The Global Climate Strike and How Business Is Responding in the Face of Activism

Friday, September 20, 2019 was an important day for high school student activists. Tens of thousands walked out of their schools or skipped school entirely to participate in Global Climate Strike marches happening in cities across the U.S. and internationally. The latest statistics, at least in the U.S., suggested that students in more than 800 locations planned to go on strike from school for the day to attend protests to raise awareness about climate change and advocate for stronger policies about the changing temperature and weather patterns that they believe are threatening the future of the planet. Katie Eder, 19 and executive director of the youth-led Future Coalition, told USA Today, “It’s going to be a really, really powerful day, the launch of a new era of climate movement. This is just the beginning for us.”

As multitudes of students under the age of 20 rally around climate change and other critical social impact issues, such as gun control, many are challenging the role of business and politicians in supporting real change. Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old from Sweden who has quite literally become the face of youth climate-change activism, told a meeting of this week’s Senate climate crisis task force in Washington, D.C., “Please save your praise. We don’t want it. Don’t invite us here to just tell us how inspiring we are without actually doing anything about it because it doesn’t lead to anything…we don’t want to be heard. We want the science to be heard.”

‘Simply Unacceptable’

Some high-level decision makers are taking action. Several companies, including Patagonia and Burton, are shutting down operations on Friday to stand with the protesters and inspire their employees to get involved. “For decades, many corporations have single-mindedly pursued profits at the expense of everything else — employees, communities and the air, land and water we all share,” Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario wrote in a LinkedIn post. “Now we face a dangerously hot and fast-changing climate that is exacerbating natural disasters, causing food and water shortages, and speeding us toward the biggest economic catastrophe in history. The plain truth is that capitalism needs to evolve if humanity is going to survive.”

Patagonia’s Marcario is one voice. But how willing are key influencers, including brand-name companies, to support controversial topics like climate change (which has both supporters and detractors), so that they, to Thunberg’s point, actually “do something” to further policy and bring about change? What’s more, are they morally obligated to jump into the fray?

“As more young people enter the business world, they’re able to exercise some influence over the way that businesses think about their responsibilities with respect to the environment.” — Brian Berkey, Wharton Assistant Professor of Business Ethics

At least on climate change, Brian Berkey, a Wharton assistant professor of legal studies and business ethics, tells Knowledge@Wharton High School that progress in this area has been slow. “Business’s record so far on the climate issue is, on the whole, quite disappointing, though there are at least some encouraging signs that things may be improving. Part of this, I suspect, is due to the growing concern about the issue, especially among young people. As more young people enter the business world, they’re able to exercise some influence over the way that businesses think about their responsibilities with respect to the environment.”

Berkey and Eric Orts, a professor of legal studies and business ethics and director of Wharton’s Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership, joined the Knowledge@Wharton radio show on SiriusXM this week to address the very issue of businesses taking a stand on critical societal issues.

The discussion was inspired by the recent news that 145 companies, including Uber, Gap, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Levi Strauss, are calling on Congress to do something regarding gun violence and mass shootings in the U.S. In a letter sent in September to Senate members, they asked for new laws on background checks on all gun sales and red flag laws allowing the courts to issue extreme risk protection orders. The letter said, “Doing nothing about America’s gun violence crisis is simply unacceptable.”

According to Orts, the letter shows that CEOs of companies are becoming more attentive to some of the political responsibilities that they are being forced to undertake. “Gun violence is one huge issue,” he noted. “A lot of companies are being forced to take stronger positions on climate and other topics. This is part of a trend.”

At stake? Customers who might disagree with a company’s political participation and boycott their business, resulting in fewer sales and profits. This has historically contributed to inacation on the part of big businesses who choose to stay on the sidelines, or, as Orts called it, adopt a policy of “business neutrality.”

