Sustainability for HR leaders: beyond compliance

4 minute watch
Sustainability has become a top agenda item for organisations globally. But many get stuck in a compliance rut, missing real opportunities for innovation and competitive edge. Dean Sanders, chief enterprise officer at Anthesis, tells Siân Harrington how HR leaders can move their organisations from box–ticking to transformational and profitable sustainability

We’re at a pivotal "reality of now" moment, says Dean Sanders, chief enterprise officer at ESG consultancy Anthesis. The data shows shocking resource depletion and climate impacts. But there’s still time to act if leaders can shift mindsets and strategy.

In our latest Work’s Not Working… Let’s Fix It! podcast, Sanders charts a path beyond greenwashing to genuine sustainable performance. HR directors play a critical role in making sustainability a strategic advantage for their organisations, he says. But, as he says in our short video above, they need to move from a compliance mindset.

“Your attitude, your appetite, your energy and your ambition as you go into sustainability predetermine your outcome,” he says. “Go in with a box ticking agenda, come out with a whole bunch of boxes that have been ticked. Go in with a big thinking, visionary, strategic leading ambition – and you will perform.”

From sustainability to sustainable performance

Sanders draws an important distinction between sustainability and sustainable performance. Too often sustainability descends into a checklist of metrics to comply with regulations and customer demands. This reactive approach squanders resources and misses the bigger picture.

Sustainable performance views sustainability through a strategic lens, as a driver of innovation, growth and competitive edge. It's not about survival and compliance but seizing opportunities for the organisation's sustained success. This reframed approach requires HR leaders to fully integrate sustainability into talent management, culture and leadership development.

The 'reality of now' calls for decisive action

Stark data shows the scale of today's sustainability threats – from freshwater depletion to deforestation. As Sanders says, this generation has the facts and remains in position to avoid the worst climate scenarios. But it will take resolute commitment from business leaders.

HR has a vital role here in aligning company purpose with sustainability goals. This starts by auditing and evolving company values, recruiting leaders who exemplify qualities like entrepreneurship and social purpose, and galvanising all employees around urgent shared objectives.

From compliance boxes to transformational leadership

Too many managers view sustainability as just another box to tick, a burdensome new reporting requirement. But forward–thinking leaders see sustainability as a chance to transform strategies, operations and even business models. Again, HR is central to nurturing this entrepreneurial leadership approach.

As Sanders explains, compliance delivers survival at best. But organisations discovering new opportunities within sustainability initiatives outperform the rest. This requires tapping purpose, passion and commercial acumen at the same time.

Attracting talent who care about purpose

Today's talent – especially younger workers – increasingly screen employers based on their sustainability credentials and sense of purpose. This is a key opportunity where early adoption of meaningful sustainability initiatives delivers a hiring edge.

HR leaders should foreground sustainability programmes that resonate with top talent, such as ethical supply chains, regenerative agriculture, renewable energy and innovative circular products. Sanders cites his company Anthesis, a certified B Corporation, as an example, where new joiners are inspired by positive social and environmental impacts.

Holistic approaches to drive sustainable performance

Sanders praises coffee machine company Nespresso's long–term work to secure high–quality coffee supplies through major investments in regenerative agriculture, agroforestry and sustainable farming practices. This approach shows how reimagining the entire value chain is key to embedding sustainability and driving performance.

Again, HR plays a central role in connecting sustainability with core business functions from research to operations and marketing. For true integration HR leaders need a seat at the table to help synchronise commercial and sustainability strategies across the organisation.

From compliance officer to chief purpose officer

With sustainability now a C–suite issue, HR has an opportunity to evolve from a narrow compliance role to a more transformational leadership position. Sanders sees a new wave of hybrid roles such as chief purpose officer and chief impact officer, fusing commercial and sustainability goals through a focus on purpose.

This represents a total recalibration and expansion of HR's potential strategic influence – moving from box–ticking and reporting to driving competitive breakthroughs.

The urgency of sustainability issues calls for a pivot from compliance to performance, from survival mode to seizing opportunities. As Sanders emphasises, this is a time for radical innovation, not incremental change. HR leaders have an obligation to foster the leadership mindsets, organisational culture and human capabilities to lead on sustainability – and gain a competitive edge.

About Dean Sanders

Dean is chief enterprise officer at global sustainability consultancy group Anthesis and  founder and chairman of GoodBrand, a corporate social innovation consultancy. He believes imagination and courage and a commitment to serve the common good are the hallmarks of the wise leaders of the future. Prior to establishing GoodBrand Dean held a number of international marketing and sales positions at Kraft Foods. He is an Honorary Fellow at Durham University Business School. He is co-author of The Adventure of Sustainable Performance, Beyond ESG Compliance to Leadership in the New Era with founder of Anthesis, Stuart McLachlan.

Listen to our podcast with Dean to discover more on moving from ESG compliance to sustainable performance. And sign up to our fortnightly newsletter to access downloadable transcripts of this – and our other – video interviews, as well as updates that don’t appear on this website

Published 27 September 2023
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