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New Source of Climate Pressure for Companies: Workers

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02/16/2020 | 09:15am EDT

By Russell Gold

Investors and customers aren't the only ones pressuring big companies to address climate change -- employees are joining in too.

From Walmart Inc. to Microsoft Corp., many large companies say that concrete commitments to curb greenhouse-gas emissions and buy green power are becoming important to recruiting and retaining workers, especially younger ones.

The issue is especially pronounced in the tech industry, where competition for skilled workers is fierce, and some employees have turned to activism to prod their employers into action.

At Amazon.com Inc., a group called Amazon Employees for Climate Justice wrote an open letter last year, urging the company to commit to a deadline to secure 100% of its electricity from renewable sources. Signed by several thousand employees, the letter also called out the e-commerce giant for ordering 20,000 diesel-engine vans.

A few months later, Amazon committed to 100% renewables by 2030 and made the largest-ever order for electric delivery vehicles. Amazon said the plan "had been in the works for many years and was not a result of criticism."

Microsoft and Alphabet Inc.'s Google have both made climate pledges in recent months, after employees organized and began asking for more action.

"Employees are flexing their muscle and companies are smart enough to realize that as society changes towards fighting climate change, to be on the right side of that challenge is good for business," said Matt Rogers, co-founder of Nest, the maker of smart-home devices that is now part of Google. He has since left the company.

The climate demands are part of a sea change hitting the corporate world as increasingly vocal workers demand that companies and chief executives take positions on important social and political issues.

"Gone are the days where you can just go work somewhere and make good money and that is all you care about," said Jason Wingard, dean of the school of professional studies at Columbia University. "When we have our career week and we engage with employers on campus, one of the first questions students ask is: 'What do you stand for?'"

Four in five companies expect an increase in employee activism, with climate concerns as a top trigger, according to a recent survey of 375 global executives by law firm Herbert Smith Freehills LLP.

"We see a lot more employees using the workplace as a forum to raise social issues," said London-based partner Silke Goldberg. "They are trying to call out their employers and hold them to account for their values."

Nate Hurst, HP Inc.'s chief sustainability officer, said climate issues are central to making the 50,000 workers at the printer and computer company feel like they are part of something bigger and positive.

"One of the best ways to land top recruits and keep existing staff motivated and engaged is to help them understand how their careers and contributions are critical to HP's sustainability efforts," Mr. Hurst said.

Before a global-climate strike last September, HP sent a memo to its workers, letting them know it would be fine to attend. "You have the support of our leadership team if you choose to lend your time and voice to this important cause," the memo said.

HP has committed to reduce its direct emissions by 25% by 2025 and use 40% renewable electricity by this year.

Walmart recently broke ground on a new headquarters complex with more than 20 buildings in Bentonville, Ark., that it hopes will appeal to climate-conscious workers. It will feature solar panels on parking decks, natural lighting through large windows and timber-framed buildings, a method of construction that uses fewer fossil fuels.

"We are going to create a campus where associates want to be and where we can attract the next generation of top talent," said spokeswoman Anne Hatfield. A top consideration, she said, was climate-friendly buildings.

Companies aren't always able to appease environmentally minded workers. Amazon Employees for Climate Justice recently said it would continue pressuring the company to take more action.

"As Amazon workers, we are responsible for not only the success of the company, but its impact as well. It's our moral responsibility to speak up," said Sarah Tracy, an Amazon software-development engineer.

Amazon spokeswoman Jaci Anderson said it was a violation of policy for employees to speak out against the company. Amazon "will not allow employees to publicly disparage or misrepresent the company or the hard work of their colleagues who are developing solutions to these hard problems," she said.

U.S. businesses, led by the tech industry, have been aggressive in recent years in buying electricity from wind and solar farms. Last year, companies signed deals for a record 9.3 gigawatts of renewable energy, according to the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance, roughly half of average demand on the New York state power grid.

The largest purchaser, for the second straight year, was Facebook Inc. Amazon, Microsoft and Google were all in the top seven.

Those kinds of commitments matter to incoming recruits such as Amanda Willis, a 29-year-old masters of business administration student at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business. For her, sustainability action tops salary and location as criteria for choosing an employer this spring.

"My goal is to work somewhere where I agree with their values," she said.

Write to Russell Gold at russell.gold@wsj.com


Stocks mentioned in the article
ChangeLast1st jan.
ALPHABET INC. -1.99% 1094.6 Delayed Quote.-16.60%
AMAZON.COM, INC. -1.23% 1895.59 Delayed Quote.3.84%
FACEBOOK -3.00% 153.56 Delayed Quote.-22.93%
HP INC. -6.39% 14.53 Delayed Quote.-24.62%
MICROSOFT CORPORATION -1.08% 153.82 Delayed Quote.-1.55%
WALMART INC. -0.24% 118.44 Delayed Quote.-0.16%
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