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Pushed by Employees, Business (Carefully) Wades into Environmental Activism

Pushed by Employees, Business (Carefully) Wades into Environmental Activism

Jed Oelbaum

Original art by Eli Miller

Original art by Eli Miller

When President Donald Trump recently announced his intention to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, a popular international plan to tackle climate change, he was met by a surprisingly vocal group of critics: business leaders. CEOs from Google, Microsoft, and General Electric, among others, publicly spoke out in support of the accord. More than 900 companies and investors signed a letter recommitting themselves to the agreement’s core tenets. Other brands made themselves heard through ad campaigns. Robert Iger, CEO of Disney, and Tesla’s Elon Musk resigned from White House advisory councils over the matter, with Musk calling the withdrawal “not good for America or the world.”

The executives may have been taking a chance by opposing the president, but they were also under pressure from their own employees to speak up. Recent research shows that Americans, especially the younger generation, are taking their activist expectations to work with them. This is a natural next step for a public that is increasingly turning to the private sector to stand up for social issues, and punishing brands that come up short.

Alison DaSilva, executive vice president of marketing agency Cone Communications, which tracks trends in corporate social responsibility efforts, says a growing number of employees are looking for leadership from their companies on environmental, economic, and civic issues.

“The boundaries in and outside the workplace have become increasingly blurred,” she wrote in an email.

A survey by private research group Povaddo, released in May, found that a majority of employees at Fortune 1000 companies believe corporate America needs to play a more prominent role in dealing with society’s big challenges. Even higher levels of support emerged for individual causes, like community development, improving public education, and notably, renewable energy; 65 percent of employees want to see their company and CEO push for renewable energy efforts. (The number looking for leadership on renewables at work jumps to a solid 73 percent among millennials.) Those polled wanted to see employers utilize more green energy sources, make public statements and monetary donations, build cause marketing campaigns, and even actively oppose government policies unfavorable to renewable technologies.

While subjects such as paid family leave and supporting veterans garnered more enthusiasm, renewable energy stood out for its bipartisan and intergenerational backing, says William Stewart, Povaddo’s president and founder. “Renewable energy cuts across all the different demographic groups,” he says, “across age, political affiliations. … Whether you voted for Trump or Hillary, whether you lived in a blue state or a red state.”

As businesses react to the growing demand for clear, demonstrated social value, Stewart says they’re scrambling for “wide open areas”—in other words, issues that they can take a stand on without pissing off too many people, especially their own employees. (This might not seem like a very brave way to choose social causes, but remember: Until a few years ago, most companies’ policy was to pretty much not piss any people off, if possible.)

To see how narrowly this math cuts, in Povaddo’s study, when asked about “climate change” rather than “renewable energy,” 20 percent fewer respondents wanted company support. “Inside companies, ‘climate change’ basically breaks down the same way you see in all the other public opinion polls,” Stewart tells me. “So more Democrats than Republicans, more blue state than red state, more younger than older.”

Why this discrepancy between the two terms? “The term ‘climate change’ has become politicized and thereby divisive,” says DaSilva. “‘Renewable energy’ is hopeful and solution-oriented. It refers to innovation, economic growth, and positive environmental impact.”

The Paris Accord, it should be noted, checks both the “climate change” and “renewable energy” boxes: It’s built on the big climate science, but also necessitates policy and investment in a growing renewable energy industry that already employs close to 10 million people.

Business leaders had a range of reasons—from sincere faith in the science of climate change to the economic implications of the treaty—for letting the world know they supported the Paris Accord. But also, corporations spoke out against the Trump administration’s decision because it sent a signal to their stakeholders. And workers increasingly identify as among those stakeholders—for example, last year The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook employees threatened to quit over statements Trump made on Facebook that violated the site’s hate speech policy.

“The complex calculation large companies engage in to determine when to take a public stand on important societal issues must now take into account employee attitudes,” Tony Calandro, Povaddo’s senior vice president for client services, wrote on HuffPost recently, under the headline “The Rise of Activist Employees.” Later he warned: “These findings hold both the promise and the peril for CEOs. Harness the passion of your employees and reap the benefit. Or, remain silent and pay the cost.”

