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Employees to employers: Do better on climate, or we quit

Words: Suchi Rudra

Photos: Tonje Thilesen

Prop styling: Selena Liu

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You don’t have to have ‘sustainability’ in your job title to make a difference for the planet at work. People at every level and in every industry are discovering the power they have.

When Arielle Terry realised her new employer’s retirement plan only included funds that would invest her hard-earned money into fossil fuels, deforestation and other problematic industries, she knew she would have to speak up. 

The Phoenix, Arizona resident, who was 31 at the time and had been working remotely for the small SaaS company for just one month, didn’t have the help and support of hundreds of colleagues, like the protesting employees who have been conducting walkouts at large tech corporations. But reading Tanja Hester’s book Wallet Activism the prior year had opened her eyes to how the money we earn and spend can fund things we don’t agree with.

“Companies don’t talk about how their employees are investing in fossil fuels through their retirement plans”

Arielle Terry

“If you look at big companies, like Google, Amazon, Netflix, these companies all have signed the climate pledge or have sustainability policies. But none of these policies talk about where they hold their cash. They don’t talk about how their employees are investing in fossil fuels through their retirement plans. If you look at Netflix specifically, their cash holdings create more emissions than their company. They say they’re carbon neutral, but no, you’re actually not, because let’s look at your 401(k) [retirement plan],” says Terry.

Searching the Fossil Free Funds database, Terry discovered that her company’s retirement fund options invested employee money specifically into deforestation, fossil fuels, private prisons and weapons. “It was just terrible. None of those align with my values,” she says. However, the company’s 401(k) provider also had an ESG fund, SPFFX, which could be added fairly easily to the funds already available to employees. “This was great. It’s not like we have to switch to a whole new 401(k) provider, because that’s a lot of work and time-consuming. They’re not going to want to do all that, right? They’re going to want to do whatever takes the least amount of time,” says Terry.

Activism moves from the outside in

While the fight against climate change may have begun on the sidewalks, employees are taking up the torch and tackling these issues from within the workplace, even as many teams remain fully remote or on hybrid schedules. Detailed statistics on this burgeoning movement are still rolling out, but a recent survey from Kite Insights of over 7,100 employees across 15 major global industries found that 8 out of 10 are ready and willing to take action on climate change in their workplace.

“Companies are announcing that they’re green, but we see that nothing’s really changing.”

Tessa Wernink

Tessa Wernink, founder of The Undercover Activist in Amsterdam, says that activism used to be more of a political thing that occurred outside of the workplace. But now, she sees more people understanding what they stand for and realising that they can’t be a different person at work. 

“Companies are now announcing that they’re green, but we see that nothing’s really changing. People’s experiences with what companies are saying and what they’re doing don’t correspond. In the end, decisions are being made on the basis of profit and not on purpose. So employees are either accepting the consequences of wanting to work somewhere that actually matches what they value, or they’re staying in their companies to try to make a change. The workplace hasn’t changed, but the employees have,” says Wernink.

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Waiting, waiting, waiting

Even with a strong interest in climate change since her elementary school days, Terry says she “always felt like ‘I’m not going to be able to do anything about it, so why try? Me as a person, I can’t really do anything, what’s the point?’” But the thought of her money funding fossil fuels gave her courage to speak up, realising that “the worst they can say is no.” 

Tweaking an email template she found on the ESG fund website, she wrote to her employer’s benefits manager in August 2022 and received a prompt response: the ESG fund seemed like a great idea and would be taken into consideration. A month went by without any updates, so Terry followed up, and then set a reminder in her calendar to follow up every month.

Meanwhile, Terry established an employee resource group (ERG) on Slack to gather other employees (the company was a mostly remote team) interested in taking action on climate change. After her Climate Club was advertised in the company newsletter, the group rose to 10 members.

