How HR Can Help Promote Sustainability: A Conversation With Sintali’s Eleni Polychroniadou

35 minutes read

By James Tehrani

We hear about climate change and sustainability a lot, but we know, as a global community, we aren’t doing enough to combat it. Still, hearing about such a dire situation over and over again can cause fatigue and a numb, helpless feeling. The message becomes almost like white noise.

That’s why Earth Day is so important. 

It offers us a day every year to not only take a moment to think about the planet and how important it is to take care of it, but also a chance to celebrate the good things people are doing around the world to try to keep the beautiful place it is for us and future generations.

Ahead of Earth Day 2022, I had the chance to catch up with one of my former colleagues, Eleni Polychroniadou, who is now the co-founder and commercial director of Sintali, a U.K.-based organization that validates the credentials of green buildings and is a global certification partner for the International Finance Corp.’s (IFC) EDGE green building program. 

We discussed how human resources can help us build a more sustainable world. After our conversation, Polychoniadou told me: “I haven’t thought about the role of HR and sustainability before, but it was actually quite an interesting exercise for me.”

Interesting, indeed!

Glossary Terms

ESG: ESG is an initialism for environmental (carbon footprint, etc.), social (how companies take care of their employees) and governance (how companies adhere to regulations, etc.). Investors look at a company’s performance in those three areas to help determine the nonfinancial value of an organization. 

Green Tariff: A green tariff allows eligible customers to source up to 100% of their electricity from renewable resources.

IPCC Report: 
The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released its latest report on the state of climate change. It also offers its recommendations on how we can meet the Paris Agreement goals to combat climate change, which were agreed upon by 196 countries in 2015 and were enacted in 2016.

Net Zero: How organizations are able to counteract their carbon emissions by finding ways to eliminate emissions. In essence, these organizations are trying to subtract emissions in certain areas so that overall the emissions they are creating are balanced out. More than 600 large global organizations have pledged to achieve net zero by 2050. 

Scope 3: In the world of sustainability, there are three scopes. Scope 1 covers direct emissions from owned or controlled sources. Scope 2 covers indirect emissions, such as electricity and steam usage. Scope 3 covers all other emissions from the value chain. Think fuel used to fly airplanes, etc.


The following transcript was edited for length, clarity and style.

EPAY: Where did your interest in sustainability come from? 

Polychroniadou: Oh, it’s been a while. [Laughs] I got a degree in environmental policy, and have been in the field for the last seven-plus years working, trying to figure out how to make the biggest impact. I think I’ve always had a drive to help people, and the lens of the environment helped me focus my passion. The change in climate is going to impact everything that we know from food to migration to vulnerable populations  to changes in the way that we live. 

EPAY: I found something that said that, to combat climate change, we need ‘action,’ ‘urgency,’ ‘doing’ and ‘scale.’ I’m curious what your ideas would be for how human resources can help in those areas.

Polychroniadou: So I think there’s a few things. So, you know, we’ve typically seen sustainability sit in a sustainability department. And that’s been maybe the worst thing that we could have done because it’s just become a separation, and it’s a thing, a checkbox exercise. But actually, sustainability and climate has to be integrated everywhere in the organization. So I’m talking all the way from the finance department and the CFO through to HR, through to every single employee regardless of their job. So I think HR has quite a unique role to play in a few things. 

One is thinking about how you can make every job a ‘climate’ job, even if it’s not a sustainability role. And that’s the education component. It’s empowering employees, the employee engagement, thinking about how HR can really set programs in place that give people the information of what they can do and how they can support the company’s broader sustainability commitments. How they can give, you know, information and make sustainability accessible, because that’s definitely one of the things that we face as a challenge in the industry, is that we’ve made sustainability super complicated. 

The second one, I think, on the HR side is thinking about the policies, right? So how are the policies and the governance being set in the organization to make sure that when decisions are being made, whoever, again, is making that decision, they have the information they need, the guidance they need to be able to make the best choices possible? 

EPAY: Say you were working in HR for a day and you were onboarding a new employee, how would you tackle sustainability from the get-go?

Polychroniadou: So I do wear an HR hat. I do think about this. But I’ve also talked to some friends who enter big consultancies and, actually, they had sustainability be a very big part of their onboarding, even though they’re not sustainability consultants. And so I think there’s a few things. One is kind of in the introduction of the organization, so when you’re talking about the company, when you’re introducing and onboarding a new employee to the company’s vision, really making it clear and set from the beginning, what the sustainability commitments are. What is the company already doing? What are the guidelines in place? And really making sure that everybody, again, knows that and not just a select number of people. 

So one is integrating sustainability in the way that the company is presented to the employee. The second one is, again, thinking about the resources and the education. If you do onboarding through video training, for example, can you have a module on the basics of sustainability and how does this apply to you?

If you do this on a one to one, that’s fine. If it’s a resource packet, that’s fine, thinking about however the company and the resources they have to do. Regardless if the person is a cashier or an admin person at your office or a leading manager in your consultancy, every person should have that information, and it should have the same emphasis.

