When Beringer Vineyards, the oldest continuously operating winery in California's Napa Valley, applied for sustainability certification, vineyard manager Drew Johnson was prepared to provide information about the vineyard's extensive environmental practices. But when he finished detailing his careful stewardship of the land and streams, he had barely made a dent in the application.
"Most of the questions were for HR," Johnson recalls of the application he filed in 2011. "There was a chapter in the questionnaire on how we treat employees and another chapter on community relations. They wanted to know about pay and benefits and even about how we lead our grape pickers in stretching and calisthenics before they start to work."
What Johnson learned that day, and what companies across the nation are learning, is that sustainability isn't just about the environment. The term "sustainability" has taken on a new, broader meaning. And in business it has become a concept that denotes a holistic view of how the company treats the earth and its inhabitants—particularly employees, stakeholders and customers.
Steve Lederer, director of environmental management at the County of Napa, whose Green Certified Winery Program certified Beringer Vineyards as sustainable, says HR has been part of the sustainability game for the past several years. He has worked with sustainable businesses for a decade and has seen HR's role grow from simply stating, "We recycle," to playing an active role in building an engaged corporate culture around sustainability efforts.
"I've seen a lot of organizations that take sustainability beyond the environmental and include social aspects," Lederer says. "How they relate with their community and diversity are sustainability issues that HR gets involved in. Is there proper diverse representation on corporate boards, for example, and are they hiring in a sustainable fashion by looking at diversity issues and fairness issues in the community? Those are some of the broader issues that HR really has to be involved in if sustainability is going to work."
At Kimberly-Clark Corp., the Irving, Texas-based international paper products corporation, the tagline "People, Planet, Products" was adopted for its Sustainability 2015 program. In addition to showing respect for the earth's finite natural resources, the company takes care of its employees through programs such as diversity and inclusion and performance management while encouraging them to become involved in their communities through volunteerism and charitable giving.
"Our commitment to sustainability goes beyond 'going green,' " says Liz Gottung, Kimberly-Clark's chief human resources officer. "It includes strategies that support our people and communities. Our sustainability efforts are a big part of our philosophy to make a difference every day and improve the communities in which we work. "
Several studies reveal that sustainability's broader meaning is widely embraced in the business world. In a 2011 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management of 728 HR professionals, 47 percent reported a positive return on investment from their company's sustainability programs; 46 percent said it was too early to tell; and 6 percent said it was break even. No one reported negative results.
The top five outcomes from sustainability initiatives listed in the report were improved employee morale, more efficient business processes, a stronger public image, increased employee loyalty and increased brand recognition.
For a joint report on corporate sustainability that was published in 2011, KPMG International's Climate Change & Sustainability Services and the Economist Intelligent Unit surveyed 378 senior executives in a range of industries worldwide. Of those executives 48 percent said that implementing sustainability cut costs and improved profitability.
The report went on to state that sustainability was a source of innovation and new growth for many companies and that engaging the entire workforce in such initiatives, while raising morale, was a source of new ideas and approaches.
In Napa, Lederer says another winemaker whose operation he had certified offered his definition of sustainable. The winemaker claimed that since he introduced sustainable HR practices, which included better health care and perks like an employees' community garden, the taste of the wine had improved.
His conclusion? Happy people make good wine.
Susan G. Hauser is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.