By early December, Terry received an email stating that she could ask her question at the company’s first town hall meeting via Zoom – in February. When the long-awaited meeting finally arrived, the CFO engaged in a discussion with Terry (which made her realise that perhaps she should have gone directly to the CFO in the beginning). Before the virtual audience of the company’s remote team, Terry asked point-blank questions and rapidly answered the exec’s questions about the ESG fund in detail. When the CFO said their fund advisor mentioned a specific Vanguard fund as an alternative to SPFFX, Terry had to point out that Vanguard had pulled out of the Net Zero Alliance by the end of 2022, and that this alternative fund actually invested over $23 million in fossil fuels, according to Fossil Free Funds. 

After the meeting, the CFO eventually wrote in the chat that he had asked their 401(k) provider to add SPFFX as an option and it would take 14 days. It was a month until SPFFX became available, but Terry’s persistence had finally paid off.

Conscious quitting, climate quitting

Terry’s goal was eventually achieved, but she admits she had already “checked out” and was more than ready to leave the company as a climate quitter. Had things changed more quickly and easily, perhaps her old employer could have retained her. She now works as a solar loan underwriter at ATMOS Financial, a climate fintech startup. 

As much as millennials like Terry (whose generation will comprise 75 percent of the workforce by 2025) and Gen Zers are pressing their employers for better environmental policies and practices, they are also ready to simply leave the company for “greener” pastures and a more climate-friendly role.

But quitting as an act of protest is not solely a youthful endeavor – employees in their 40s and 50s are also getting involved, as they “consider the future their children will inherit if no action takes place right now,” says Wernink. “For my generation, and I’m 46, the position on sustainability was never really the first thing you thought of when you joined a company.”

“A lot of people have tried to make changes and not managed. So they quit”

Tessa Wernink

A recent KPMG survey showed that 1 in 5 respondents (and 1 out of 3 in the 18-24 year age group) turned down a job offer because the company did not align with applicant’s environmental values. The 2023 Net Positive Employee Barometer report concluded that “businesses were sleepwalking into an era of conscious quitting.” Specifically, about half of respondents in the US and UK would leave their job if the company’s values were not appealing and one third of respondents had already done so (the percentages rose to almost half for Gen Z and millennial respondents).

Wernink has been meeting more people labeling themselves conscious quitters. “You get a lot of people who have tried internally to make changes and have not managed it. So, they decided to do something else – work for a social enterprise or an NGO, start something themselves or become freelancers. And they’re becoming more activist on the whole, maybe not in their workplaces, but joining some activist organisation and being more vocal,” she says.

Beyond the tech walkouts

Although the employee activist efforts taking place in the tech industry have garnered lots of media attention with widely covered walkouts, climate activism inside the workplace is spreading with intensity across all sectors.

As far back as 2021, advertising agency employees have been refusing en masse to work with oil and gas companies, signing onto the Clean Creatives pledge that continues to grow its list of signees large and small.

Wernink’s organisation has worked with employees at a major Dutch bank who took their boss out for dinner to speak about how the bank should be making better progress with its commitment to the Paris Agreement. She also recently spoke with a doctor who told her that medical practitioners have long been dissuaded from being advocates for anything and are expected to just be there to treat people. But people in healthcare are now asking: How they can rebel against the system? How can doctors in hospitals be more activist and raise more of the issues that they see?  

Terry advises people not to get discouraged. “My worst quality is that I’m not a very patient person. But don’t get discouraged, you can do it. I know that’s probably cliche, but it’s true. People have created big changes in this world just by staying persistent and doing the things that they believe in.”

How to activate your inner activist, remotely or onsite

Based on her experience, Arielle Terry offers these key suggestions for others who want to make an impact at work:

• Find the right person in your company to contact. Ask all around.
• Be helpful: provide all the research and information your contact needs upfront.
• Be persistent. Follow up again and again. And again.
• Don’t do it alone!

We’re able to tell stories like this because of people like you. Join others from around the world in supporting Imagine5’s mission towards a sustainable future. Become a member, or donate what you can. Find out more here.

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