The Environmental Watchmen

Sustainalytics' research data informs clients’ investment strategies based on environmental responsibility

Team members from the Sustainalytics Romania office volunteer time and labour to spruce up an outdoor community centre.
For a team-building weekend, Romanian staff members embarked on a team scavenger hunt in the hills of Siria, Romania.
For a team-building weekend, Romanian staff members embarked on a team scavenger hunt in the hills of Siria, Romania.

Most corporations today have environmentally responsible initiatives and polices in place to achieve a number of objectives, whether it be increasing their bottom lines or promoting social awareness. However, it’s difficult to find a company that is more intrinsically sustainable in mission and action than Sustainalytics, a global firm that uses research to analyze the environmental, social, and corporate governance practices of publicly traded companies for investors to use as part of their decision-making process.

Three years ago, Rachel Birenbaum was working at Ontario-based Jantzi Research when it merged with the Dutch-based Sustainalytics to create the company in its current, truly global form, and she was in the perfect position to help the company transition. “There was a need for HR structure—processes needed to be created for this new global entity,” says Birenbaum, who serves as the senior manager of HR and operations in North America and is in charge of developing and implementing many of the HR strategies that keep Sustainalytics functioning as a responsible entity, both inside and out. “My experience and education in sustainable business and nonprofit management aligned well with what was needed, and we were able to build an HR infrastructure from scratch.”

The Word on Green

Rachel Birenbaum, senior manager of HR and operations in North America, shares her thoughts on some buzzwords adrift in the industry

Tracking inefficiencies: “What gets measured gets done. If the first step is measuring improvements over the long term, then what would follow is active changes.”

Green marketing: “What I associate with green marketing is transparency and public scrutiny. The reporting of sustainability performance has changed a lot in the last few years, and there is a much greater expectation from the general public and shareholders. Companies have responded to that by using their reporting as a marketing tool.”

Sustainable efficiencies: “Another part of our retention strategy and of our culture and HR strategy overall is a commitment to learning within our company. With paid time off for course work and providing numerous training opportunities in-house, we fully support personal and professional development.”

While the company has offices in North America, Europe, and Asia, the sustainable atmosphere is consistent. “The differences are in the market, not in the company,” Birenbaum says. “It’s true that regulations are much further along in Europe than they are here in North America. Responsible investing is much more mainstream there, and we see that reflected in the client base, and grow opportunities we have in each region.”

The core product is the same: the Sustainalytics Global Platform acts as a database of several thousands of publicly traded companies and an assessment of those companies in terms of their environmental, social, and corporate governance practices. Clients subscribe to the database and are able to analyze their own portfolios against the ratings Sustainalytics provides. The company also offers specialized services, one of which is to conduct a screening of holdings based on specific criteria that the client has outlined as part of its own responsible investment policy, or, if it doesn’t have one, Sustainalytics can help it to create its own responsible investment policy.

Within the HR function, Rachel and her team are responsible for creating and perpetuating the company’s all-important mission and responsible culture. “From the start, we were looking to create how a team was structured, and to create our philosophies on recruitment and retention, training and development,” says Birenbaum. “We are first and foremost a mission-based culture. We are seeking to effect change in our capital markets and ultimately society, by helping investors make more-sustainable investment decisions.”

One of the ways the company continues to promote this culture is by scheduling semiannual activities called “Why We Do This” events. “We get together outside the office to foster our connection to the motivations that bring us to work every day,” explains Birenbaum. “We’ll go see a socially themed documentary together or do a group volunteer project.”

This is one key aspect of the company’s retention philosophy: the strengthening of company culture and the idea that people should like coming into work because it speaks to their values. The training and development practices that are implemented also play into the retention strategy as well. “Each team has a career progression path; they have a clear and transparent picture on how their career can evolve and the different paths it can take,” says Birenbaum. “Having a performance appraisal framework that supports that approach to career advancement is a part of our retention strategy.”

Rachel Birenbaum is Sustainalytics' senior manager of HR and operations in North America.
Rachel Birenbaum is Sustainalytics’ senior manager of HR and operations in North America.

While creating a culture and changing society through markets are high-minded goals, Birenbaum says that the small things are just as important. “We screen for a certain like-mindedness among our perspective employees, so it goes without saying that our internal practices centre around energy conservation, carbon offsetting—those things come naturally to us.”