Sustainability: A multi-layered human interest story
Sustainability: A multi-layered human interest story
24 JULY 2019 7:53 AM

With all of the talk about sustainability in the hotel industry, not enough is said about the people involved behind the scenes and what it takes to get them on board.

At present, business podcasts, industry articles and news bulletins are all about “sustainability.” That the topic has established itself as a regular headline 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 eliminate 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 organized events, tours and other types of explorations all have a considerable, often negative, socio-economic and environmental impact.

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 that are attracting, retaining and helping to groom the future leaders of the industry. Thus, it is HR that should have tremendous “clout” over where an organization is heading and how sustainably it operates.

It is also the HR executives who spearhead alignment between business goals and an organization’s people strategy and who support leaders and managers alike in implementing change management processes geared towards driving sustainability.

Rather than the “what,” accept that it is the “how” and “who” that is behind the success or failure of any endeavor.

One key initiative is aimed at overcoming the “dark side” of tourism employment so the front-line staff’s basic needs are met and staff can shift their attention to sustainability matters. HR departments around the globe should be busy empowering front-line and back-of-house staff to move up the ranks, creating equal career opportunities and strengthening vocational and academic education so that employees are able to move out of a low-pay environment characterized by long working hours and at times high levels of stress (being the first line of defense to tackle customer issues head-on).

Organizations must also spearhead an organizational and cultural mind shift so that sustainability becomes front of mind across all levels. It cannot be denied that any successful sustainability campaign is based, and depends, on awareness, knowledge, training and skill—all hallmarks promoted and sustained by the human resources department. The HR and talent function within an organization is tasked with fostering continued learning as well as a work environment in which innovative thinking is encouraged that is geared toward improving one’s socio, economic and environmental footprint. Putting sustainability front and center of personal development plans, and individual performance reviews should, for example, not be questioned but be expected.

A check-and-balance approach to empowerment is important, as it is within human nature to operate on a “reward-basis.” 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 recognizes that sustainability works best when driven from the bottom up (by individuals), rather than from the top down (by executives). By empowering staff and making them accountable, HR executives provide a crucial link between hypothetical sustainability targets and actual outcomes.

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 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 organizations to assume a more holistic catalyst of change function, tasked to break bad habits and changing behavior at an individual and company level.

Thomas Mielke is a founding partner and managing director of the London office of AETHOS Consulting Group. He is an AESC certified executive search consultant and has an extensive track record in senior level appointments at leading hospitality organizations across the globe, particularly in the EMEA region with a focus in the lodging, restaurant, food service real estate, cruise and tourism sectors. He can be reached at

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