EPAY: What are some of those basics that you think HR could really focus on? I mean, the obvious thing would be  things like, ‘Don’t print a 50-page document if you don’t have to.’ But are there other more subtle areas that you would focus on?

Polychroniadou: I think it depends on the nature of the organization. I think for services-based organizations, there’s a few things that individual employees can do. So things like, of course: Don’t print, think about when you’re traveling to meetings or when you’re traveling to the office. You know, that kind of stuff. Thinking about your own behavior in the office space. But then I think it’s also about how do you train employees to think about sustainability in their outputs? 

So again, if, for example, you have a salesperson who is working for the company, how does sustainability play in the way that they communicate about the company? How does sustainability play into the types of clients they’re reaching out to? In the procurement team, are there sustainability requirements? Are there policies in place, or checks, for who your suppliers are, and making sure that you’re checking those credentials or working with your supply chain? We think about climate actionas I’m going to recycle. I’m going to stop eating meat. I’m going to stop flying. But it’s not just that. It’s about how we fit into the broader ecosystem. 

How do we interact within the organization? How do we interact with our customers? How do we interact with our suppliers? How do we interact with our investors? How do we interact with our shareholders? All of that is connected.

EPAY: So it’s almost about asking the questions, too. Like, if you’re dealing with a staffing agency to fill a role, saying, ‘We’d love to work with you, but what are you doing to promote sustainability in your organization?’ Things like that?

Polychroniadou: Absolutely. Asking them, ‘What’s your corporate sustainability policy? Can I have a copy of it to take a look?’ You know, it becomes an evaluation criteria as you’re deciding which staffing agents to work with. Or, if you have a favorite one, you actually have potentially a point of influence there to say, ‘We really would like to work with you. We’ve made this commitment. So we’d like to see you take on some sustainability stuff. Are you willing to do that with us?’ 

EPAY: With the bigger players, I think they are more able to produce that kind of information, but can you get the same kind of information from the small players out there who don’t have those kinds of resources to do an ESG report and things like that?

Polychroniadou: It’s a changing world, I think. You know, there’s a much bigger emphasis now on [subject-matter experts] and how to get SMEs to be sustainable because it’s exactly what you said. It’s complicated, it takes resources, and SMEs are doing 1,000 things at the same time and just don’t have someone putting together a sustainability report. It’s definitely a changing market. It depends on the region. So I know in the U.K., for example, there’s a massive push to get SMEs to commit to net zero. And there’s loads of free resources and ways to help them move that needle.

I don’t know what the situation is in the U.S., but it’s becoming more and more common in smaller organizations as well. Thinking about the resource and the education component, if, for example, you had educational resources that you hand out internally, could those be repurposed and sent to your suppliers as, you know, here are some basics and some ways that you could integrate sustainability into it yourselves?

EPAY: What would your tips be for in-office workers vs. at-home workers on what they could do to help promote sustainability? In some offices, the lights go off when you leave the room, for example, but not many homes use that technology. So what are some things that we can do in the office and at home to help promote sustainability?

Polychroniadou: I think there’s some, let’s call them, infrastructure changes now. Who takes that on, either at home or in the office, depends. But things like the energy efficiency of the building or of the room. So there are things that can be done automatically or can be installed. For example, having sensors that turn off the lights, having energy-efficient light bulbs, or having green tariffs. Green tariffs means that the electricity being used by the space, whether it’s at home or in the office, is coming from a renewable energy source and therefore has lower greenhouse gas emissions.

At home, it’s thinking about things like the energy consumption. Not just the electricity that you have around you, but also: Are you overheating or overcooling your home and therefore using a lot more energy? And is there a way to balance that out? And there are little hacks that you can find online like having thick curtains to insulate your windows a little bit more without necessarily having to change your windows. There are different hacks that you can do, but ultimately it’s basically the energy efficiency of the buildings or the rooms that you’re in in terms of the lighting, the heating, and the cooling. 

The second level is, again, the procurement and thinking about, if you need to buy something, who are you buying it from? How is it being transported to you? Is it local, international? 

“I think HR has quite a unique role to play in a few things. One is thinking about how you can make every job a ‘climate’ job, even if it’s not a sustainability role. And that’s the education component. It’s empowering employees, the employee engagement, thinking about how HR can really set programs in place that give people the information of what they can do and how they can support the company’s broader sustainability commitments.”

—Eleni Polychroniadou

EPAY: An HR audience might not be familiar with it, but what you’re talking about is basically Scope 3 emissions. So how would you define Scope 3 emissions? And why is it important to track them?

