The upcoming Global Climate Strike, a weeklong series of walkout events beginning this Friday, September 20, provides a unique opportunity for leading brands to engage their customers and employees — current and future — in what promises to be one of the most significant global movements of its kind. Nevertheless, only a scattering of well-known progressive brands has publicly endorsed participation by their employees.
The September 20 Global Climate Strike was inspired by Swedish student Greta Thunberg, whose determination to advocate for climate action sparked a wave of school strikes in Europe, leading to the international #FridaysForFuture movement.
As of this writing, more than 2,400 Global Climate Strike events are planned in more than 115 countries, including 1,000 cities. The series of events coincides with the 2019 Climate Week activities in New York City.
Given that New York City is the location for Climate Week, of particular interest is participation by organizations in the United States. Groups in 145 U.S. cities have already registered their Global Climate Strike events.
As one demonstration of the degree to which climate action is perceived as a mainstream issue in at least one leading coastal city, the New York City Department of Education has announced that it will excuse all students with parental permission to participate in the Global Climate Strike from attending school on September 20.
If any leading U.S. corporations are supporting participation by their employees in the Global Climate Strike, they are not doing so publicly.
Lush Cosmetics is supporting employees who participate by shuttering all of its operations and closing its 250 stores on Friday; Canadian stores will close a week later. The company also plans to amplify messages from the strikers through its stores and digital platforms.
Ben & Jerry’s is encouraging its fans to “ratchet up the pressure on politicians and policy makers,” and join a Global Climate Strike event in their area. They have provided a link to the Global Climate Strike event registration page on their website.
Seventh Generation is also using its website to encourage customers to register for events, and it is planning to donate all of its media resources to climate messaging from September 20 to September 27.
Patagonia is supporting the Global Climate Strike through its Patagonia Action Works organization. The company has also posted an essay on student climate activists by employee-activist Madalina Preda on its blog. Patagonia is also planning walkouts from all of its stores on September 20.
Since 350.org’s announcement last month, a few other companies have announced they will participate in Friday’s walkout as well.
For example, in an acknowledgment how climate change can have an impact on the sporting industry in the long term, dependent Vermont-based Burton Snowboards announced its support for the Global Climate Strike on August 30:
“We’re closing all of our global offices and owned stores for business on Friday, September 20th so everyone can walk out and join the strike in their regions. We’re using all of our owned flagship stores as a gathering place on the morning of September 20th where people can make signs and walk to nearby marches.”
Finally, the organic foods company Nature’s Path said some of its U.S. employees will participate in this Friday’s strike. A week later, the company’s staff in downtown Vancouver will join environmental activists during the Canadian Climate Strike on September 27. In addition, Nature’s Path said it will donate a portion of all online sales from the company’s online shopping portal, up to $10,000, to 350.org.
With just a handful of companies in public support, the Global Climate Strike is turning into a test case for employee activism.
Many companies may well be quietly supporting employees who choose to participate in Global Climate Strike events, especially if they are acting as individuals. If so, they have not pushed their support into the media spotlight.
In addition, the participation issue becomes complicated if employee activists identify themselves through their corporate brand.
Traditionally, employee actions have fit into the worker union framework, dealing with personal issues like pay, hours, benefits and safety.
More recently, employee activists have begun to lobby their companies over corporate policies on climate change, sexual harassment, immigrant rights and other matters related to corporate social responsibility.
That can lead to tension between a brand and its workers. For example, Google sparked an uproar leading into last summer’s Pride march in San Francisco, when it asked employees marching with its float to refrain from protesting anti-LGBTQ content on YouTube.
Another type of tension can occur when employees protest corporate policies that support controversial government policies, as recently illustrated by the employee walkout at Wayfair.
A variation on that tension between a brand and its employees is also in play at Amazon, where hundreds of employees have publicly announced that they will join the Global Climate Strike. The action follows other attempts by Amazon employees to advocate for ramping up climate action at the company.
As the corporate social responsibility movement matures, companies are beginning to find their voices on many issues of fundamental public concern, from racism to gun safety. It will be interesting to see how many leading U.S. corporations become part of the Global Climate Strike whether they intend to or not, through the actions of their employees.
Editor's note: This wave of employee activism won’t cease anytime soon. So, what’s next? Be a part of this ongoing conversation at 3BL Forum: Brands Taking Stands - What's Next, October 29-30 at National Harbor, MD, just outside Washington, D.C. Together, the 80-plus speakers we will have onstage promise a two-day event that will be fast-paced, high-octane and invaluable with their perspectives on the latest in the environmental, social and governance (ESG) community.
Image credit: Niek Verlaan/Pixabay
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.