Employee activism pushes brands to do more than talk about values

Climate marchers

Companies have never been more focused on operating sustainably, with higher levels of awareness, engagement and commitment on climate issues, according to the latest annual State of Green Business report.

“Heightened corporate focus is, at least, cause for positivity,” wrote Richard Mattison, chief executive officer of Trucost, the subsidiary of S&P Global that co-authored the report.

Most U.S. companies now publicly acknowledge their exposure to climate risks. Senior management engages on climate issues at more than 90 percent of companies, and companies are influencing suppliers to reduce their environmental impact.

Furthermore, over half of major companies (55 percent globally) now have carbon targets in place (and they better stick to them, since corporate carbon emissions have increased 3 percent globally). And people are investing with their values: $30.7 trillion assets under management are run according to sustainability objectives, a major proof point showing that sustainable business is hitting an inflection point.

Employees push their companies to go further

Meanwhile, employee activists are putting sustainability into hyperdrive, recognizing their power to push employers and policymakers to go further, faster on environmental and social issues, said Deonna Anderson, assistant editor at GreenBiz, in the report.

For example, Amazon pledged to drive down carbon emissions in response to 1,700 employees who walked out of work for the Global Climate March last September, and a year earlier its employee shareholders convinced the company to invest in 100,000 electric delivery vehicles. At tech company Github, employees resigned in protest of its contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, action echoed by employees at Whole Foods and Ogilvy.

At the VERGE cleantech conference last autumn, Salesforce Sustainability Director Sunya Norman said its leadership is responsive to employees—even though she doesn’t advocate outright for employee activism, she noted that “one way into [corporate] advocacy is a groundswell of employee concern and engagement.”

And companies that don’t lead on climate and social justice or fail to live up to their commitments are likely to face collective action from their employees. They may also find it hard to hire and retain talent: millennials moving into the workplace want to work for CEOs who lead and share their values.

“Employees are just beginning to recognize their power,” wrote Anderson, citing a report from Weber Shandwick and KRC Research that found 38 percent of workers nationwide identify as activist, and an additional 11 percent have considered speaking out on the climate crisis and other issues. A number of activist groups have formed, too, such the Tech Workers Coalition and Google Workers for Climate Action. Even labor unions, long the stewards of employee rights, are stepping up to the plate: the BlueGreen Alliance brings together U.S. labor unions and environmental organizations to solve environmental challenges and build a stronger economy.

Employee activism is mostly in the tech sector now, but that’s changing fast as B Corps grow and more companies put social and environmental performance on par with—or above—profits.