Polychroniadou: So scope three emissions is basically all the emissions of your supply chain. So anything that you don’t directly control. So if we think about what would you control, you would control maybe the building that you’re in or the purchasing decisions that you make. But you can’t control what the company that you purchase the paper from is doing. Or you can’t control your client’s impacts. You can’t control all the things that are one step removed from the direct company operations. And that’s really Scope 3. And the reason it’s really important is because when we’re talking about services-based businesses, the impact, the direct impact of an organization is really small. So you’re not manufacturing anything. You’re not producing products. You are literally human capital, people sitting in a room doing something. So the ultimate impact of that is just the space that you’re occupying, the machines that you’re using, and that’s it. If you’re an organization that has a lot of business travel, that would have a significant impact. But business travel would fit into Scope 3 because again, you are not controlling the emissions of the plane. [Laughs]

So direct operations is really the building, and how much energy the building is using, and how much heating the building is using. So if you were to just to look at that, you would think, ‘OK, I can change that really easily, and I don’t have an impact.’ But everything else that you do does have an impact and that still counts. And so particularly for services-based organizations, Scope 3 is really important because when you do the calculation, suddenly Scope 1 and Scope 2 is, you know, like 20% of your total impact, and then Scope 3 is 80%.

EPAY: The IPCC 2022 report just came out recently. Any surprises for you? I mean, I’ve following it a few years, and it seems it’s been dire, dire, and more dire. There’s not a lot of great news in terms of sustainability. And I think the UN secretary-general even said that we must triple the speed of the shift to renewable energy to meet the Paris Agreement goals. So was there anything in there that jumped out at you as surprising?

Polychroniadou: I feel like I’m almost becoming numb to the IPCC reports, to be honest, because it feels like, ‘Oh, another alarm bell that we’re not going to listen to.’ You know, I think, again and again, the IPCC report is saying, “We’re not on track, we’re not on track, we’re not on track.” And it’s hard to feel like it’s surprising. You know, I always read it and think, I always get shocked at the sheer number of people that are going to be affected. And I think that’s the bit for me that continues to blow my mind

I think it’s interesting to see the tone of the IPCC reports change. So I think they’re trying to add a shred of hope. So they’re like, ‘It’s really dire, but we can still do it.’ 

EPAY: I think you used the word ‘numb’ when you said that you were reading the IPCC report. But I think that’s an important point, especially when you’re talking about HR-related messaging. I mean, how do you get past that, ‘I’ve heard this message a thousand times. There’s not much I can do?’ But it feels like HR has that opportunity to really promote that message about sustainability. Am I right?

Polychroniadou: Absolutely. I mean, I think anything that’s working directly with people and really thinking about how people react is super important. And I think we know that people don’t like being preached at. We know people can’t sustain fear for long periods of time, right? When you give people a doom-and-gloom message, you have a fight or flight response. And no fight or flight response can be sustained over time. So if we keep throwing these doom and gloom, at some point, the fight or flight goes, ‘Nope,’ and then you enter this numb stage. 

So I think, first of all, the element of having an action associated with a particular piece of information is super important for sustainability. So if I’m going to tell you that there is this emissions crisis, I need to follow it with, and this is what you can do, or this is something tangible that you can hold onto and breaking it down into the smaller bite-sized pieces of information.

The second thing is making it relatable. So as an HR professional, one of the things that can be really helpful is, you know, bring it back down to either the specific organization or to the specific community, or, you know, thinking about how can you contextualize this for the employees and make it relevant for them? So relevant, a little bit more personal and definitely thinking about the emotion behind the message. So having more of an emotional appeal with the data.

EPAY: I think one aspect of sustainability that gets lost is the ability to have fun with it. And that’s kind of like why I started my litter challenge, which is just picking up one piece of litter a day. It’s fun just to go around and take a picture of a piece of litter I’ve picked up and post it on social. I’m curious if you’ve run across any unusual sustainability projects or initiatives in your career.

Polychroniadou: Tying employee engagement, tying team building and all of that into sustainability is a great way to really engage people. I think in terms of specific projects, maybe nothing too crazy has come so far on my desk, but, you know, the classic ones around getting employees in terms of transportation. So thinking about the walking, which ties health and sustainability and employee engagement and has a competitive development always works really well.

We had a competition to see how many team members we could get to transition to renewable energy at home, which was quite a personal thing because obviously like, as a company, you never want to tell someone what to do at home. But making it into a game and getting people to share recommendations of what they were doing, and what was working at home and building little teams around that, and having their buy-in and support led to changes at home, but it created that team opportunity. I think the classic ones are always like volunteering days and going for reforestation efforts, and all that stuff to help bring it home and cleaning beaches and stuff.

EPAY: So gamification?

Polychroniadou: Exactly. Which, you know, has, again, a lot of potential, I think, to be explored from the engagement side, but also then the impact. And you can always use it as a learning opportunity to then apply it to how does this then affect us as a business?

EPAY: Excellent. And any final thoughts for this Earth Day on where we are, where we can be and how we’re going to get there?

Polychroniadou: I think it’s just the reiteration that every person has an opportunity and is responsible to a certain extent on sustainability. And that’s not to say that whether you recycle or not means the end of the world, but it means we are all part of society. We are all part of this giant ecosystem. And it’s going to take all of us doing something together within this community of the world to really make a difference. So even though we as individuals will not make or break the planet, we as a community will. And that means us as individuals, us as employees, us as managers, us as parents, as friends, as leaders in our own way. And so I think this is a great conversation and a great place to start thinking about: How can you as a person in this society in this giant ecosystem, make a difference?

James Tehrani is EPAY’s digital content marketing manager. He is an award-winning writer and editor based in the Chicago area.

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