Have you seen the phrase “whole-of-government approach to climate” tossed around? It’s a clunky way of saying climate must be factored into every decision, across departments and ministries and boardroom tables covered in mediocre muffins. Joe Biden committed to as much in his first days in office, and Justin Trudeau’s most recent mandate letters show that climate goes well beyond Environment and Climate Change Canada to find purchase on almost every ministry’s to-do list. This is great, because climate is an everything issue that must be addressed as such. But just as climate needs a whole-of-government approach, it also needs a whole-of-work approach.
What do I mean by this? We need climate allies everywhere! While it’s great that there are more climate jobs than ever, it’s also important that people advocate for climate where they already are. You don’t have to retrain as a deep-sea geothermal tech to be of service. You can bring climate to the fore at your hair salon, grocery store, insurance office, denture clinic, fun fur boutique, contact improv dance studio, spelunking institute, retirement community board, Mandarin preschool … Sarah, stop it already! (Kind MVP reader, I can’t!)
The roles for climate-concerned individuals go well beyond office kitchen advocacy to pushing for big change at all levels of organizational culture. This extremely thorough guide from the excellent humans at Project Drawdown covers everything from emissions reduction to business model transformation.
And advocating for climate from the inside is super powerful (and increasingly effective!). If you’d told me a few years ago that Engine No. 1, a small group of shareholders, would chug their way to board seats at Exxon, I would have been gobsmacked—if I knew what a “gob” was.
Helping amplify the climate crisis to powers that be shows there’s company-wide interest in reducing an organization’s emissions. Corporate Social Responsibility teams are often underfunded and under-supported. To unpack this a bit more, I posed a few key questions to the wonderful Heather Mak, a sustainability consultant who focuses on diversity and equity. She’s also the founder of the Diversity in Sustainability Collective.
Do you have advice for people who are nervous to make their climate concern evident to their colleagues and superiors?
I’ll never forget the first time, in my youthful zest as an intern, I raised the idea of consumption being the undoing of our planet to the president of the company at a conference in front of hundreds of people. The poor guy was like a deer in the headlights and didn’t have much of an answer for me. Since then, I’ve realized that other than those moments in the spotlight, there are many more tactful ways of broaching the subject.
I think to make action happen, you have to rally people within your organization. If you have a sustainability team at your company, be friends with them, because they more often than not need your help. Historically, they are a department that lacks resources and relies mostly on how much they can influence other departments (although I think this is beginning to change, given the urgency of our climate problem—sustainability departments seem to be expanding everywhere!), so any ally is a good ally for that team! From there, it’s good to see how you can then take back their plans to your department. Sustainability touches every department in some way—finance/accounting (accessing capital, new requirements coming down the pipeline relating to nonfinancial risks), procurement (supply chain issues), marketing (creating new/improving products), sales (engaging with customers who may/may not be getting more sustainable themselves), human resources (employee engagement), internal audit/governance, even IT (the software and equipment they’re sourcing).
I also think creating a green team is a good way to consolidate your concerns among many people. It’s important to find allies in senior management too. Ask good questions to senior people in your organization (albeit in a more tactful way than I did), and also start to amass a folder of some good proof points (e.g., impending policy decisions and consultations, seeing what competitors and customers are doing, etc.) in terms of the scale of the problem, and some ideas of good solutions you’ve seen.
When companies do information sessions and town halls with their staff, they are finding (especially amongst their younger staff) that they are asking about sustainability. And this has caused them to act—and talk about it more in their recruitment, during employee touch points—lest they face the wrath. So it’s important to keep bringing it up repeatedly!
Are there easy wins or ways to start incorporating climate into organizational decision-making?
It’s a top-down and bottom-up approach.
Although people often make fun of small actions, like getting rid of single-use plastic in cafeterias, in terms of the impact that they actually have, they are highly repetitive visual reminders of a company’s action on climate and can spur more substantial action. Of course, what you do not want is for companies to do only that and call it a day. There is so much more to think about.
One of my favorite reports is this COSO ERM report that helps companies think through embedding ESG considerations into their enterprise risk management process. One of my favorite discoveries in terms of sustainability over the years is that if your company is large enough to have an enterprise risk function, they are the ultimate ally for their access to the board and leadership and bringing issues of sustainability to their attention. From then on, the action flows!
I also love this oldie but goodie of a report from SustainAbility/Skoll/IDEO/Allianz, The Social Intrapreneur: A Field Guide for Corporate Changemakers. It’s from 2008, but the case studies and actions still hold as true as ever.
I love the way sustainability consultant Alicia Richins works on climate through the lens of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, because everything is interconnected, and there’s no climate justice without a fair transition. How do you start having these conversations with colleagues who may never have thought much about climate at all, much less the intersectionality of the approach required? They thought it was going to be a convo about recycling and it’s … so much more!
