Trend: Employee activism on sustainability marches on

Thousands of Australian students gather for protest rally, School Strike 4 Climate, to demand urgent action on climate change.

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.