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World Environment Day 2023: Our look at employer initiatives relating to the environment

31 May 2023

It is World Environment Day on 5 June 2023, and the focus this year is on solutions to plastic pollution, under the campaign #BeatPlasticPollution. Many employers will be aware of the campaign and may be looking at their own internal green initiatives.

Employers who can demonstrate meaningful sustainability initiatives may have an advantage in attracting and retaining talent in the current highly competitive recruitment market. Customers and clients are also considering environmental impact when deciding which companies to support with their business. Prospective clients and investors are more likely than ever before to ask for details around an organisation’s environmental impact and policies as part of a procurement process or when deciding where to invest their money.

So, what initiatives can employers put in place that relate to the environment? We have detailed our top ten suggested initiatives below so keep reading for inspiration.

1. Using your workplace space as sustainably as possible

One of the most obvious places for employers to start is the workplace itself. Promoting recycling, encouraging energy-saving practices and making more sustainable choices (e.g. swapping to plastic-free milk bottles or providing reusable cups and cutlery in the kitchen or canteen) may seem like obvious initiatives, but they make a big impact. If it is possible, you could consider obtaining your power from renewable sources or looking at your supply chain to see where you might be able to switch to greener providers.

2. Employment contracts

You might also consider your employment contracts and policies. There is no legal reason to always print out hard copies of employment contracts and offer letters. Although a contract must be formally accepted by an employee, in most cases an electronic signature will be sufficient and a wet ink signature is not necessary. Steps such as these can help to reduce paper waste in your organisation.

In the employment contract itself, consider adding certain green clauses. For example, you could include sustainability as a leadership duty in your senior executive agreements, as part of general governance duties. You could also make your garden leave clause require employees to spend a portion of garden leave contributing to sustainability projects (provided such projects were reasonable in the circumstances, within the employee’s skillset and could be done within the employee’s usual working hours). Consideration could also be given to how company property is handled on termination to ensure that items are reused or recycled whenever possible and you could require confidential paperwork to be shredded and recycled, rather than simply “destroyed”.

The Chancery Lane Project has a number of climate-aligned clauses that can be used in employment contracts.

3. Green employee benefits

Offering employee benefits that promote sustainability is another great initiative e.g. cycle-to-work schemes and electric and hybrid vehicle schemes. The latter also potentially benefit from lower insurance rates and parking fees. Providing employees with the relevant facilities for these initiatives (e.g. bike storage and showering facilities or electric charging stations) can encourage uptake. The schemes can also be tax efficient, as well as appealing to employees who are personally keen to play a part in tackling the climate crisis.

Additional leave for the purpose of volunteering on environmental projects or if choosing green travel options when going on holiday is another option to encourage employees to make sustainable choices.

Providing allowances for employees to purchase sustainable clothing is another idea which is rising in popularity, as people become more conscious of the detrimental impact of the fast fashion industry.

4. Use of ethical pensions

An initiative which is low cost for employers is encouraging ethical pension plans which use funds that filter out companies that do not meet certain ESG criteria or choose funds that support the environment, such as renewable energy companies. ESG pension funds tend to review companies’ use of resources, waste management, human rights record and corporate behaviour and will only invest in those that score highly in these areas.

5. Training for staff

Training staff on environmental issues and the climate emergency is another relatively low-cost option. It might be that employees want to make more sustainable choices but they don’t have the necessary information; it can sometimes be hard to know what the ‘greener’ choice is. Providing training to employees puts your sustainability agenda at the forefront of employees’ minds and embeds sustainability in your organisation’s culture. Training could be followed up by weekly or monthly sustainability newsletters which contain the latest environmental news, inform employees of the organisation’s latest environmental initiatives and give employees sustainability tips. This may also support employees feeling ‘climate anxiety’ (the sense of fear, worry or tension linked to climate change).

6. Introducing green challenges and sustainability champions

Following on from training and communications to employees relating to environment issues you could consider introducing ‘green challenges’ or ‘sustainability challenges’ for your employees. This could be headed up by an appointed sustainability champion within your organisation, who will act as the point of contact for sustainability-related queries and will champion green initiatives. Staff could be incentivised with a prize for the ‘greenest employee’ winner each month or quarter.

7. Policies on company property

Reviewing policies on company property may help employers reduce their carbon footprint. For example, when your company does a company-wide upgrade on technology or office furniture, what happens to old equipment? Are these disposed of in an environmentally friendly way? Is there a more sustainable option than simply scrapping this property, for example, donating items to charity? An increasing number of companies are also looking at remanufacturing electronics, which allows them to avoid manufacturing a brand-new device without compromising on the performance and endurance of their technology.

8. Policies on company travel

Employers could consider updating their company policies on business travel. Employees tend to respond well to incentives such as rewarding or requiring sustainable choices like slower or greener travel and potentially setting carbon travel budgets. The first step will be to investigate your organisation’s current carbon footprint caused by business travel and analyse the biggest contributors to that. Then you can make informed changes to your policies in light of your business needs and activities.

Employers could make strategic decisions about international recruitment by taking advantage of overseas locations or established presences and having local workers work in those locations. This would have the added benefit of avoiding mobility costs associated with work visas and international travel.

9. Whistleblowing policies

As employees become more aware of the climate emergency, the number of employees ‘blowing the whistle’ on their employer’s environmentally unfriendly practices is likely to increase in future years. The law on whistleblowing in the UK gives strong protections to those voicing environmental concerns at work. Employers could consider expanding their whistleblowing policies and reviewing their whistleblowing channels to encourage employees to raise these serious concerns. For more information on climate-related whistleblowing, read our article here.

10. Carbon offsetting

Carbon offsetting involves reducing or removing carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere in order to counter the emissions made elsewhere. For businesses, this may involve paying other entities to reduce the carbon emissions that the business cannot currently reduce itself. The company may then count those emission reductions towards their own climate targets. Although reducing their own emissions should always be the main target for businesses, carbon offsetting is a good initiative to supplement that process.

Employees are increasingly concerned about the environment and many wish to partner with employers in making the business more environmentally friendly. World Environment Day is a good time to think about next steps on this journey.

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