Prioritize the environment or deal with climate-quitting, experts say

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According to a 2023 survey, 51% of US workers say they would consider quitting their jobs if the company’s environmental actions don’t align with theirs, and 35% said they already have. The number of quitters rose to 44% within Gen Z and Millennial workers, who also said that they would take a pay cut to work for a company that shared their values.

The figures come from the 2023 Net Positive Employee Barometer, a survey led by former Unilever CEO Paul Polman, which looked at over 4,000 employees across the US and the UK. The study found that 73% of American workers were anxious about climate change, and 61% said they want to see their company take a stronger stance on the environment. Only 34% found their company’s current commitments enough.

When it came to considering a new job, 77% of Gen Z and Millennials said the company’s commitment to the environment would be an important consideration. With Gen X and older respondents, the number was lower but still significant, with 69% agreeing.

A KPMG study from early 2023 found that one in three 18- to 24-year-olds in the UK have rejected a job offer based on the company’s ESG record.

This rising trend among workers across the globe, is called “climate-quitting” and it’s happening as part of a wider trend of “conscious-quitting,” where employees quit firms that don’t align with their greater societal values.

“Employees are asking themselves ‘Do I want to work for an organization that is not responsible, that doesn’t have a purpose or meaning?'” Tom Lakin tells CNBC Make It. Lakin, who is the global practice director at recruitment company Robert Walters Group and an expert on the future of work and ESG, says the term gained traction in early 2023.

As America is facing its hottest year on record in 2024, the anxiety over climate change is set to only grow, and so will public calls for companies to do more, experts estimate. Here is what they suggest managers do to respond to these calls, and what unsatisfied employees do to enact change. 

Companies need to ‘get on board’

A 2023 McKinsey report found that only 19% of companies across seven industries were addressing Environmental, Social and Governance concerns to retain, attract or motivate employees. The survey additionally found that, across the world, only European organizations tended to prioritize environmental topics over the other two components of ESG. North American organizations prioritized it the least out of everyone. 

“Recruitment and HR professionals need to get on board with this because the progressive and pioneering companies are already unlocking the benefits of it,” Lakin says. “Unilever, for example, uses their strong environmental sustainability credentials as a talent magnet.” Unilever is on track to have zero carbon emissions by 2030 and they are vocal about supporting legislation in phasing out fossil fuels like coal.

“By 2025, 75% of the working population will be millennials, meaning [companies] will need to have credible plans to address ESG if they want to continue to attract and retain this growing pool of talent,” KPMG head of ESG John McCalla Leacy wrote in their report.

Although the United States seems to be trailing behind other markets in utilizing environmental commitments as a hiring advantage, Lakin still seems optimistic about corporate ESG action.

“We are seeing an uplift in the number of organizations that link executive pay to ESG outcomes,” he says, especially seeing that within companies in the S&P 500, the number grew to 73% in 2021. “It’s significant and growing, so that means the pressure is coming from the top which is going to be a key indicator of change.”

Employee power

Employees also have the power to enact important change, according to Jennifer Allyn, campaign lead for Climate Voice, a non-profit that pushes companies to take action, and enact industry-wide changes. 

“A lot of companies only focus on their internal carbon footprint and their own operations, and we feel like that’s a missed opportunity because the private sector has such an important voice in public policy debates,” Allyn says. “Our theory of change is that they need some pressure, and the pressure should be their employees.”

Although she views climate quitting as an important trend, she recognizes that not everyone has the financial bandwidth to just quit their jobs and recommends “climate-staying.”

To see where a company lands in its environmental impact, Lakin recommends checking out Good Jobs First Violation Tracker, a database that shows corporate offenses on a variety of topics from the environment to discrimination. 

Climate Voice has an Employee Climate Action Guide and offers one-on-one sessions on how to look into a company’s climate impact, such as which trade organizations it’s a part of, and the best ways to demand change, write proposals and pitch to company executives.

Then Allyn recommends taking action collectively, by engaging co-workers through educational events or forming a working group.

“It’s not just criticizing the company, it’s saying ‘We love working here and we are proud to work here, and we want this company to be a force for good,’ “she says. And it works; she references Google’s decision to stop building AI tools for oil and gas drillers, which she says came from internal pressure from employees.

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