I rarely get exasperated from reading environmental business media, but a quote last week in a Bloomberg article about sustainability and the U.S. economic crisis got me headed in that direction.The quote came from Ted Nordhaus, co-founder of the Breakthrough Institute, a research group whose founders, self-described environmentalists, …
A veteran corporate sustainability executive has launched an initiative to press companies to have a strong and active voice on climate policy in the United States. Your company and its campus recruiters just may be a target.
ClimateVoice, launched this weekend at the ClimateCAP conference in Charlottesville, Virginia, is the brainchild of Bill Weihl, who led Facebook’s sustainability team until leaving the company in 2018. Prior to that, he served as Google’s “energy czar” during the early days of that company’s ambitious clean-energy push.
Weihl’s new initiative is aimed at activating college students and rank-and-file employees to persuade their current or would-be employers to take a public stand on federal, state and local initiatives that address the climate crisis. It borrows a page from the LGBTQ movement, in which students and employees pressed companies to boycott states with laws that discriminated against lesbian, gay, trans and other individuals based on their sexual preferences.
(I’ve known Weihl for about 15 years, and I have brainstormed some of the ideas behind ClimateVoice with him over the past two years. I recently agreed to serve as an advisor to ClimateVoice.)
The LGBTQ movement gave Weihl — a former professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a 2009 Time magazine “Hero of the Environment” — a firsthand view of the potential for ClimateVoice. Facebook was among companies pressing states to change or repeal discriminatory anti-gay laws. “There was a fear that if companies didn’t speak up that they would be painted by college campuses as on the wrong side and that would make it hard to hire,” he told me recently. Pressure by Facebook and other companies led North Carolina to rescind its controversial “bathroom bill” in 2017.
Today, Weihl’s target is climate policy: clean energy, green jobs, electrified transportation and other measures intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and transition to a post-fossil-fuel economy.
One initial target is the Virginia Clean Economy Act, which mandates 100 percent renewable power on that state’s grid by 2050 and includes provisions on green jobs, low-income ratepayers and energy facility siting. The bill is currently working its way through the legislative process.
“It’s not perfect,” Weihl noted. “Last time I checked, no policy, especially legislation, is perfect.” He calls the Virginia legislation, “one of many cases in climate where the perfect is often the enemy of the good. Lots of people have problems with a given policy, and so none of them are willing to really stand up and support it. And the other side just has to stand over there and say ‘No.’ So, we need to get more companies to speak up on bills like that.”
Behind the Virginia bill are others. In Illinois, for example, ClimateVoice is calling on workers and companies to back the state’s pending Clean Energy Jobs Act. ClimateVoice also plans to focus on the Transportation and Climate Initiative, a regional effort aimed at reducing transportation emissions in 13 Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states.
Cheaper than coal
One big challenge, Weihl said, is that despite a long list of bold corporate commitments on energy and climate issues, emissions are still rising. “The question is not whether companies are doing good things,” he said. “The question is what’s needed to actually address this problem.”
Earlier in his career, Weihl demonstrated the role of leadership companies in growing markets for renewable energy.
At Google in 2007, Weihl launched an initiative called RE< C — for “renewable energy less than coal.” At the time, coal was by far the least expensive way to produce electricity, as well as the most polluting. “Rather than just talking about grid parity, we wanted to make wind and solar power cheaper than the cheapest dirty energy, and without subsidies and penalties. The underlying premise there was if you did that, economics would take over.”
Those efforts at Google led Weihl to become a champion for corporate renewable energy procurement. A decade later, he would play a pivotal role in founding the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance, a membership association of clean energy buyers, energy providers and service providers.
Thinking back to those early days, Weihl said, “Ten years ago, without those subsidies, very few companies or anyone else would have purchased solar. So those mattered.” He added: “Markets can do a lot.”
