Employee Activism: A Powerful, Yet Untapped, Driver of Climate Action

Dominic Hofstetter
Apr 23, 2019 · 6 min read
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos (left) is one of a handful of corporate executives who could set the world on a course to avoid the most perilous effects of global warming. (Photo by Grant Miller for the GWB Presidential Center)

On 10 April 2019, the initiative Amazon Employees for Climate Justice submitted an open letter to Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos, demanding that the tech giant take greater action on climate change. “We have the resources and scale to spark the world’s imagination and redefine what is possible and necessary to address the climate crisis”, the letter states. So far, it has been signed by more than 6’700 employees.

What seems like a small symbolic gesture might well mark a turning point in our effort to stem global warming. Employee activism holds enormous potential to set the world on the right course for safeguarding human civilization as we know it. To unlock its power, we need to spark a new social movement.

The world has been grappling with climate change for more than 40 years. As of this writing, we are still not on track to avoid the most perilous effects of a warming planet. Our continued inability to make significant progress is mainly a result of political inaction. The failure of our political system is so severe that the British journalist George Monbiot recently argued that the only thing that could still prevent an ecological apocalypse was mass civil disobedience.

Policy is critical because it sets the goals, defines the rules, and distributes the power in our society. Regrettably, anti-climate lobbying groups excel at influencing the legislative process in almost all of the world’s political arenas. Not only do they outspend and outsmart climate advocates. They also monopolize narratives around job creation and economic growth — arguments that are often the decisive factors in shaping legislation.

Herein lies the tragedy. The argument that environmental regulation kills jobs is not supported by research. In fact, economists predict that unchecked climate change will have devastating effects on the world’s economy. A recent study in Nature estimates that the difference in economic cost between 1.5 and 2 degrees of global warming could be as much as $20 trillion, or 26% of world GDP. So all companies — except those in the business of selling carbon — should have an incentive to lobby for decisive climate action.

Indeed, a growing number of multinationals appear to be serious about reducing their carbon footprints, including Unilever, DSM, Coca-Cola, Apple, Microsoft, Novartis, IKEA, and Google — and countless other large corporations that have publicly spoken out for more stringent climate action.

But why don’t these companies use their power to influence climate policy?

The answer lies in an unwritten rule of corporate lobbying: companies only intervene in legislative processes related to their core business. Food companies care are about packaging rules, technology companies about labor regulation, and retailers about trade law. Lobbying agendas are driven primarily by rational monetary interests. If a piece of legislation doesn’t have a significant impact on a company’s bottom line, its regulatory affairs team will not engage.

Climate change is too diffuse an issue to directly relate to anyone’s core business, with the exception of those industries relying on fossil fuels. Moreover, the impacts of global warming materialize over a time horizon that is too long to be relevant to a company’s financial performance. So even those corporations most committed to curbing global warming don’t lobby for stringent climate legislation.

“Washington’s dirty secret is that even the American companies that are really good on sustainability put net zero effort into lobbying Congress on climate change.”, wrote U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse in 2016. “Mars is going fully carbon neutral. No lobbying. Walmart is spending tens of millions of dollars to become sustainable. No lobbying. Apple and Google and Facebook are forward-looking, cutting-edge companies of the future, and they lead in sustainability. No lobbying.”, he added in a Harvard Business Review article.

So how do we encourage companies to start lobbying for more decisive climate policy?

Corporate lobbying agendas are often set directly by the CEO. Therefore, the key to mobilizing companies for climate action is to make the CEO care. Three groups of people are best positioned to do that: owners, customers, and employees.

Shareholders and consumers have an impressive track record in influencing corporate behavior around a broad range of environmental concerns. In contrast, employee activism is a relatively recent phenomenon. It has started to make headlines in mainstream media at numerous occasions over the past couple of years, most notably when Google employees successfully mobilized against the company’s handling of sexual harassment, its involvement in a defense project involving drone footage analysis, and more recently over its appointment of an ethics committee on artificial intelligence. Facebook, Salesforce, Uber, and Microsoft have also faced backlash from their employees over ethically questionable business conduct.

Employee activism in action: Google employees at the company’s Sunnyvale campus walk-out on 1 November 2018 to protest the company’s handling of sexual harassment allegations. (Source: Wikipedia)

The increasing popularity of employee activism is driven by a growing collective conscience amongst workers. A 2017 study on corporate activism and employee engagement inside Fortune 100 companies showed that 45% of respondents care about a company’s actions on societal issues. In a world where dozens of companies are now bigger than entire countries, employees have the potential to wield power of geopolitical scale.

To harness that power, we need to spark a social movement around employee activism. As with all social movements, the first step is to raise people’s consciousness. “At its core, consciousness translates into awareness, both internal awareness of self and external awareness of context”, argues David A. Snow, a professor of sociology at the University of California and an authority in the field of social movements.

With climate change featuring more prominently in the news, general awareness of its existence and threat is at an all-time peak. However, we do need to heighten the public’s consciousness in understanding what Snow calls the locus of blame — the causal link between a company’s action and the climate injustice it creates. Here, organizations like InfluenceMap — which analyzes corporate lobbying practices related to climate change — and the Carbon Disclosure Project — which collects company-level emissions data and maintains a database with the world’s major climate offenders— can provide information that is critical for employees to understand what role their companies play in driving climate change.

Consciousness can then give rise to conscience — the value-laden component of awareness. Views about what’s morally proper and timely are important motivational factors in social movements, according to Snow. To develop such opinions, employees must first recognize their power to influence their firm’s business policies and then move from a self-identity of bystander to one of activist. Learning about successful activism campaigns can help with both.

Any new corporate conscience will have to oust current corporate norms, especially those emerging from the shareholder value paradigm. The idea that the firm exists to serve its owners is so entrenched that employee activists will inevitably be forced to fight an uphill battle.

Here is where civil society actors such as NGOs could make a difference by lending structural support to initiatives of employee activism. They could provide best practice examples around a range of topics, including how to use online petition platforms, leverage the benefits of peer-to-peer support groups, facilitate conversations about values with co-workers, and establish a line of communications between concerned employees and senior management. They could also provide legal advice and representation for activists, the need for which was made clear by Google’s repressive reaction to the November 2018 employee walk-out. In situations where employer repercussion might be severe, they could even play the role of voice aggregator, engaging with senior executives on behalf of employees and thus providing the first line of defense against individual punishment.

2019 is the year of unprecedented public support for climate legislation. The world seems to be far closer to serious climate action than at any point since the turn of the millennium. According to Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, the only thing that’s missing is “for the good guys in the corporate sector to start showing up.” Nobody is better positioned to make CEOs care than employees.

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