This is absolutely super complicated stuff—and there are so many systems at play. However, my shorthand that I’ve come to think of climate justice and a fair transition is guided by one of my heroes, the late Elder Dr. Dave Courchene Jr. from the Turtle Lodge. He told me that we have to come see nature—and, by extension, the most vulnerable people in society—as our kin. Full stop, this is a wholesale rethinking of how we interact with the world. For example, instead of sending wastewater effluent into a local stream and saying, “Hey, well, it’s only 50 ppm, and it’s within the law,” if we reconsider it as, “I’m giving this polluted water to my sister to drink,” it really changes your frame of reference. This isn’t too far from the truth, especially with all the statistics we have about communities of color being the ones who have to deal with the effects of environmental injustice. I think reenvisioning nature as our kin is the level of thinking we need to get to in order to get to a just transition.
Thank you so much, Heather!
This week: How can you werk it?
What have you done at work? What can you do? LMK!
Last week: Race pace
I’m a runner as well so you got me with the running analogies! Ah, I do miss the in person races (but agree we could make them more sustainable by eliminating mandatory swag … and maybe more sustainable water stations?). Each week I go down the rabbit hole of sustainability and happened upon your newsletter. I’m in a career transition from marketing, sales, partnership in (small voice) oil and gas industry. I’ve been given the opportunity (read corporate downsizing) to re-evaluate what’s important and decided to refocus my skills in an organization I can feel good about and has a positive environmental and social impact. My kids say I’m an environmentalist (was a closet environmentalist working for an oil and gas company) with a guilty conscience and they may not be too wrong in their assessment. Either way, I’m retraining through an online university graduate certificate in sustainability and drinking from a fire hose with the masses of information, events, webinars and ever-evolving complexity of sustainability … but feeling so energized and loving my new direction … feels a bit like a calling!
- “Amitav Ghosh: European colonialism helped create a planet in crisis” (The Guardian)
- “Your gas stove is warming the climate — even when it’s turned off” (Grist)
- Burrito behavioral science: Make veg menu options sound better, and people will order them! (The Guardian)
- Sarah, invite three of your fave climate communicators and academics to a podcast? Sure! Oh, wait, someone already got Elke Weber, George Marshall, and Per Espen Stoknes into a (virtual) room together to break down why we find it so hard to save our own planet. Great overview discussion!
- It’s been so cool to meet some MVP readers IRL when they take Talk Climate to Me. I love seeing your lovely faces. There are still two cohorts left, so it’s a great time to join the thousand-strong ladies who consider themselves climate conversationalists. Also, did I mention there’s a Jason Derulo cover theme song that you will never, ever, ever be able to get out of your head? (Courtesy my sister and her party band!)
- And please check out this wonderful Alicia Richins piece, “To Solve Climate Change, Rest is the Only Solution We Really Need.” Alicia, are you reading my mind and then turning it into much more eloquent ideas and words? (Yes.) Thursday was International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and I’ve been thinking about my grandparents, and how trauma and hardship weary the soul and preclude action of … just about any other kind. Alicia explores how the fatigue of people and planet is detrimental to action, and how the antidote is … rest.
Next week, I start a new chapter, working on electrification at a brilliant organization with ginormous goals. I love the promise and actionability of electrification for two key reasons that are so perfectly summed up by the terrific David Roberts and Sara Baldwin in this absolutely excellent episode of Electrify This.
David Roberts: The great thing about electrification, generally speaking, is it takes climate policy which, when you just contemplate it in its fullness, is wildly complicated and overwhelming, and reduces it to something that you can wrap your head around. Electrification involves a few very clear steps—clean up the grid, electrify vehicles, electrify buildings, right? That’s three basic steps, that’s something that a normal person can wrap their head around and it gives the climate problem, which can feel big and fuzzy and overwhelming, a shape and a direction with something to do. An ordinary person can hear that and say, oh, I know how I can contribute. It gives some concreteness to the whole thing.
Sara Baldwin: The other thing I like about the electrification movement is, for a lot of years the sentiment was, my actions are not consequential, what I do in my home, how I drive doesn’t matter, climate change is a huge problem. And electrification brings it back down to no, actually, every decision we make matters, and it’s the cumulative aggregate decisions that we’re all making that ultimately translate into the solutions.
Yes! Make it simple, and give people the power (pun intended) to make change where they can! If you work in or are interested in electrification, I’d love to get to know you! Please get in touch.
As always, let me know how to make this newsletter better! Hope you are happy and healthy and safe.
Have a lovely weekend,