Hey big tech, history is watching you
This article is adapted from GreenBiz's Energy Weekly newsletter, running Thursdays. Subscribe here.
On the eve of New York’s Climate Week, workers at major tech companies — including Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon — are planning Climate Strikes on Friday, where employees will demand that their companies do more to support the transition to a low carbon economy.
Isn’t big tech leading on climate?
While Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon and Google are trailblazers when it comes to clean energy procurements, their overall corporate strategies to avert climate change have been all over the place.
All four companies have committed to running on 100 percent renewable energy and signed the "We’re Still In" pledge to uphold the Paris climate agreement, but at the same time have continued to work with fossil fuel companies to grow their own companies.
Amazon aggressively pursues partnerships with oil and gas as a new source of revenue, reported Gizmodo earlier this year. Google and Microsoft, trailblazers in renewable energy procurement and advocates for a carbon tax, are also undoing climate progress by seeking business opportunities leveraging their technologies to enhance fossil fuel companies' exploration, extraction and production of oil.
I write this not to disparage these herculean efforts to transition operations to clean energy; indeed, the role of the private sector, and especially tech, in the transition to clean energy is unrivaled. But it is a mistake to think of these companies’ climate actions as a monolith. They are giant, sprawling corporations, and while energy teams are moving mountains, it seems other departments are eroding them.
Employees have power
In tech, where the competition for talent is so tight, employees are influential in the organization’s policy. In fact, Jeff Bezos already has announced a "Climate Pledge," promoting Friday’s walkout, and Google just announced the largest renewable procurement deal in history.
And it’s not the first time employees have influenced employers on social issues. For instance, Microsoft employees’ protest when its technologies supported ICE’s family separation policy, resulting in the company distancing itself from the "cruel and abusive" practice. Or Google employees walking out in response to sexual misconduct claims.
The jury is out on if such actions result in lasting corporate change, but a strike could get employers' attention and inspire the company to shift its public stance — especially if doing better could give them a competitive edge. A recent study (that I discovered through Planet Money’s excellent newsletter) found that when a fake company advertised itself as a do-gooder when posting a job on Craigslist, applicants increased by 25 percent. It would have had to raise its compensation by a third to get an equivalent increase. Simply put: It’s in companies’ financial interest to do good.
With the reputational benefits of aligning the company with social causes, it makes sense that major corporations are aiming to rebrand the role of business in society. The Business Roundtable just issued a statement saying that corporations need to look beyond the bottom line and invest in "their employees, protect the environment and deal fairly and ethically with their suppliers."
Are companies just in it for the PR?
It’s easy to be cynical of a company’s motives. After all, corporations spearheaded the movements to recycle to divert the attention away from the companies’ culpability in creating single-use products in the 1970s. Fast forward 45 years, and we have hundreds of tons of plastic waste in the United States annually, with no place to put it.
But I don’t think that is (exclusively) the case when it comes to climate. In my capacity at GreenBiz, I work with the heads of energy at many influential organizations, and I have no doubt that they get it. They’re smart, determined and understand the urgency — and opportunities — of transitioning.
At a certain level, I don’t care why companies are making climate commitments — as long as the commitments and actions are meaningful. Over 90 percent of major companies report on corporate social responsibility (CSR), and close to 200 companies are committed using 100 percent clean energy through RE100.
Is that enough? Not yet. But if employees and customers keep pushing, we have a chance at bending the emissions curve to below 1.5 degrees Celsius.