Business Is Part of Society

And yet, as Orts suggested, more companies seem to be rallying around big issues like gun violence because the human toll is too great and they can no longer afford to “keep their hands clean.” In 2018, following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Dick’s Sporting Goods, for example, voluntarily removed assault-style weapons from its inventory and raised the age to purchase any other gun to 21. By the end of the year, Dick’s said that the new policy caused a sales decline of $150 million.

“As a business, you do have to make an ethical choice here that involves the tradeoffs,” said Orts. “You can’t just be a CEO trying to maximize your returns and looking at only what the customers want. You have a responsibility to protect your people who work there. We have 100 people killed every day in the U.S. It’s an epidemic-level problem that no other country has a problem with. It’s because of our laws. At some point on these high salient issues that are a threat to lots of the population, it becomes a responsibility to be part of the society and take a stand.”

Echoed Berkey: “People in positions of power and authority in the business world have a responsibility to take even much more controversial public positions in order to contribute to addressing really important moral issues. Climate change is one of the good examples of this.”

Which brings us back to this week’s protests, leading into the Climate Action Summit at the United Nations in New York City on September 23, and the growing list of companies that are taking a stand on climate issues by closing their doors, including Ben & Jerry’s. Climate change, argues Wharton business ethics professor Philip Nichols, is a particularly critical area of business engagement and influence. “Given the very serious potential threat posed by climate change, it would seem to be an area in which every member of society should be engaged, and business is part of society,” he said. “Business is not excused from social engagement just because it happens to be business.”

Thunberg and her armies of activists also help the business world to focus on what really matters, added Nichols. “They present a vivid and easily understandable expression of social norms and expectations. Such demonstrations make it easier for business leaders and government leaders to understand and take into account the social context in which business operates and to which government should be accountable.”

Conversation Starters

Did you participate in the Global Climate Strike? Share your story in the comment section of this article.

Do you agree with professor Eric Orts when he says, "You can’t just be a CEO trying to maximize your returns and looking at only what the customers want."?

Who is Greta Thurnberg? Why do you think she has risen to such prominence as an activist?

5 thoughts on “The Global Climate Strike and How Business Is Responding in the Face of Activism

  1. One of the most exciting things about issues that face the world is how people and companies adapt to adversity. I agree with professor Eric Orts on his statement that “You can’t just be a CEO trying to maximize your returns.” This is evident from the increasing support for action on climate change from celebrities and huge corporations. Orts mentions the “trend” that companies are taking positions on topics, but it has become a new normal only eight months later. In February, Jeff Bezos announced a donation of $10 billion to combat climate change. Still, I believe that companies should be fighting climate change to not only fulfill their moral obligation to save the planet but also to retain their younger customers. Companies should cease to rely on fossil fuels and switch to reusable energy. By making their packages out of readily biodegradable or compostable materials, companies could vastly reduce waste. They could even coat the interior of boxes in a carbon, nitrogen, and water solution, which would act as a catalyst in the process of decomposition. Their websites could also have a page that would allow customers to search for ways to contribute to a purpose in which they believe. Users could then filter by event type, cause, organization type, and location. Ergo, companies would not forfeit any profits but would still be supporting a cause. Companies are in a position of power and have many resources at their disposal. By enabling their customers, they are arguably doing more than if they were donating to a fund.

    The global awareness and activism that Burton and Patagonia showcase must extend to companies that do not cater to those who interact with the outdoors, lest they wish to be boycotted by youth activists. Today, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States has a staggering 14.7 percent unemployment rate, the highest since the Great Depression, and the US’s GDP has decreased by approximately 4.8 percent from the fourth quarter of 2019. While companies are suffering immense losses, they are acting to support citizens around the world. However, the kinds of relief that companies are providing, such as Amazon sending $7 million to Americans in need or Apple producing 20 million masks, should parallel their support for the fight against climate change. By doing so, they would attune themselves to the new world of youth activism and maintain support from activists and retain capital.

