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Impact of In-House Law Departments on Corporate Sustainability

Impact of In-House Law Departments on Corporate Sustainability

Things are happening fast in the world of business. Large companies are making bold commitments to transformational change. Such initiatives as going “net zero,” sourcing responsibly, fighting ocean pollution, and solving many other social challenges are officially on the corporate agenda.

What is the role of the in-house legal department in all of this? Corporate law departments have a big opportunity to impact sustainability goals. Here is a guide to getting started.

Sustainability Programs and the Role of In-House Lawyers in Them 

Corporate sustainability programs play a vital role in today’s business realm. The key in house legal department functions are to reflect a company’s commitment to managing its social, economic, and environmental impacts thoughtfully, which, in turn, builds resilience, fosters innovation, enhances corporate reputation, and draws the attraction of increasingly conscious investors and consumers.

As custodians of their companies’ legal and ethical integrity, corporate legal departments have a critical role to play in fostering and implementing these sustainability initiatives. They can ensure compliance with regulatory requirements, develop stakeholder-friendly policies, and incorporate sustainability goals into the company’s contractual relationships.

Moreover, in-house counsel can educate and guide the management and employees about the benefits of sustainable practices, positioning the business for long-term success and societal influence.

Start by Learning The Landscape

If your company is large enough to have a legal department of a company, it probably already has a corporate sustainability program of some kind. There may even be dedicated staff. Before you can start adding value, you need to understand what already exists.

  1. Read all internal and external materials on your corporate sustainability program. You may have an annual report, a web page, public documents like UNGC or GRI reports, or an internal resource page. All of these are great resources for you to learn what your company is already doing.
  2.  Educate yourself on best practices. Doing the background research will enable you to learn the lingo and benchmark your company’s current activities. Here are a few examples of best-in-class programs:

3. Once you have some background, reach out to your corporate sustainability team or whoever is leading on this subject. They will be thrilled to hear from you. Corporate sustainability programs are built by engaging a wide group of stakeholders. Support from the corporate legal department would be a big win for any program.

Know Why You Are Getting Involved

Corporate in-house legal departments have ever-escalating demands and tightly controlled resources. So why should you allocate some of your scarce time to corporate sustainability? Here’s why.

  • Corporate sustainability and ethics are strongly linked. Legal departments in companies are responsible for ethics and compliance. Applying a corporate sustainability lens shifts the conversation from “What’s the minimum legal requirement?” to “What’s the right thing to do?”. By raising the bar, you will inspire better decisions and reduce the likelihood of costly missteps.
  • ESG disclosure obligations are rapidly increasing. Regulators are on the road to mandating environmental, social, and governance disclosures. Meanwhile, clients and investors are demanding more transparency. The key in-house legal department functions are to ensure that these requirements are met and control all the legal processes. Even if you are a private company, public statements on the subject must be accurate to protect the brand against allegations of consumer fraud and greenwashing.
  • Legal departments are well-placed to have an impact. Corporate sustainability touches every business unit and support function. A legal department in a company may be small, but its reach spans the whole organization. You have the knowledge and contacts across the organization that you need to be successful.
  • It will be fun. As a lawyer, you almost certainly love learning new things and feeling like your work serves a higher purpose. Playing a leading role in corporate sustainability will give you an opportunity to do both.

Find The Quick Wins

There are some quick wins for corporate sustainability that most company legal departments are well situated to execute. Below is a checklist of action items to consider.

  • Weave corporate sustainability into messaging and training on ethics.
  • Partner with procurement to establish processes for vetting vendors based on their corporate sustainability track record.
  • Implement green internal practices like an electronic signature.
  • Insert sustainability requirements into vendor agreements.
  • Include sustainability in enterprise risk management assessments.

There are many other possibilities. Hold a brainstorm on the subject with the in house legal team. You will be surprised by the opportunities you discover.

You have the power to make a difference. Companies heavily impact our environment and our society. You have a voice at the table and well-developed advocacy skills. You are a powerful ally with the ability to influence your organization. By taking the time to engage with corporate sustainability, you will create positive change for yourself, your organization, and the world.

Conclusion

Corporate sustainability programs play a vital role in today’s business realm. They reflect a company’s commitment to managing its social, economic, and environmental impacts thoughtfully, which, in turn, builds resilience, fosters innovation, enhances corporate reputation, and draws the attraction of increasingly conscious investors and consumers.

As custodians of their companies’ legal and ethical integrity, in-house legal department structures have a critical role to play in fostering and implementing these sustainability initiatives. They can ensure compliance with regulatory requirements, develop stakeholder-friendly policies, and incorporate sustainability goals into the company’s contractual relationships.

Moreover, in-house legal departments can educate and guide the management and employees about the benefits of sustainable practices, positioning the business for long-term success and societal influence.

Article by Christine Uri

Christine Uri is a Chief Sustainability and Legal Officer ENGIE Impact at Engie Impact, a contributor to Lawrina Legal Blog.

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