Via Povaddo

Via Povaddo

Companies that sleep on their employee-facing flank risk competitive disadvantage, daring workers to decamp and join more forward-thinking environments. Cone Communications’ 2016 employee engagement study found that more than half of all surveyed workers and 64 percent of millennial workers wouldn’t take a job at “a company that doesn’t have strong social or environmental commitments.”

Plus, businesses that flounder on finding a place in the social sphere could further alienate young staff without a particularly deep personal investment in their companies. Last year Gallup described what it called “the worldwide employee engagement crisis,” pointing to a staggering 70 percent of American workers who are not “involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace.”

While there is a range of ills in corporate America sapping worker engagement, from consistently stagnant wages to poor job security, Povaddo’s research suggests that staff can be more positive, even enthusiastic, about their jobs when they feel their employer is not evil. More than half of those surveyed said they’d be more likely to stay at their job, recommend their company as a place to work, and be more engaged in their daily tasks if their company or CEO made “a real effort to make a difference on an important societal issue.”

Cone Communications reported that among workers they surveyed last year, “55 percent would choose to work for a socially responsible company, even if the salary was less (76 percent among Millennials).” A 2012 UCLA study found that companies that openly adopt environmental standards see 16 percent higher productivity rates than competitors.

CEOs taking public positions on big affairs of the day, like the Paris Accord, might garner headlines but, as Stewart points out, “there are other ways for companies and employees to use their influence beyond the bully pulpit.”

When it comes to social efforts at their companies, he says workers want “new and better feedback channels, ensuring employees are heard by senior management. They want to align the company's investments and pension plans with its social and environmental commitment. And finally [they want] onsite and outside opportunities to demonstrate public support for important societal issues.”

Communicating with staff about corporate responsibility can pay off for everyone involved: At Rolland Fine Papers, a recycled paper manufacturer and the only mill in North America to generate more than 90 percent of their energy needs from biogas, an environmentalist culture “is really driven from the staff upward,” Michele Bartolini, the company’s marketing director, says in a phone interview. Rolland’s switch to biogas, away from fossil fuels and the electricity grid, was instigated by “an office employee who was watching a television program on greenhouse gases,” she says. “And he did a bit of digging. And when he came back to work … he approached the management here.” Bartolini says not only is biogas cheaper than using the electrical grid, but the company’s environmental profile has become a selling point for Rolland’s customers, like Cirque du Soleil and Lush Cosmetics.

One key word in Povaddo’s study is “leadership.” While DaSilva points out business leaders getting in front of immigration, climate change, and LGBTQ rights, there’s no escaping a certain level of cynicism when it comes to the way such corporate activism will be perceived. Leadership requires an investment that goes beyond the superficial; as evidenced by the Pepsi protest commercial disaster, consumers aren’t stupid. Sixty-five percent of respondents to a 2017 Cone Communications’ consumer study said they actually do research when a company takes a stand on a social or environmental issue to ensure its efforts are authentic.

If employees continue to ask for more social commitment from their superiors, “leadership” could also mean staking out positions that aren’t necessarily past the public popularity post (yet). The Paris Accord’s political heft and wide, boundary-crossing acceptance made it a red line for business leaders, but not every social issue shares the public’s enthusiasm for renewable energy. Thankfully, executives likely don’t need pricey studies or consultants to find the causes that their employees care about most, they just need to listen to the people they’ve already hired.

In Calandro’s HuffPost piece, he identifies a group he calls “activist employees,” a core 15 percent of surveyed workers who “regularly consume news on politics, expect their CEOs to be more vocal, and expect to work for a company that makes meaningful attempts at addressing social issues.” These employees skew younger and more female, and tend to already be on management track. Calandro claims that “this suggests that generational turnover will continue to push the activist boundaries of both the employee and employer.” By following them, the logic goes, businesses can find the direction in which to lead.

Given the Trump administration’s controversial agenda, companies will have no shortage of opportunities to take a stand on the issues that matter to their workers and customers. Just in terms of renewable energy, we can already see this happening, with almost half of Fortune 500 companies setting climate-related goals and investing heavily in renewable energy sources. And don’t underestimate how heavily worker opinion will be weighed into those choices.

After Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, Apple CEO Tim Cook’s first move was a letter to his employees, expressing his disappointment and reassuring them of the company’s commitment to renewable energy going forward. Cook wrote, "Knowing the good work that we and countless others around the world are doing, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about our planet’s future.”

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