On September 20, an estimated 4 million people marched in streets around the world demanding that governments take proactive measures to combat climate change. From Austin to Vanuatu, powerful images emerged of citizens protesting lack of leadership around one of our biggest global challenges. Over a two-day period, the Global Climate Strike was covered in more than 38,000 media articles and generated more than 7 million content shares on social media. A peaceful, powerful, global climate activist revolution was born.
The impact of this historic moment was amplified by the courage of Greta Thunberg, the intrepid climate warrior whose astonishing impact on the climate change debate was illuminated by a media post showing two photos side-by-side, taken just one year apart. Her speech at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York on September 23 went viral within hours, as she warned that we are all “in the beginning of a mass extinction” and chastised policymakers for talking only about “money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth” in this moment of crisis.
As we witness this global, grassroots rallying cry for the health of our planet, where do businesses fit in? And what can companies learn from the momentum and emotion of this past week?
Clearly, the timing of the Global Climate Strike immediately prior to the UN Climate Summit in New York was a strong catalyst for companies to make new public climate commitments. Over the past few days, huge corporate players like Amazon, Google, Ikea, Microsoft, and Nike have made significant carbon-related announcements, and a global coalition of 87 companies has pledged to cut emissions even further to help build a low-carbon future.
But taking a step back from these recent commitments and pledges, businesses can learn important lessons from the Global Climate Strike that will help them lead on corporate responsibility and sustainability well into the future.
1. A new generation is rising.
As Seventh Generation stated in a video tweeted out prior to the strike, “The next generation is writing history. Let’s be on their side of it.” To show support for the movement, hundreds of companies closed their doors and online stores, encouraging consumers to participate in the strike, or donated ad space to support the cause. By doing so, these companies aligned themselves with current and future consumers who expect companies to lead with purpose.
This new generation is concerned about our very survival as a species and as a planet — and they are furious that many established interests won’t acknowledge the severity of the crisis at hand. Companies that address these concerns and fears are better able to connect with consumers and stand out through bold, honest communications. One week prior to the strike, Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario published a LinkedIn essay announcing that the company would be closed on September 20. “The climate crisis is a clear and present danger to our health, our pocketbooks and our employees and their families,” she wrote. “We must face extinction head on. Let’s get going.” The company supported this message with a homepage takeover, social engagement, out-of-home ads, and in-store events. Through brave stances like this, in moments that matter most to its customers, Patagonia has emerged as perhaps the leading company in the world on purpose.
2. Consumers are carefully taking note.
Greta Thunberg’s opening comment to the UN General Assembly on September 23 was stark and ominous: “We’ll be watching you.” With these few words, she encapsulated both the challenge and the opportunity facing businesses today. Younger consumers are scrutinizing the activities and commitments of companies by closely tracking them on social media, making ethical choices through the products they purchase, and being willing to walk away if they don’t believe that a company is committed to the issues they care about. Witness the runaway success of the apparel company Everlane, which leads with the brand promise of “radical transparency” and proudly communicates on its website that, “We believe we can all make a difference.” For companies to resonate with this young generation, brand promise and corporate practice must be intimately aligned. Clear, bold strategies that do away with “business as usual” are what these consumers expect from companies that aspire to lead and succeed.
3. Employees are activists with influence.
Employees around the world are increasingly applying pressure in the workplace, demanding transparency and accountability from their companies on climate change commitment. According to a recent report released by United Minds, KRC Research, and my firm, Weber Shandwick, almost 40% of Americans surveyed consider themselves employee activists. And guess what — employee activism works. Witness the trajectory of climate action at Amazon, where over 8,000 employees signed an open letter to Jeff Bezos and the Board of Directors in April of this year asking them to adopt a climate plan shareholder resolution and release a company-wide climate plan addressing multiple concerns outlined in the letter. On September 19, one day prior to the Global Climate Strike, Amazon announced a series of sustainability commitments that addressed many (if not all) of these employee demands.
And the story doesn’t end there. Despite these new commitments, thousands of Amazon employees around the world walked out of their offices the next day, joining Google, Microsoft, and other corporate employees who did the same. These employees are demanding transparency and accountability — and just like Greta Thunberg, they are voicing loud and clear that we have no more time to waste in finding solutions to safeguard a sustainable tomorrow.
While it’s too early to know what the full impact of the Global Climate Strike may be, this moment will certainly be remembered as a day when climate change activists made their voices heard — a day that transformed the echo chamber of climate concern into surround sound. In recent days, many have said we’re at a true tipping point in sustainable business — that business as usual is simply no longer an option. Whether we’ve reached this moment or not, one thing is clear — companies that engage on purpose through bold, transparent commitments and communications will be the ones to attract, inspire, and retain a new generation of engaged employees, consumers, and brand advocates well into the future.
For New Business inquiries please contact Ellen DeMunter at EDemunter@powelltate.com
Edited by John Nagell, Nicole Sheehan & Jim Meszaros | Photo by Lexi Mondot