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Seven Links Between HR and Advanced Environmental Performance

Weak corporate cultures and inefficient management of human resources put firms at a disadvantage with environmental performance.

Your manufacturing firm is trying to reduce its environmental impact — but by focusing too much on control, you might be going the wrong way about it.

Reactive Vs. Proactive Environmental Management

Manufacturing companies can use two approaches to reduce their environmental impact:

  • control, managing emissions or effluents once released, or

  • prevention, implementing new technologies, products, or processes that reduce the level of emissions or effluents produced.

Researchers Jesús Ángel del Brío, Beatriz Junquera and Mónica Ordiz (all of Spain’s Universidad de Oviedo) explored how organizational culture and human resources relate to a firm’s ability to implement environmental practices. They conducted eight case studies on ISO 14001 certified medium and large factories across different sectors (e.g. construction, hardware, pharmacy, foodstuffs). Based on these cases, several relationships were proposed for future testing.

The authors interviewed both the environmental manager and HR manager in each company, and supplemented their transcripts with business documents. Companies were then sorted by increasing environmental performance. The lowest-performing companies focused mainly on compliance via control approaches. The highest performing companies aimed to be environmental leaders and to improve products and processes. They regularly communicated these goals and successes to stakeholders.

Seven Secrets of Environmentally Performing Firms

The results suggest a number of links between HR and environmental performance. In particular, firms with better environmental performance may have:

  • Younger employees or less unionization. Older or highly unionized employees may be more resistant to change.

  • More involvement and support at the managerial level.

  • Transformational leadership at the highest levels. The best-performing company had personalized environmental agendas for employees.

  • Flexible HR policies, which foster employee satisfaction.

  • A dedicated environmental unit — ideally, with a privileged position within their organization.

  • Greater employee involvement, communication, and cross-functional collaborationrelating to environmental programs. The best-performing companies used several communications vehicles including screens, magazines, videos, PDAs, posters, interactive software, e-mail, and the intranet.

  • Specific rewards to incentivize ideas or behaviours. These included awards of money or recognition, for both individuals and groups, and for driving one-offs or helping to achieve annual objectives.

Prevention Approaches and Committed Staff: Key to Sustainable Management

If your firm is solely relying on control approaches, you may find they are costly and inefficient — and usually undertaken only to comply with regulation. Prevention approaches often result in innovation and efficiencies, but are complex and require coordination to implement. The more advanced — and potentially profitable — prevention approaches may have a strategic component, requiring support from the top and commitment from employees. If your business has a weak culture or inefficient management of human resources, it will be at a disadvantage when it comes to environmental performance.

But, research in this area is just beginning. A key role for future research will be to test these propositions across a range of situations to understand the circumstances and mechanisms through which they occur.

Ángel del Brío, J., Junquera, B., and Ordiz, M. 2008. “Human Resources in Advanced Environmental Approaches-A Case Analysis.” International Journal of Production Research. 46.21: 6029-6053.

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  • Pam Laughland

    Pam Laughland was Managing Director at the Network for Business Sustainability from 2011 to 2017, and previously was the organization's Knowledge Manager. Prior to joining NBS, Pamela held research positions at the Richard Ivey School of Business, Statistics Canada, and the University of Guelph. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Ivey Business Journal and the International Journal of Biotechnology. She holds an MSc in Resource Economics from the University of Guelph.

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