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What can businesses do to cope with overpopulation?

As part of its contribution to the Corporate Sustainability Responsibility (CSR) efforts of their companies, Human Resources departments should encourage sustainable behaviour by employees, including family size.

Sustainability in its broadest sense is seen as of increasing importance, notwithstanding immediate concerns over conflict, the economy and inequity. As global consumption rises, increasing pressure on resources are having adverse consequences for both human society and other species.

Climate change, with its consequences, is perhaps the best known, but concerns over fish stocks, water supply, agricultural productivity and biodiversity loss are also widespread, even at current consumption levels. Worldwide, many societies are trying to catch up in per capita consumption with the west. Projected increases in the proportion of people with cars or a meat based diet have major implications.

This is exacerbated by the continued growth in human numbers. The world population has risen from three to seven billion, more than half, in the last sixty years.  The UN’s principal projection is that growth will continue, with global numbers approaching eleven billion by the end of this century. People are living longer, family size remains high in some countries, and there is a ‘population momentum’ arising from the historically large number of young people. While much of this growth is expected to be in the poorest countries, which limits its impact, both rising numbers in many developed countries and rising per capita income elsewhere means that we should not be complacent.

The UK has a relatively high per capita income and is dependent on other countries for most of its natural resources, including food. It is also growing in population terms, being both the fastest growing and most densely populated (looking at England) major European country. The official projection is that the population could grow by half over the next seventy years or so, due to both high net migration and a relatively high birth rate.

Companies have increasingly accepted that they have a responsibility to society, to obey the law, to act fairly to suppliers and employees, to limit their efforts to avoid taxes and so on. This concept of corporate social responsibility has been extended to the environment impact of their operations and those of their suppliers.

Human resource departments have a key role to play in CSR by educating employees about its concepts and importance. Some HR departments have gone further and sought to embed CSR in their own operations, such as encouraging employees to take environmentally friendly travel methods, such as cycling, or even working from home to reduce the level of commuting. They may also seek to encourage employees to take part in voluntary activity with an environmental focus. As with much CSR, such practices can also improve productivity, though improving motivation and employee health.

Clearly, much employee leisure activity and personal behaviour lies out with the influence of human resources. Family size, even for politicians and individuals, is a sensitive subject. Yet, family size is the single biggest factor in an individual’s environmental impact and human resources, through its policies, can influence it. We would not discourage support for employees with families. This commences with a legal requirement and enlightened employers will go beyond that, both from a sense of responsibility and to ensure employee motivation and freedom from distracting concerns. However, the many employees with few or even no children can feel ignored. They tend to be more reliable and flexible and so make more productive employees, yet this is often unacknowledged. Taking a more balanced approach by, for example, extending those concessions made to employees with children to every one might help. For example, the flexibility over working hours needed by many employees with small children could be extended to all. Another example is maternity and paternity leave, which could be balanced by the offer of sabbatical type leave, enabling those with fewer domestic commitments to make extended travel arrangements.

One issue that is much debated at present is net migration. Around half a million people settle in the UK every year, around 200,000 more than those who settle abroad. This pattern, which has now persisted for twenty years, poses increasing challenges for the sustainability of the UK.

Employees from overseas can offer benefits but businesses, arguably, have a responsibility to promote stability rather than a society with high levels of both net migration and unemployment or underemployment. To reduce the ‘pull’ factor in immigration, employers can work with their local communities to create the conditions where there is a match between their needs and local residents. One example is links with local schools and colleges, whereby the rising generation understands the opportunities and requirements of your business. Another is designing work conditions to accommodate those groups with special characteristics, from older workers to those with young children. Such groups may have limitations as employees which can be overcome in a world where much work is less equipment and location dependent than before and they may offer compensating benefits of greater experience or commitment.

In summary, sustainability must mean stability, while limiting consumption growth must mean limiting population growth. In this, as in other areas, business, particularly HR departments, has an important role to play.

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