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Interview with Scott Sullivan: Bate Wells’ Best Environmental Initiative award win

Scott Sullivan, HR Director at Bates Wells, says he was ‘absolutely delighted’ to win the People in Law award for Best Environmental Initiative,  supported by The Sustainable Recruitment Alliance, at May’s ceremony in London’s West End. “We felt we had put together a good submission – one that showed the legitimacy of our policy and commitment in this area and hoped it would be a tough one for other firms to beat

To get the recognition was wonderful, among your peers and people in the industry you work with. We knew we had a great story to tell. Coming back to the office the next day and telling our Partners and people we’d won was great. They were over the moon.”

Bates Wells was the first major law firm to gain B Corp status back in 2015, so its progressive credentials are well established. The whole premise of the business is driven by the concept of “mission” as well as “performance” says Sullivan. An established HR culture of transparency has helped embed the process, which has included green pensions.

As a result, the firm not only attracts candidates who are concerned about society and the environment but it also interests likeminded clients many of whom have already gained or are in the process of gaining B Corp accreditation.

The main impetus behind the award-winning initiative began in 2019 when Bates Wells recognised that to achieve greater heft with addressing the climate emergency and biodiversity crisis it needed to formalise its work. Among its initial objectives was the target to significantly decrease Scope 3 carbon emissions (emissions that the organisation is indirectly responsible for, up and down its value chain – not those caused by the company itself. For example, from buying products from its suppliers, and from its products when customers use them).

A huge reduction in paper use and single-use plastics, default vegetarian food in office, and a wine cork recycling scheme (“most popular on Mondays” says Sullivan) – all form part of the effort to improve sustainability and reduce waste.

Travel and pensions also form substantial pillars of the policy. “We encourage people to travel sustainably and have introduced climate perks – if you travel by rail or boat as opposed to flying we give you the difference in time back as time off in lieu.”

Other measures implemented include a scheme to reward people financially if they switch to a sustainable energy supplier. Volunteering days also form part of the mix, with options like beach cleans a popular team-building activity.

However, as Sullivan says, the biggest impact you can have on the planet is with your money. “So the pension fund initiative is a major shift and a really bold move. There were lots of practical challenges; for starters there are fewer ethical funds and you need more governance. But “more than a third of our people are in that fund.” He acknowledges that those closer to retirement age are generally more keen to retain their current pension fund choices.

Bates Wells has devised a sustainability pledge to set out what it wants to achieve. This has helped it to work with clients that wish to reduce their impact on the environment, implement net zero clauses and encourage them to become more proactive in their efforts to develop sustainable supply chains. The company is prepared to turn down clients that are heavily involved in environmentally damaging activities.

Being so proactive about its efforts to improve its sustainability, Bates Wells “runs its climate group like an LGBTQ network or other diversity group” says Sullivan. This means policy direction is determined by the firm’s people with a Climate Board reporting to the Management Board.

“People get energy and purpose from this,” says Sullivan. “We can only create change together. The engagement of staff and employee voice are the most important part of our environmental initiative. There’s no silver bullet.”

“There’s a sense that if employees are enthused about the effort, they will influence clients and outside friends,” Sullivan says. The implication is that this can achieve change and win people more readily than the more top-down political approach.

“There’s something really electric about this work,” he says. Which bring us to electric vehicles. “We’re thinking about that – there may be something in future we can do for employees.”

That Bates Wells and Sullivan’s mission is of vital importance is underlined now with every day bringing fresh signs of the climate crisis, whether it’s diminishing sea ice at the poles or devastating fires in Canada. Global conferences can only achieve so much as scientists try to convey urgency on national governments. Perhaps then, it’s only by businesses taking the lead that we can minimise the escalating damage and turn it around. And when it comes to that, this legal firm has proven itself as a pioneering beacon.

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