Sustainability – A Multi-Layered Human Interest Story


As published by Hotel News Now in Summer 2019

At present, business podcasts, industry articles and news bulletins are all about ‘sustainability’. The fact that the topic has established itself as a regular head-line feature across different media outlets is very commendable; yet, conversations appear to be somewhat one-sided. We read about initiatives to ensure economic benefits trickle down to communities which are otherwise left behind, to reduce pollution levels and/or to safeguard the environment. In short, most news coverage is about ‘pre-packaged solutions’ – but jumping to solutions will never get rid of the underlying cause of a problem. Should the conversation therefore be more multi-faceted and deeper?

Hospitality, Sustainability and A Role For HR

To put things into context – the hospitality industry is widely regarded as one of the most taxing industries on the environment and local communities. The various components of the tourism supply chain, ranging from transportation (aviation, cruise, ground services et al), to lodging, food and beverage and organised events, tours and other types of explorations all have a considerable, often negative, socio-economic and environmental impact. A great many of the ‘big players’ in the sector have developed and implemented worthy codes of conduct, as well as programs and initiatives to tackle the topic of sustainability. At times, though, it feels that the very thing upon which these initiatives hinge – the people – has been forgotten.

It is thus fair to conclude that a lot more ‘airtime’ should be given to the Human Resources department. It is the HR and Talent Management departments which are attracting, retaining and (helping in) grooming the future leaders of the industry. Thus, it is them who have, or should have, tremendous ‘clout’ over where an organisation is heading and how sustainably it operates. It is also the HR executives who spearhead alignment between business goals and an organisation’s people strategy and who support leaders and managers alike in implementing change management processes geared towards driving sustainability.

Rather than the ‘what’, one should thus accept that it is the ‘how’ and ‘who’ as it relates to implementing these suggested strategies and tactics that is behind the success or failure of any such endeavour. Some key initiatives therefore consist of:

  • Overcoming the ‘dark side’ of tourism employment so that front line staff’s basic needs are met and so that they can shift their attention to sustainability matters. In other words, only once the basic requirements as per Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are met can one reasonably expect employees to be able to commit wholeheartedly to driving sustainable change. HR departments around the globe are thus busy allowing front and back-of-house staff to move up the ranks, creating equal career opportunities for everyone and strengthening vocational and academic education so that they are able to move out of a low pay environment characterised by long working hours and at times high levels of stress (being the ‘first line of defence’ to tackle customer issues head-on).
  • Spearheading an organisational and cultural mind shift so that sustainability becomes front of mind across all levels of the organisation. In other words, one cannot deny that any successful sustainability campaign is based, and depends on, (1) awareness, (2) knowledge, (3) training and (4) skill – the role of the HR function is thus pivotal in improving one’s overall sustainability track record. The HR and talent function within an organisation is thus tasked with fostering continued learning as well as a work environment in which innovative thinking is encouraged that is geared towards improving one’s socio, economic and environmental footprint. Putting sustainability front and centre of personal development plans, and individual performance reviews should, for example, not be questioned but be expected.
  • Fostering empowerment whilst embracing a check-and-balance approach, in as much as it lies within human nature to operate on a ‘reward-basis’ – in other words, accepting that the great majority of people are driven by incentives tied to specific actions provides a compelling argument for HR departments to link personal performance to sustainability targets. This move recognises that sustainability does not work best if and when it is instructed top-down but if and when it is actually also driven bottom-up, by the individuals. By empowering staff, and making them accountable, HR executives provide a crucial link between hypothetical sustainability targets and actual outcomes as otherwise a company’s employees, managers and senior leadership will be drawn into making purely profit-driven decisions.

The point can easily be made that the success or failure of sustainability initiatives is purely incumbent upon people – in the business world, those stakeholders include the customers and the supply chain but also a company’s leadership team and a company’s workforce. A discussion around sustainability can thus not be decoupled from the human element of the story. Going forward, it would thus be encouraging to read and hear more about the interconnectedness of the workforce and sustainability. HR’s role in championing sustainability should be undisputed – but it cannot and should not only be limited to an administrative function. Instead, HR should move beyond the strategic business partner it has already become within most organisations to assume a more holistic ‘catalyst of change’ function, tasked to break bad habits and changing behaviour at an individual and company level.