Author Profile Picture

Kirsten Buck


Chief Futures Officer

Read more about Kirsten Buck

HR as a sustainability activist: Five ways to drive ‘social’ impact in ESG plans


The first article in this series on HR as a sustainability activist, explored how we, as people professionals can be conduits for lasting change by taking climate action.

Climate action in its simplest form is about addressing the environmental crisis we see, but of course sustainability has breadth beyond the care and duty to our planet.

The S in ESG

We have a duty of care to our people, and this is where the ‘social’ component of ESG is paramount. Within this framework, the ‘S’ encompasses human rights and equity – from eliminating hunger and poverty, to providing good health and wellbeing, to quality education.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals allude to why this matters and how inequalities in our communities and economic system can be reduced.

As an evolution of ‘corporate social responsibility’, the S in ESG in an organisational context relates to and examines all people interactions.

To name a few examples, in what is a fairly non-exhaustive list of social impact considerations, interactions can include:

  • Working conditions
  • Justice, equity, diversity and inclusion
  • Wellbeing
  • Community relations
  • Supply chain management
  • Shaping values and principles.

The above list of examples clearly shows that HR aligns naturally and meaningfully to much of this needed criteria.

People’s awareness around climate change is building; but conversely so is anxiety.

Where can organisations start with making a social impact?

It is important to consider how we look inwardly at what we can do, as a collective of citizens belonging to communities, to take positive social action.

1. It all starts with listening

Considering our colleagues before turning to the wider communities around us; we must listen.

This point may seem simplistic, but in a VUCA world (a term coined by Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus in the 1980s), thriving in turbulent times is a challenge in itself.

We must listen beyond the scheduled engagement surveys and performance reviews. Listening cannot wait because addressing the social aspect of sustainability is an urgency.

Consider the following:

  • How are people showing up at work: with vigour and valour, with dread and dismay, or somewhere in between?
  • Do people seem engaged, or has energy diminished?
  • Is there an imbalance requiring a wellbeing reset?
  • Is there a culture of reward and recognition?

All of these arease affect joy at work and, consequently, performance and retention. This  ripples out to how people feel and can be.

The duty of care for our people is something HR practitioners often feel innately. This is a duty worn with pride; and with more listening, we can be proactive protagonists for visible social impact.

2. Address eco-anxiety

The three components of ESG are in fact tensions. For example, if we take steps toward launching innovative new climate tech, this could positively and negatively affect employment in that geographical location. And these tensions therefore create connections and consequences for individuals.

We must be informed of the fact that people’s awareness around climate change is building; but conversely so is anxiety.

Google searches for ‘climate anxiety’ (also known as ‘eco-anxiety’) soared 565% between Oct 2020 and Dec 2021, with searches peaking in July 2022. Furthermore it is widely reported that the younger generation feel this worry more. This is a mental health issue.

How can we support our colleagues with climate anxiety, especially when the root-cause is an issue of global magnitude? One step can be evaluating our employee assistance programmes; what professional external help, but also internal support can we offer?

Increased anxiety is a by-product of this increased awareness, and does highlight the urgency in action required. To paraphrase renowned author and Chief HR Trendwatcher of the HR Trends Institute, Natal Dank, 2023 is the year when People professionals can break boundaries. What is the rationale for this? “Your organisation needs it, your people need it, your communities need it, and our planet needs it”.

3. Rethink your approach to rewards, benefits and recognition

Before moving on to positive social impact in our wider communities, another consideration for our organisation is how we recalibrate rewards, benefits and recognition.

For the more climate conscious people in our teams, we could offer carbon offsetting and donations to social initiatives as part of opt-in rewards.

We could also challenge the incumbent pension provider; moving towards a greener, and even climate positive, pension scheme. This touches lightly on using our direct influence to shape our supply chain, to the betterment of our colleagues.

Whilst being a sustainability activist, do be mindful that mutterings and even positive interjections are just background noise without any ensuing action.

4. Make a commitment to your local community

We have a responsibility to give back to local communities and also to people in other nations. Sadly as climate risks rise, funding for poorer countries declines (a key discussion to be had at COP28).

Consider the following:

  • Does the organisation I work for support charities?
  • Do individuals have the autonomy to support a charity that matters to them?
  • Do we have a commitment to use our knowledge in the local area, bettering education opportunities for underprivileged and underrepresented groups of people?

Social mobility is absolutely essential in creating more equity in our communities, and on a planet that needs us all to share resources more regeneratively, as a collective.

5. Update organisational values to align with climate-conscious ways

As a needed wraparound, we should also look to renew our organisations’ values and principles, aligning them with a growing climate-action-conscious employee.

People are demanding change for our planet. This is of course a bigger, more strategic piece of work, but it is the cornerstone of declaring how we will look beyond our own walls by cementing the why, how and now!

Whilst being a sustainability activist, do be mindful that mutterings and even positive interjections are just background noise without any ensuing action.

One final takeaway

If upon reading this, you take just one message away, look up and around at our irreplaceable planet, then the people around you, and next look inward.

Ask questions on what more you can do. Listen intently and use the insight heard to take action within your organisation.

Beyond defining initiatives that will positively impact your colleagues, look to communities and how your influence can create a chain of intentions and action that delivers unquestionable social purpose.

Interested in this topic? Read Equipping tomorrow’s leaders with ESG skills


Author Profile Picture
Kirsten Buck

Chief Futures Officer

Read more from Kirsten Buck

Get the latest from HRZone.

Subscribe to expert insights on how to create a better workplace for both your business and its people.


Thank you.

Thank you! Your subscription has been confirmed. You'll hear from us soon.
Subscribe to HRZone's newsletter