Reprinted from GreenBuzz, a free weekly newsletter. Subscribe here.
Today, I’m thinking about last week — and about the future.
Last week, for the uninitiated, was the 15th annual GreenBiz conference, a decade-and-a-half milestone in what has been a very satisfying journey to build and support an impactful community of sustainable business leaders.
And what a community! Not quite 2,000 passionate souls showed up — learning, sharing, re-energizing, commiserating — a nearly 50 percent uptick in attendance from the previous year, which had been the biggest to date.
But it was the cohort of twentysomethings who stole the show.
They seemed to be everywhere, in numbers far greater than before. They spoke on panels, of course, but were also deep in conversation wherever I looked. They are earnest, these young’uns, more so than their elders, and full of promise, pluck and perseverance. Sure, they’re idealistic — who wasn’t at that age? — but they’re also ambitious and realistic. They know what’s on the line, that the climate, biodiversity and social equity crises bearing down on us all represent the new normal for the rest of their young lives. They are aware that their elders created these emergencies and haven’t yet adequately stepped up to solve them. And while fearful, they’re also hell-bent, against all odds, to change the trajectory of planetary history.
The solution comes down to three key words: communication; ambition; and empowerment.
Some of these attendees comprised the latest cohort of the Emerging Leaders program run by GreenBiz.org, GreenBiz Group’s nonprofit spinout. That program grants registration, travel and housing to young professionals of color to attend our events and offers programs to help them integrate into the community of older (mostly whiter) professionals, both during and after the event.
To watch the Emerging Leaders navigate the throngs was a joy. They are far more poised and professional than I ever was at that age, seemingly ready to take on the daunting social and environmental challenges before them. Whatever inhibitions they brought to the event seemed to have melted away over the course of the week, no doubt abetted by the warm and welcoming GreenBiz community. It was the most hopeful part of a hopeful week.
Now, to the future.
Millennials and Gen Z — those born between 1981 and 2012 — are increasingly flexing their muscles at work. That was the finding of Net Positive Barometer, a survey of 4,000 American and U.K. employees conducted (and personally funded) by Paul Polman, the former Unilever CEO, to glean insights into their attitudes about the companies for which they toil and about business overall.
The topline: About three quarters (76 percent) want to work for companies trying to have a positive impact on the world, but 62 percent say that current efforts by business to tackle environmental and societal challenges don’t go far enough. And half would consider resigning from their job if the values of the company didn’t align with their own. Indeed, 35 percent said they already had resigned from a position for this reason — Polman dubbed it "conscious quitting" — while the same proportion said they would consider taking a pay cut to work for a company that shared their values.
These young workers "don't see that you’re moving fast enough," Polman told me last week. "And they don't understand your commitments versus what they really see in the company. So, it's about ambition, it's about communication and creating awareness in the company. This conscious quitting is a new phenomenon. It is one that we're pointing out to CEOs and can hopefully galvanize them into higher action."
I’ll admit to some skepticism here. After all, we’re always our best selves in responding to surveys: We tell pollsters that we’re ready, willing and able to make greener purchasing choices, boycott brands perceived to be bad, fly and drive less, avoid overpackaged products and always recycle empty containers. So why wouldn’t young idealists profess to putting their work values over their wallets, to taking a pay cut or heading out the door if their employers don’t measure up to the moment? After all, who would admit otherwise?
But Polman’s isn’t the only study to reach this conclusion.
A Yale School of Management survey last year found that 51 percent of business students would accept lower salaries to work for an environmentally responsible company. And roughly a fifth of respondents said they’d be unwilling to work for a company with bad environmental practices, no matter the salary.
And last month, KPMG surveyed around 6,000 U.K. office workers, students, apprentices and those who had left higher education in the previous six months. It found that nearly half (46 percent) want the company they work for to demonstrate a commitment to sustainability (referred to as ESG in this particular study), while one in five said they had turned down a job offer when a company’s ESG commitments didn’t comport with their values.
Leadership appears to be listening. In its 2023 CxO Sustainability Report, Deloitte found more than half of C-suite execs saying employee activism on climate had led their organizations to increase sustainability actions over the past year; 24 percent said it led to a "significant" increase. One good reason: Around a third of CxOs said climate change is negatively affecting their employees’ physical and mental health, according to the report.
As Polman told me, engaging young professionals comes down to three key words: communication, ambition and empowerment.
"If you want to motivate your employees, you need to communicate," he said. "If you want to get into their hearts and minds, you need to set targets that are realistic, what science tells you is needed. People are not dumb; you don't want to treat them as children."
There’s a significant credibility gap, he said. "Over 40 percent of employees think that CEOs don't care. That's a serious issue. That's where greenwashing becomes a problem. I think that increasingly puts companies at danger."
He’s right, of course. In a world competing for talent and seeking to nurture tomorrow’s leaders, being able to motivate and inspire early-career professionals could become a superpower for companies. And it all starts with the CEO. Being seen as authentically engaged, having the proof points to back it up, and motivating and supporting employees in stepping up to the challenges will become competitive advantages for many companies.
And as we learned at GreenBiz 23, there’s no shortage of young professionals ready to meet the moment, if only you give them a chance and a voice.
Thanks for reading. You can find my past articles here. Also, I invite you to follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn, subscribe to my Monday morning newsletter, GreenBuzz, from which this was reprinted, and listen to GreenBiz 350, my weekly podcast, co-hosted with Heather Clancy.