  2. I remember the day, Friday, September 20, 2019 very well. I wanted not only to be present but to make a difference. I wanted to be a “Greta”. Like many people I was very excited to advocate for climate change, see Greta Thunberg speak, and be a part of this historical day. As my friends and I made the trip to downtown Manhattan, we decided we would use our collective social media influence to boycott companies that were not doing their part. We decided to boycott Netflix and Chipotle as they have not disclosed their greenhouse gas emissions nor their water and forestry metrics to help explain how they plan to adjust to a warming planet. We hoped boycotting these businesses would make a difference as companies would see fewer sales and hence lower profits. This would hopefully make companies pay attention and get out of a “state of neutrality” (Eric Orts). However, while we were taking the train, we began to discuss what motivated us to protest today. As I was upset at the lack of support from businesses I couldn’t believe that one of my friends was inspired to protest that day because of Nike. I was pleased to learn that companies like Nike were trying to protect the planet and not waiting for solutions. They are currently creating solutions in their “Planet work” initiative which is focused on carbon, waste, water and chemistry. That was the beginning of my realization that I needed to learn more about companies’ policies before making a harsh judgement.

    In my experience many people in my community do not give businesses who are advocating for an issue the respect they deserve. My community has conflicted or limited knowledge on what social and political issues certain businesses are supporting and what they are doing to get their point across. I realized that many people, especially teenagers, get the wrong impression of what businesses support through biased news articles and just misinterpreted information. That’s why I think it would be very helpful for many people to become familiar with Sanjana Yeddula’s invention, PoliPro (https://kwhs.wharton.upenn.edu/2020/10/future-of-the-business-world-raising-gen-z-political-awareness/). However, instead of using PoliPro on political platforms, maybe there can be a chrome extension used for companies and how they address social and political issues. People can then highlight and look up basic information about companies, what they support, and what they are doing to achieve their goals. This new version could also put the company’s policies in a more understandable form where consumers will not have to look at third party sources to get an understanding of a company’s goals. Consumers will be armed with the knowledge and can influence other companies’ platforms with purchase power.

    In today’s current climate it would also be helpful to use an app like Polipro to see businesses’ policies on mask wearing/vaccination mandates. Customers can decide for themselves if they want to boycott these businesses if this is an important issue for them. With the spread of the delta variant, knowledge of business’s policies can lead to relief for some and strong opposition and protests for others. In recent weeks, some private companies big and small, such as Google, the NFL and Disney have announced that vaccines are mandatory for staff before they return to offices in the fall (https://abcnews.go.com/Business/google-joins-growing-list-employers-mandating-covid-19/story?id=79120671).

    This cooperation between businesses and the public is key to making the world a better place. Business advocacy and people’s trust go hand and hand in tackling global issues. Both sides need to work together as businesses have the resources to promote change while the general public has the numbers and the support to encourage change in the first place. So the next time you dislike a company, find out what they stand for, know the facts and then make your decision. Change can only come with cooperation.

  3. Our planet is dying, and we know we are the ones at fault. Global warming has been recognized as a significant issue by scientists since 1896, and it is common knowledge that the exponentially increasing amounts of greenhouse emissions that our species emits is the primary cause. Though once widely denied or ignored, as the severity of this phenomenon accelerates, our society has pivoted to acknowledging that climate change is a dire issue and actively working to slow its effects. Professor Berkey’s articulation that young people are “able to exercise some influence over the way that businesses think about their responsibilities with respect to the environment” is spot on – the interests of society carry a good deal of power, and our collective recognition of the austerity of climate change has piqued the interests of major companies and established the trend of embracing sustainability in the business world. Many major corporations, like Starbucks and Coca Cola, have made pledges to decrease their carbon footprint, and many more have made baby steps towards achieving their sustainability goals. But this is not enough action to truly make an impact on the acceleration of global warming, and companies may have to completely adhere to this trend to appease their consumers.

