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Alex Base, HSBC's Global Head of Operational Sustainability, talks about the organisation's work with Earthwatch.

In our rapidly changing world, we are facing the biggest environmental threat we have ever seen, with the effects of climate change being felt around the world. The careful balance of our planet is in crisis, so it’s vital that businesses, NGOs and governments all play their part. Historically, the worlds of NGOs and the corporate sector in particular have been poles apart, but with global issues relating to urbanisation and climate change on the rise, how can the two come together to promote sustainable growth?

We sat down with Alex Base, HSBC’s Global Head of Operational Sustainability, to talk about our decade long partnership as the new HSBC Sustainability Training Programme (STP) gets underway. Building on investigating the benefits of blue and green urban areas globally, the new programme empowers HSBC employees to become sustainability champions and adapt business culture to answer the challenges of our changing climate. Read below to see Alex’s take on the work so far by the partnership.


What is the HSBC Sustainability Training Programme (STP)?

We launched the HSBC STP, co-created by Earthwatch, globally this year as an immersive, experiential sustainability learning journey for our employees. It combines a mixture of classroom learning with outdoor citizen science research to explore global megatrends, such as urbanisation and the fourth industrial revolution, alongside the causes and impacts of climate change.

The learning experience allows HSBC employees to explore sustainable finance and the leadership role HSBC is taking to empower participants to take action within their day-to-day roles back at the bank. Importantly, participants also support global data collection on how urban blue and green spaces can help mitigate climate change impacts. Creating a connection between what they are learning and real science research, enhances the overall learning experience and provides a great opportunity to reflect and explore topics with other participants. Simply put, this makes the learning stick.


What’s been the journey for HSBC and Earthwatch up until this point?

When we started working with Earthwatch 10 years ago, the focus of our internal engagement programme was our operational sustainability strategy, effectively an ambitious set of 10 goals to reduce our environmental footprint and raise general awareness around sustainability issues. We developed the Climate Champion Programme together as an internal programme for all staff. Although this was a great success in terms of number of attendees and learning, we lacked senior leadership buy-in and our staff were feeling frustrated that they couldn’t drive change within the organisation. To address this issue, we developed the Sustainability Leadership Programme. This took HSBC’s senior management on a week of experiential learning, very similar to the STP format we use today. The programme was and continues to be a great success. Creating space and time for attendees to slow down and step back from their busy day-to-day schedules allows new and innovative responses to the emerging challenges that they as individuals and bank faces as a whole. Attendees realised that they had a role to play in shaping a more sustainable way of doing business. This changed the behaviour of HSBC’s senior leadership, which started to change the culture within teams. People felt empowered to drive sustainability within their sphere of influence and I honestly believe that this is why we made such great progress with our operational sustainability agenda.

Earthwatch actually almost began as a supplier for us, but as the partnership evolved and you [Earthwatch] brought in your own recommendations, the programmes became a co-created learning experience. Earthwatch focused on changing perceptions of environmental issues within the bank, through delivering the learning in an innovative field based experience, rooted in science. The biggest learning from this was that spending time in nature, with observations and reflections, was a powerful tool and it had a huge impact on how learning and development could be approached within the bank, away from just classroom learning.

From there, this approach has been adopted on a wider scale and has grown with HSBC over the years to support the new Sustainable Finance Strategy.


The Earthwatch model of learning is quite varied. How do you feel getting into nature, collecting data and classroom learning works together?

Sustainability and climate change are incredibly complex issues. So we quickly realised you can’t jump straight to a solution and expect people to accept a one size fits all approach. People need to go on a journey to get there in a unique environment, which is nature in this case.

To ensure the training is comprehensive and impactful, we still need some sort of academic framework as the building blocks to learning, supported by Earthwatch as a research institute - however, Earthwatch’s use of nature as the classroom for it, allows HSBC employees to reconnect with the outdoors and mix with potentially different colleagues, in a relaxed setting. You’ve [Earthwatch] found a unique way to create a safe environment away from the restrictions of the workplace, allowing people to be comfortable, curious and hold honest, open discussions.


Why is it important for HSBC to work with NGOs like Earthwatch around sustainability issues?

The world is changing. Organisations like HSBC are aware of the risks and opportunities for themselves and their clients. There is a desire for HSBC to take responsibility for supporting the transition to a low carbon economy. To do this effectively we need to listen to a wide range of stakeholders. NGO’s are a key stakeholder. More importantly, our relationship with Earthwatch has been about bringing key sustainability issues to peoples’ attention in a way that creates the desire to take responsibility and to take action. Earthwatch bring a different perspective to the challenges and again, a different perspective to learning and engagement. The experiential model we co-created and developed over the last ten years, drove improved sustainability performance across our operations. This now gives us an authentic platform to speak with our clients from.

We are using the experience of the last ten years to ensure that the STP and SLP engage and inspire our colleagues in the global banking businesses. This is key if we are to achieve our ambition to be the leading bank for sustainable finance and support our clients’ transition to the low carbon economy.


Images: John Hunt, Rory MacKinnon

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