Taking the pledge
But markets have limits. ClimateVoice’s premise is that a pressure campaign by employees and college students could spur policies that further accelerate renewable energy markets, set a meaningful carbon price, support the electrification of buildings and vehicles, adopt climate-friendly agricultural practices and enact other measures seen as key to climate progress. And do so in the relatively short amount of time scientists say we have to head off the worst impacts of a changing climate.
Weihl and his team of 20 volunteers have the wind at their backs. Climate activism is growing inside companies. Amazon employees who protested against the company’s business offerings that support the oil and gas industry claimed some credit for CEO Jeff Bezos’ announcement last week that he would donate $10 billion of his personal fortune towards efforts to thwart climate change. (Those employees still aren’t happy with Bezos and Amazon, however.) Last September, Amazon employees joined with their counterparts at Google and Microsoft in walking off the job to participate in a global climate strike.
It’s not just big tech. According to a 2017 survey from Povvado, just 35 percent of employees feel their CEO has “his or her finger on the pulse of employee attitudes towards important societal issues.” And 57 percent feel that “Corporate America needs to play a more active role in addressing important societal issues.” Given the rising apprehension over the climate crisis during the intervening years since that survey, I’d be surprised if employee concern hasn’t grown.
Weihl hopes that ClimateVoice can build on those sentiments to create demonstrable change. “Our goal is to recruit and empower many thousands of students to make clear to companies that they care about climate and that they want their eventual employer to be all in on climate.”
To build that constituency, ClimateVoice will ask students and employees to sign a pledge committing to “prioritize,” “vocalize” and “mobilize” on climate action. That’s one reason Weihl launched his initiative public at the second ClimateCAP summit, an event convened by 18 universities, including Duke, Harvard and the University of Virginia, focused on building knowledge of climate change issues among MBA students.
As Weihl explained, the pledge says, in effect, “I’m all in on climate. I want my employer to be all in on climate. I pledge to use my voice to push employers to be all in on climate. And that means I’m going to speak up. I’m going to use my voice. That could be at job interviews, at job fairs, signing petitions, maybe taking part in demonstrations, talking to the media and choosing where to work based in part on whether that company or organization is similarly all in on climate.”
Over the coming months, ClimateVoice plans to connect with students and activists at other climate-related events across the United States, starting with the Social Impact Summit at the University of Chicago on Feb. 28 and the GoGreen conference in Seattle on April 9.
For now, ClimateVoice is being run by an all-volunteer army, including many in the tech sector from which Weihl came. He cited “students in machine learning, undergraduates in computer science, MBA students, communications professionals and people who have run businesses around voice processing.” ClimateVoice has yet to incorporate as a nonprofit and has raised no money, though Weihl said it intends to do so this spring.
Could all this work? It remains to be seen, of course, but the moment is ripe. “I believe a lot of us involved in ClimateVoice believe that when companies realize that they might have a problem hiring young people if they’re not on the right side of this issue, that’s going to cause them to step up.”
I asked Weihl how he’ll know that ClimateVoice is having its desired effect. “We know who the companies are who are really speaking up,” he responded. “We know who the ones are who are beginning to speak up more. And we know who the vast majority of companies are who are almost always on the sidelines. If we start to see real movement there, that would be a sign of success.”
The following is adapted from State of Green Business 2020, published by GreenBiz in partnership with Trucost, part of financial information and analytics giant S&P Global.
In September, more than 1,700 Amazon employees pledged to walk out of work for the Global Climate March. They joined workers and students in the streets of cities around the world to demand climate actions from governments and companies.
It was one of the larger demonstrations of the growing power of employees to persuade their employers, policymakers and others to move further, faster on social and environmental issues. It’s still early days, and the activism is largely limited to tech companies so far, but the actions to date may be an indicator of what’s to come.
Employee activism is not new — trade unions have long advocated for workers’ rights — but the current rise in activist employees mirrors a trend that has been growing for years, and which seems to be hitting a peak as millennials increase their presence in the workplace. With growing distrust of governmental institutions, these younger employees are using their voices to advocate for change and demand that their employers do so, too.
A succession of surveys has shown conclusively that employees want to work for companies they perceive to be good, just and “on the right side of history” on issues ranging from gun control to climate change.