    My generation takes climate change incredibly seriously because we will likely have to face the consequences of this phenomenon. Greta Thunberg is a fantastic example of Gen Z’s passion for fighting climate change, as referenced in this article, but smaller examples can be seen everywhere, from your local high-schooler-led march for climate change awareness, to the sustainability clubs at local schools, to the prevalence of the issue on social media. I’ve personally participated in climate change clubs and local clean-ups, and I can attest to the fact that Gen Z is enthusiastic about fighting climate change – there are always more teens than we expect at events, and the many that I’ve talked to have felt strongly about the direction our climate was going in. In fact, one of my closest friends has gone vegan to do her own part in lowering CO2 emissions, as animal agriculture is notorious for releasing billions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere yearly, and I’ve taken inspiration from her and started on a pescatarian diet; even though beef is admittedly delicious, I’ve decided to put our planet first and consume only seafood instead, since seafood farming is less impactful to our planet. As our generation takes up more and more of the consumer market, our voices will be more strongly considered by companies. And as companies are almost solely profit-driven, they will have no choice but to listen to their customers in order to keep their revenues high, and become more and more sustainable as their customer personas evolve.

    But even the baby steps that companies have taken now are wonderfully impactful, as they are indicative of a brighter future. Google’s investment into clean energy and resources have helped this mega-corporation stay carbon neutral, and Adidas’s usage of recycled and beach plastics have helped slightly lessen the amount of physical waste in our oceans and landfills. These efforts in trying to lessen waste, although small, appear to be a sneak peek into a greener future both in and out of the business world. And the rising number of companies that are pledging to take on the issue of pollution and climate change are a fantastic indicator of the overall increase in our society’s actions against climate change.

    Some may argue against certain sustainability efforts, citing that these efforts result in a costlier supply chain process, but one must always remember that money is not edible. It is important to prioritize our planet over a handful of dollars, especially since we are at such a vital point in the climate change process. If we continue to fall down the slippery slope of global warming, the effects could be deadly to the entirety of the human race. So if I have to pay a couple of more dollars for a shirt or struggle with handle-less paper bags when shopping, so be it – smaller inconveniences now will prevent larger ones down the road.

    This trend of sustainability is undoubtedly advantageous for the survival of our world as we know it, and I think this is one of the most valuable business trends of the last few decades. Companies making a step in the morally correct direction is always a nice thing to see, and I hope that as our businesses become increasingly involved with environmental preservation, we become closer and closer to becoming a carbon neutral society.

  4. While the ‘green=gain’ trend in business has crescendoed enormously with the help of youth activism, it remains more of a slogan for companies to hawk than an actual business strategy. It is often enough for these companies to announce an impressive goal to eliminate carbon emissions, satiating any minor discontent in their millions of consumers, never to achieve this goal. Companies in the fast fashion industry, which are responsible for over 10% of total carbon emissions, are often guilty of making vague claims of sustainability. For example, H&M’s Conscious brand’s tagline is ‘Sustainable Fashion: Women’s Organic and Sustainable Clothing,’ claiming that 50% of each Conscious piece is made of ‘sustainably sourced’ clothing. The kicker is that there is no industry definition for what is ‘sustainably sourced.’ It can mean anything, from exclusively organic material or polyester, and H&M doesn’t tell you more in the fine print.
    So why do these companies make such bold statements when they do not plan on pulling through? Would the fabrication not cause a decline in customer loyalty and sales? Well, the truth is that most of the real advocates for climate change have long ago stopped purchasing products from their store. Remember, this is FAST fashion: their consumers buy because it is cheap and stylish, not because of the company’s carbon footprint. Millions of young advocates around the world are guilty of this, myself included. When I walked out for the Global Climate Strike in 2018, I was probably wearing a sweatshirt from Zara, or maybe even a shirt I bought from China. I enjoy keeping up with which companies have reduced their carbon footprint or improved safety standards and human rights for factory production in Bangladesh, but I buy their products regardless because they are cheap and stylish. Only so many people can afford thrifting or truly sustainable brands like Patagonia, which is how fast fashion makes its killing.

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