HomeFuture of WorkBusiness TransformationESG and social responsibility: The power to drive positive change

ESG and social responsibility: The power to drive positive change

  • 6 Min Read

What can we learn from our approach to the environment in thinking about our social impact and the long- and short-term ways in which we support people inside and outside our organizations to thrive and be economically productive.

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When the personnel profession became known as ‘Human Resources’, a lot of people reacted to the idea that people were simply “resources”. But as our focus in business turns quite rightly to sustainability and our environmental impact, we talk more about the need to protect and look after the natural resources that we rely on. Is this an opportunity to reframe how we interact with our people, our human resources, and to apply to them the same kind of joined-up, sustainable thinking that we are taking to the environment?

The environmental parallel

Working for a water and wastewater company in the United Kingdom, I know just how important it is to get our performance right and how businesses should be criticized for not doing enough about our environmental impact. But it seems that we’d be held accountable if we slip on the environmental elements (and quite rightly so) but if we don’t deliver on driving positive social impact, who challenges us and holds us to account?

We are all pretty familiar with ESG (Environment, Social, Governance), the much talked about credentials of a well-run and organized business. But the E and the G are much further developed through the connection of targets and regulation and legislation. Most organizations will openly talk about their carbon impact, their sustainable footprint, and their strong corporate governance and associated processes.

But when it comes to the S, the social impact a business has responsibility for, the focus rarely goes beyond internal diversity and inclusion, or our volunteering or community work. And if we’re honest, is that really enough? Do we assess, measure and develop strategies for our broader social impact in the same way we look at the environment?

What does social impact look like?

Businesses now have the means and desire to do more and help their communities and society. To do it properly, and to develop a true plan for social change, but to do so we need to take the same approach we take to our environmental challenges and apply that to the communities within which we operate. We need to think targets and long-term commitments. Where we make sure we’re using green operating methods, minimizing environmental impact and targets to reduce our carbon footprint. This exact same logic should be applied to our societal plans and how we can make a positive, and genuine impact.

Retraining is essentially recycling

As an organization, we do everything we can to avoid laying people off and instead look to retrain and redeploy them. As the skills that we need as an organization change, that should be at the detriment of our people. We invested and built a state-of-the-art training academy so we could make sure that anyone who was willing to change and flex and wanted a job for life could have one.

We shouldn’t be expecting the state or government to step in and deal with the social challenges of our changing business requirements, in the same way that we wouldn’t expect them to deal with our carbon emissions. As personal lives change, people want to alter the responsibilities they have at work, to take on more or take on less, we want to support them to be able to do so and remain economically active and productive for their benefit, that of their family and community and of course, ourselves.

Playing a positive role in society

Our impact shouldn’t stop at our front door. Last year, we launched a ten-year program to support 100,000 people across the Midlands (where we operate) out of poverty, using employability skill training and work experience to create more learning and opportunities for people who otherwise may not have access to them.

We’ve set out ambitious plans to work with some of our most challenged and deprived communities, to help them to make their lives better, not just now but in the long term. Of course, we can’t employ all 100,000 people, so this plan will benefit by other businesses and organizations as we develop the skills in our region. But it will be the community and those living in them that will benefit, and that’s what’s important. It contributes towards a thriving economy, thriving communities and a thriving society.

What is most important is the fact it is long term, it’s based on delivering measurable outcomes and it’s working collaboratively with others, like government, charities, and other organizations, who like

Severn Trent, see the importance in delivering positive social change. And whilst of course, there may be some benefit in a few people joining our company, the investment into the people living in our region will far outweigh the direct return. Why? Because it’s simply the right thing to do.

It is time to walk the walk

As leaders we are caretakers of our business, if we lead them well, they will be there long after we have moved on. We need to use our period in charge to use our influence, power and resources to create positive change in the world around us on every level. It has to be more than just a statement. It isn’t “purpose washing”. It needs to come with a clear commitment behind it. If more and more businesses apply the same logic that we are applying, the impact will be vast, and we can create a fundamental change in society.

We now need to be seen to walk the walk rather than be all talk.


Neil Morrison, Bsc (Hons), Chartered FCIPD, FRSA, Director of Human Resources. Neil joined Severn Trent in August 2017 as Director of Human Resources and has responsibility for the HR as well as the internal and external communications teams.  Neil started a career in HR management in 1996 and has worked across a range of different sectors and FTSE 100 companies, including Rentokil Initial and GUS (which latterly became Home Retail Group). Neil also plays an active role as a Board member of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education.

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