Consider a 2019 survey by Swytch, a blockchain-based clean energy platform, which examined workforce sentiments about employers’ corporate sustainability pursuits. Four in 10 millennials said they have chosen a job because the company performed better on sustainability than other choices — something only 17 percent of baby boomers said they had done. As for employee retention, 70 percent of millennials said they would stay with a company long-term if it had a strong sustainability plan.
It’s not just the rank and file. CEO activism also has been on the rise. For example, in May, CEOs from about a dozen companies and a handful of nonprofits banded together to form the CEO Climate Dialogue, to urge the U.S. Congress to develop comprehensive climate legislation.
“CEOs need to reduce climate pollution within their own company operations, and they also need to unleash the most powerful tool they have to fight climate change: their political influence,” says Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense Fund, part of the CEO Climate Dialogue. “Corporate voices matter to Congress, but the vast majority of businesses have been silent on the need for climate policy, or even opposed to it. Now is the time to reverse that trend.”
Still, there’s a big difference between CEO and employee activism. The former happens when a company’s leadership takes a stance on an issue. The latter typically happens when company leadership fails to speak up on a critical issue, as rank-and-file employees hold companies or policymakers accountable or otherwise urge them to take action or be more vocal.
Occasionally, the two converge, such as when Lush, Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia and others closed their offices and stores to allow their employees to join the Global Climate Strike marches in September.
For companies, this can be tricky, as one corporate sustainability leader put it in a letter to her global team, about supporting those same strikes:
I have reached out to the group of companies who are supporting the protests in other ways, to see if we can help as a company to support with logistics of the strike days. However, I am VERY cautious about corporations taking the spotlight away from individual citizens in moments like these. So I strongly encourage us all to follow the lead of other NGOs and businesses following these guidelines. In other words, we should not be striking with our brand, we should be striking as citizens. If we help with logistics, it will be largely invisible.
“Companies need to start thinking through the new era of employee activism,” William Stewart, founder and president of communications strategy firm Povaddo, told GreenBiz in 2017, after the issues management firm released a survey that showed 65 percent of employees at Fortune 1000 firms want their companies and CEOs to publicly support the growth of renewable energy. A more recent survey of the same population showed that only 15 percent of employees rated their company’s commitment to sustainability as excellent.
Along with lobbying their employers and marching, employee activists also are outlining demands and, on occasion, leaving when a company fails to be responsive. Take the resignations at the tech company GitHub in late 2019. Employees protested their company’s contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. federal agency charged with enforcing immigration laws. Similar protests have been held by employees at Whole Foods and Ogilvy, whose companies also contracted with U.S. immigration authorities.
Such actions may become more common. A May report, “Employee Activism in the Age of Purpose: Employees (UP)Rising,” from Weber Shandwick and KRC Research, showed that while 38 percent of workers identified as employee activists — those who either spoke up to support or criticize their employers’ actions over a controversial societal issue — there is room for that number to increase: An additional 11 percent of employees have considered speaking out.
There is evidence that employees are just beginning to recognize their power.
In 2018, when more than a dozen Amazon employees filed identical shareholder petitions, Eliza Pan, an employee of the company, told the New York Times, “We realized we could use our position as employees and our power and our rights as shareholders to bring visibility of this issue to the board and the top leaders of this company.”
While the shareholder resolution failed, their pressure played a key role in getting the company to commit to reduce its emissions and invest in 100,000 electric delivery vehicles. Still, the employee group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice maintained that it was “thrilled with our win, but we know it is not enough.”
Amazon’s employees plan to continue to hold their company accountable. The group is demanding it commit to zero carbon emissions by 2030, stop funding politicians who deny the existence of climate change, and end its Amazon Web Services contracts with fossil fuel companies.
For companies, such action is incremental — small changes over long periods of time. The question for leadership is whether that progress is sufficient, at least in the eyes of employees. And if not, they would be wise to be prepared to respond to their growing demands.