In 2004 I took time out to participate in HSBC’s Investing in Nature programme, spending time in Belize with Earthwatch scientists researching the effects of increased cruise ship traffic on manatees. I followed this up by becoming a “sustainability leader” in 2010 – one of a team of HSBC leaders who commit to projects to improve sustainability, as well as educating other colleagues in these issues. A key part of this is the Climate Champion programme.

Climate Champions are trained under the aegis of the HSBC Climate Partnership, the outcome of a 10-year collaboration between environmental charity Earthwatch and HSBC to engage the bank’s employees in sustainability issues and inspire them to act. Having begun the partnership with the Investing in Nature programme from 2002 to 2007, the Climate Champion programme builds on the lessons learnt and transforms what was a community investment and employee engagement programme into an innovative professional development programme with far-reaching business benefits.

HSBC employees who volunteer as climate champions are trained through an experiential learning programme co-designed by Earthwatch and HSBC, and delivered by Earthwatch at one of five regional climate centres worldwide. The programme focuses on embedding HSBC’s approach to sustainability, by tackling what is arguably the greatest environmental challenge we face today – climate change. Climate champions connect sustainability and climate change issues to their day jobs through fieldwork and facilitated learning sessions, which help them to identify related business projects. They then implement the projects when they return to work.

The professional development opportunity offered by the climate champion programme is helping to develop an international network of employees who are highly motivated and engaged. They understand the broader context of the business and are equipped with the skills and resources they need to drive and lead change in the business. These benefits are closely aligned with HSBC’s Leadership Capabilities Framework and are helping to develop a new generation of leaders in the organisation who have a connection to HSBC’s sustainability strategy, a renewed sense of purpose, a strong network and high levels of commitment – the benefits of which go far beyond the remit of the programme.

Alongside this bottom-up approach, the Sustainability Leadership Programme – also developed in collaboration with Earthwatch – is now training senior managers to provide direction and structure for climate champions’ business projects. This will help employees maximise the impact of their projects and join up with others involved in similar initiatives across the business.

I graduated as a sustainability leader in 2010 and, as such, am required to implement projects that deliver tangible and measurable benefits to HSBC, in terms of financial savings and carbon dioxide emission reductions. I’m also encouraged to regard sustainability as fundamental to the long-term success of the business, and build it in as a core element of the bank’s business planning.

Across the business, 2,200 employees will have undertaken training to become climate champions by the end of the programme. A further 100,000 employees have the opportunity to learn about climate change issues, and how they can make a difference in their workplaces and communities through online learning (accessible via the HSBC employees intranet) and one-day local volunteering projects. A recent review of the impacts of the Climate Champion Programme, conducted by Ashridge Business School, found that 69 per cent of climate champions said the programme developed their leadership skills, while 93 per cent said the programme increased their commitment to taking action on climate change and sustainability.

Lessons learnt
- Senior management buy-in and support are essential in implementing successful, bottom-up employee engagement initiatives.

- Follow-up support and coaching for staff in implementing business projects are vital.

- Employees involved in community, education or environmental initiatives are significantly more engaged than those who are not.

- The HSBC Climate Partnership is showing there are business benefits to be gained from training schemes that link sustainability with the business.