellbeing of workers exposed to increasingly harmful weather conditions?

Our own research shows that climate action must be labour market action. Investing in people and their skills will not only drive the transition today but make workers more adaptable and flexible in the future.

Empowering people

Systemic change at the scale that will be required can only be brought about by collective action – albeit harder to come by in the increasingly polarized world we live in today. But it takes a myriad of diverse perspectives and experiences to create sustainable solutions.

This is exactly why sustainability cannot be a department, a job title, a report or a tick-box exercise. It is not a one-off effort. And it requires concerted action across all industries and sectors, from meaningful policymaking to strategic corporate action to individual behaviour change – for the benefit of all. We can’t just think in organizational silos; instead, we must take an ecosystem approach covering the full value chain.

Sustainability is essentially a change-management journey. For it to be effective, it must be bought into and driven by all. But we witness what I call an ‘action readiness gap’: people understand that action needs to be taken, and most are willing to play their part, but simply don’t know how.

We thus need to make it more tangible for everyone to understand how they can contribute towards more sustainable outcomes, particularly through their day job but also beyond. Within organizations, we need to give people permission to make changes that move us towards a more sustainable future. We need to be more intentional in our actions and embed environmental, social and governance considerations into decision-making from the outset. It’s more important than ever to be aware of the connections and broader ramifications of our actions from the beginning, rather than trying to re-engineer solutions after the fact. These ideas are hardly new. Yet in the day to day, they often take second seat.

At the Adecco Group, we have the vision of a future that works for everyone. For this to happen, we indeed need everyone. And we need to significantly pick up the pace for there to still be a future.