Quitting for climate

Climate Economy

Quitting for climate

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Note to CEOs: Rethink your climate strategy or we’re out the door

With the start of the pandemic came the move to remote work, shifting priorities, and the trend of “quiet quitting” in the workforce, challenging many companies to rethink how to better recruit and retain good people. Now, consider the sequel: “climate quitting.”

“Young people, specifically Gen Z and Millennials are leaving their jobs or declining offers because of lack of ESG commitment,” says climate activist and scholar Wawa Gatheru, addressing a ballroom full of company representatives at a recent Greenbiz conference. She warns that people in her demographic  — which makes up a large and growing portion of the workforce — are clear about the urgency of a green and fair transition. “ESG commitments and DEI commitments aren’t just an add-on. They are a requirement for us to see a future with your organization… Period.”

All of which raises an important question: Can rank-and-file employees move companies to meaningful action on climate, rather than relying entirely on the C-suite and the sustainability expert in an office down the hall? Or, asked another way, can companies build robust sustainability programs that both help meet climate goals and help engage and retain top-flight employees? 

“ESG commitments and DEI commitments aren’t just an add-on. They are a requirement for us to see a future with your organization… Period.”

Project Drawdown: “Every job is a climate job” 

A leading climate solutions think tank argues that employees can and should be involved in the pursuit of climate goals, for the health of the organization and the planet. The nonprofit Project Drawdown has just released a guide — for employees — to accelerate the transition in their business, whatever the sector and whatever their role. Climate Solutions at Work is billed as a “how-to guide” for employees to assess whether or not their company is taking adequate steps to address the climate crisis, and how they can utilize their power to push their companies to greater ambition. 

The guide, unlike previous Drawdown products aimed at company leadership, urges employees to form “green teams” of like-minded individuals, maps a way for them to investigate and evaluate their company’s decarbonization goals, and to use their own expertise to hold the employer accountable for sweeping climate action.

“Today’s definition of business climate leadership centers on companies doing less harm…” the report asserts. “Employees can demand a more expansive view, one that taps every company’s leverage points and the passion of every employee to scale climate solutions available right now, dramatically boosting expectations for business climate leadership around the world.”

Climate Solutions pointers for climate-focused employees:

–Beware of long-term aspirations by companies that don’t map out specific near- and medium-term interim goals, which are essential markers for accountability. Just 20% of the Forbes Global 2000 companies have net-zero goals, according to the guide, and under one-third of those have interim goals. 

–Understand carbon offsets. Many company climate policies include purchasing carbon offsets, aka carbon credits, which is a way of paying someone else to sequester or avert carbon emissions, somewhere else. Carbon credits are best used for the portion of emissions that the company can’t directly or immediately eliminate through other means, like improved efficiency or changing to clean energy. When used, the Drawdown guide urges employees to focus on whether the underlying project is well-vetted and has “co-benefits” for the community, that protects biodiversity, or provides good jobs or health benefits. 

–Think about total emissions related to the company including those in its supply chain and downstream (aka Scope 3 emissions). “Ask your company to explore internal carbon pricing, procurement changes and policy advocacy opportunities that would shift your sector,” the guide advises.

The nonprofit Project Drawdown has just released a guide — for employees — to accelerate the transition in their business, whatever the sector and whatever their role.

–Be leery of any plan that relies on carbon removal or other moonshot technology to achieve climate goals. If they are expensive and not ready to scale compared to proven efficiencies and a transition to renewables that can take place immediately — ie. not ready for primetime — it is more of a distraction than a solution.

–Watch for ways that the company is — or isn’t — institutionalizing its climate ambitions. If the company is serious, it will embed climate action in company policy, such as “executive compensation that’s firmly tied to meeting climate targets.” Another climate-positive policy would include a self-imposed carbon tax — with any revenues directed to mitigation or conservation projects. 

–Conduct “power mapping” with like-minded colleagues to identify the most effective avenues for communicating ideas to leadership. “Rather than bringing a request to the most powerful decision maker, this process helps identify a more accessible staff member with the right type of leadership influence.”

—Advocate for diversity of thought within the board of directors / executive team, if and where it doesn’t exist. This could be by way of annual employee surveys, upward feedback, etc.

–If working in a shared office, advocate for the use of climate-friendly materials, ways to reduce waste, and a shift to renewable energy use, if possible. If not, advocate for investing in community solar programs “to aid in climate justice efforts and create market indicators of increased solar demand.”

Amazon’s push and pull

It’s tricky to gauge how many workers will become climate activists within companies that are issuing their paychecks, but one interesting case to follow is under way at Amazon. In 2018, thousands of Amazon employees demanded that company leadership create a comprehensive climate plan, which led to the company’s Climate Pledge of 2019. It established a $2 billion fund for supporting promising sustainable technologies and services. Amazon Web Services (AWS) also developed a program that allows its vast network of retailers to measure their carbon footprint, a necessary starting point for any drawdown effort.

Separately, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos later also committed $10 billion of his own to establish the Bezos Earth Fund dedicated to fighting climate change and loss of biodiversity. 

Since 2019, a group called Amazon Employees for Climate Justice has tracked the company’s progress and backpedaling on the Climate Pledge, calling out flaws and potential loopholes in its goals. In 2023 AECJ called out Amazon for a range of issues, including quietly eliminating a 2030 emissions target for its delivery fleet, planning data centers powered by fossil fuels in Oregon, and its continued deals with fossil fuel companies — leading to an employee walkout.

In 2018, thousands of Amazon employees demanded that company leadership create a comprehensive climate plan, which led to the company’s Climate Pledge of 2019.

Is this employee action effective? It’s a push and pull.

In response to the walkout, Amazon leadership issued a statement saying that it was pushing hard to reduce its carbon footprint. “For companies like ours who consume a lot of power, and have very substantial transportation, packaging, and physical building assets, it’ll take time to accomplish,” said company spokesman Brad Glasser. 

The bottom line could be the literal bottom line

For many employees “taking time” is too much time. A 2023 report by McKinsey said 51% of U.S, workers would consider quitting their jobs if their company’s environmental actions do not align with their values, and 35% of those surveyed said they had already done so — a number that rose to 44% among Gen Z and Millennial workers. In the UK, a study by KPMG found that one in three 18- to 24-year-olds had rejected job offers based on the ESG record of the hiring entity. Salesforce research across developed economies showed that 80% of workers — of all ages — want their companies to do better to address the climate crisis and other social problems. Most of those surveyed were skeptical that their employers would do enough, but — in better news — most also said they would like to contribute to reaching those goals.

The takeaway from recent research on the subject, as summarized by one of the polling groups, sounds very much like that from 20-something climate activist Wawa  Gatheru. 

Paul Polman, the former CEO of Unilever who published Net Positive Employee Barometer report in 2023, argues that being out of step with current and future employees’ expectations and values gets in the way of success.

But he concludes: “On the flip side, companies which step up can unlock motivation, innovation and loyalty. And they can accelerate their efforts to build a more sustainable, more responsible and more profitable business.” 

Sounds like a much better deal than quitting. 

This article was first published by EcoSoul Partners.

Featured photo: Wawa Gatheru speaking about climate activism at Bryant University. Source: Bryant University

Written by

Kari Huus

Kari Huus is a writer and editor based in Seattle. She was a staff reporter for MSNBC.com from 1996-2014, with stints covering international business, foreign policy, and national affairs. Earlier, she reported on China for the Far Eastern Economic Review in Hong Kong, and Newsweek in Beijing. From 2015 to 2020, she was managing editor for the website Money Talks News.