Sustainability and the fight for future talent

Kathleen Enright Global Managing Director


12th July 2023

In May, the UN Secretary General António Guterres addressed thousands of graduates at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, telling them not to take up careers with “climate wreckers” – companies that drive the extraction of fossil fuels.

“You hold the cards,” he said. “Your talent is in demand from multinational companies and big financial institutions. You will have plenty of opportunities to choose from… use your talents to drive us towards a renewable future.”

Beyond sustainability-led employer branding

Guterres is absolutely right. Graduates do hold the cards and, when it comes to choosing who they want to work for, this current and future workforce are increasingly being driven by their beliefs and ethics.

‘The Great Resignation’, which saw thousands of people quit their jobs in search of something more meaningful or aligned to their lifestyle, signalled a significant shift in the power dynamics of the workplace towards employees. It’s a shift that is likely to continue and needs to be recognised and responded to by employers.

That’s why it is essential that all companies shift from seeing and communicating about their sustainability strategy on its own and instead focus on how to embed their sustainability strategy deep within their business. That means questioning what walking the talk looks like across every aspect of business. It means being able to demonstrate how the sustainability strategy helps deliver the business strategy.

This is a talent pool who are fearful for their future and wise on climate – they will not be duped by beautiful taglines and promises.

To think in terms of sustainability-led employer branding would be to miss the point – companies need to be looking at the multiple proof points that will demonstrate that they are behaving as a sustainable business and making progress against planetary and societal commitments. This is the real key to attracting top talent.

Failure to secure this top talent creates a human capital void that will put the business at a serious disadvantage. Without the talent to deliver on the sustainable challenges of the future, businesses will be hamstrung by ‘business as usual’.

Sustainability and people strategies

Despite this, companies are still not doing enough to align their sustainability and business strategies in a way that permeates all areas of business and emerges as a compelling and credible employer.

As part of their ProgressPoint analysis of 20 global companies, Salterbaxter sought to understand how progressive companies are with their employee communications. For future talent acquisition, they looked at the degree to which sustainability was being integrated into communications on the careers section of company websites. And going beyond awareness raising, the degree to which the sustainability strategy is communicated to employees in a way that allows them to make decisions differently. Less awareness, more empowerment is good business.

They also looked at whether a company is improving its human capital strategies to help it manage risks or leverage opportunities related to its most material sustainability topics or themes. Finally, they checked to see whether a company provides leaders or future leaders with opportunities to immerse themselves in real-world sustainability challenges and solutions as a part of their training and development.

They found that all of the 20 leading companies analysed scored average or poorly, either in terms of how strongly they were positioning sustainability in their employee value proposition communications or in their human capital and employee development strategies. These are companies that are already setting ambitious and forward-looking sustainability strategies – ones that are projecting themselves into a different future. But they are not doing the same when it comes to talent.

A sustainable education

If employers are in any doubt how seriously graduates are taking the issue of sustainability and how intrinsic they see it to their future careers they have only to look at the graduation ceremony of the prestigious AgroParisTech in Paris this year. A cohort of agricultural engineering graduates handed back their diplomas in protest about the lack of a serious sustainability focus to the course they had taken.

“We don’t want to pretend to be proud and deserving of a diploma for studies that have pushed us to take part in social and ecological devastation," said one graduate. "We don’t see ourselves as 'talent' working for a sustainable planet… We see that agribusiness is waging a war on the living world and against farmers everywhere on earth."

We need the entire ecosystem of education and workplace onboarding to evolve to meet the expectations of the next generation of talent. Currently the two are failing.

New talent for a new world

We need to do much more to engage people in sustainability earlier in the education system, particularly so that we can engage with people from diverse backgrounds.

Sustainability continues to be one of the least diverse professions – with under 3% diversity levels, second only to farming in the UK. Beyond the inherent problems of inclusion and representation, it also means that there is a risk that the strategies we define and set in motion now will carry inherent bias that will ultimately create more imbalance.

We also need to open out the sustainability profession to people from many different backgrounds and educations – be it marine biology, sociology, politics, and more – not simply the ubiquitous sustainability courses. We need to be hiring people from many different walks of life, particularly the people who are not afraid to ask big questions. Sustainability is as much a mindset as it is a skillset – we need a recruitment process that values and seeks out the candidates who will continue to challenge in the face of adversity and who will remain grounded in progress when the scale of the climate challenge feels enormous. This is not something that a sustainability degree teaches.

As the ProgressPoint research suggests, companies today should spend time not only focusing on how they will meet their goals and targets but on who will get them there. We need to be considering the implications at a worker and skills level of a net-zero journey and destination – what does a net-zero company look like, who is needed to run it and where is there space for new skills, new roles and innovation? Companies that aren’t future proofing their skills base risk a strained workforce in the future. Our advice is to act now as both the risks and the rewards are great.