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Why the future of work is green

Putting humans at the center of sustainability transformations can benefit an organization, its employees and the community.

In brief
  • Disruptive forces and stakeholder pressure are ramping up sustainability transformations.
  • It is important to focus on the talent agenda and culture needed to fuel innovation.
  • Businesses should identify how the workforce can adapt to support a successful transformation.

The global climate crisis is one of the most significant existential threats in human history. According to the latest report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), half of the world’s population is threatened by water shortages or extreme weather events, and more than 14% of the world’s species are at high risk of extinction as global temperatures rise.

The crisis is also creating significant global injustices. Between 2010 and 2020, droughts, floods and storms killed 15 times as many people in highly vulnerable countries, which are responsible for less than 3% of global emissions.¹

The 2022 Global Carbon Budget, an annual assessment of how much the world can afford to emit to stay within its warming targets, reported that to have a chance of keeping global temperature rise within 1.5 degrees Celsius, humanity can release no more than 380 billion tons of carbon dioxide over the coming decades — an amount equal to about nine years of current emissions.²

Four disruptive forces are driving organizations to accelerate their sustainability transformations:

The role of human innovation

According to the IPCC, scientists are definitive that human activity causes climate change. Their perspective is that nearly 100% of planetary warming comes directly from greenhouse gases and the emissions generated by humans burning fossil fuels.⁵

The origins of climate change can be traced back a million years ago to the early human discovery of fire. Paleontologists believe that human innovations to create, control and use fire had a significant influence on our evolution by improving health, lengthening life spans and creating stronger social systems. Unfortunately, our human innovation has also come with inadvertent negative consequences.

Achieving the UN’s Paris Agreement goal to limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5, degrees Celsius will require significant new innovations.

Human-centered approach

Leading organizations with robust sustainability strategies are investing in the innovation needed to compete in the sustainable economy.

Market research firm Verdantix completed a survey of 400 organizations exploring the role of business functions in implementing an organization’s sustainability strategy. More than half indicated that their HR function had very limited significance in sustainability strategy implementation.⁶ If human innovation is a key ingredient to sustainability transformations, chief people officers, boards and all C-suite executives need to significantly increase their focus on the talent agenda and culture needed to fuel that innovation.

Verdantix research

Figure 1: Verdantix research

A more sustainable planet can only be powered with humans with the right skills, knowledge and resources to fuel the new innovation we urgently need

In 2021, Oxford Saïd Business School and EY teams studied the complex factors behind the high failure rate of transformations. The research sample included over 900 executive leaders, as well as over 1,000 employees from organizations in 23 countries across 16 industry sectors.

Organizations with successful transformations placed higher priority in six key human-centered areas — leadership, vision, emotional support, technology, process and culture. When these factors were in place, the likelihood of transformation success increased by 2.6x.⁷

Boards and C-suite executives must lead their organization’s sustainability transformations with three priority areas of focus.

Human Innovation

Focus 1: Leading the human-centered sustainability strategy

A sustainability strategy incorporates economic, environmental and social factors in an organization’s policies, processes and metrics. Its purpose is to create long-term benefits for the organization, its employees and the community while conserving resources and eliminating negative environmental and societal impacts.

Examples of sustainability strategies include:

GM will sell only Zero-emission vehicles by 2023, American consumer packaged goods company, Multinational digital communication technology corporation

Focus 2: Building a culture of sustainability

A culture of sustainability prioritizes long-term impact and results over short-term gain in terms of the effect the business has on the wellbeing of its employees, the community and the planet. It’s a realignment of specific values and behaviors. The transition to a more sustainable organization requires significant shifts in mindsets, beliefs and behaviors.

EY Chart 5

There are key guiding principles all organizations can follow:

EY Chart 6

Focus 3: Accelerating the green workforce transformation

More than 3,900 companies have announced pledges to lower their GHG emissions. However, the demand for talent with the green skills needed to meet these targets will far exceed our supply.⁸

The images below illustrate the impact of sectors shifting to more sustainable business models and the impact on job responsibilities.⁹ Organizations should be looking at these change impacts now so that their workforce is fit for purpose with the needs of sustainability transformations.

EY Chart 7

The skills framework can be used for considering these new skill requirements.

EY Chart 8

The first domain is the foundational “green skills” the entire workforce will need to understand their organization’s sustainability strategy. The second domain is advanced and focuses on specific organizational capabilities, functions and technical roles. The third and fourth domains are focused on the interpersonal and transformative leadership skills.

Given the scarcity of the green skills needed to support climate change goals, chief human resource officers need to think differently about how they will source and develop those skills.

The graphic below illustrates the process organizations should begin now.

EY Chart 9

Three practical steps for getting started

A human-centered sustainability transformation may feel daunting considering the potential scale of change. However, there are three practical steps all people leaders can take now.


As the impact of climate change escalates, stakeholder pressure will continue to intensify. Businesses will have no choice but to transform.

Organizations that thrive in the sustainability revolution will be those with the talent, skills and culture that can inspire new, bold visions and transformative innovation.

The future of work is green. Our society and planet are counting on it.


As people continue to experience the negative effects of climate change, stakeholder pressure will continue to intensify. Organizations will have no choice but to accelerate their sustainability transformations to remain relevant.

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