Kirstin Hunter: 3 common barriers to workplace climate action (and how to overcome them)

Having a tough time getting traction for climate action in your workplace? WorkforClimate Ambassador Kirstin Hunter shares some strategic ways you can overcome common hurdles that may be standing in your way.

Kirstin Hunter
August 2, 2023
3 min read

Acting on climate in your workplace can involve a lot of learning, organising and convincing, and it’s likely you’ll meet some resistance along the way. You’ll need to find the right balance between passion and preparation, and be ready to patiently and positively counteract arguments against your case.

Below are three of the common blockers I’ve come across when advocating for corporate climate action, and my advice for how to overcome them.

Barrier one: Impact work is viewed as a luxury, not a necessity

Many business leaders view impact work as a warm and fuzzy “nice to have”, rather than something that is a critical part of the business. This type of thinking means that during hard times, things like sustainability programs and climate action working groups are often the first thing to be cut from the budget.

One way to overcome this is by tying impact initiatives to the business strategy, so they can’t be discarded during recessions or downturns. Conversely, when climate action is a part of the corporate strategy, it’s viewed not as a luxury but as an essential part of the business and every bit as important as other business functions.

Some methods that I have seen to incorporate climate action into strategy is to link it to the brand of the business. Consumers in 2023 (especially younger consumers!) are not tricked by glossy greenwashed advertising messages, so demonstrating concrete action that your business is who it says it is helps win their trust. More broadly, there are many opportunities for strategic business leaders to win in their industries by leading on climate action. Helping your decision-makers see the potential upside of critical climate action for the business (rather than simply a cost to be paid out) is another way of getting support.

Barrier two: Believing responsibility for climate action lies elsewhere

I firmly believe that climate activism does have a role in the corporate world, but not everyone thinks this way. It’s a real challenge to convince some leaders that the business they’re steering has a responsibility for acting on climate.

In my experience the key to changing hearts and minds on this matter is to shift someone’s viewpoint from the short-term to the long-term. If a leader is solely focused on short-term gains, it’s more likely they’ll be less interested in investing in climate action. But if you can convince leaders to shift to long-term thinking, you have an opening.

Setting up the business for long-term sustainability (which means long-term benefits for shareholders) will involve taking climate action into account. This requires thinking beyond quarterly shareholder returns and looking (and planning) ahead for the next 10 or 15 years. When taking this big picture view, it becomes obvious that you’ll need to plan for the environmental and social climate in which the business will operate, as well as any regulatory changes that may happen. 

In fact, given the job of business leaders is to generate returns for shareholders over the long term, it’s critical that leaders take these environmental, social and political factors surrounding the business into account. Doing anything less is arguably a breach of duty.

Any leader would be cognisant of the fact that consumer sentiment is already trending one way: towards businesses addressing the climate crisis. Same with recruiting. So if it matters to the people working for you, and it matters to the customers buying your products and services, then you’ve got a vested interest in taking climate action. Because if you don’t, your competitors will, your business will be left behind, and ultimately your shareholders will suffer.

Barrier three: There are no benefits to the business

Unfortunately, some business leaders wrongly believe that there aren’t any benefits to taking climate action. Fortunately, there are many benefits – all you need to do is demonstrate them in a straightforward, persuasive way.

Anyone in senior management will be all ears once you mention the economic benefits of taking climate action. By showing that employee recruitment and retention, and customer affinity and trust, will both be boosted by a concerted, genuine effort to address the climate crisis, your workplace’s leadership team will stand up and take notice. Try to translate the potential gains into an estimated dollar figure to give your leaders an idea of how this type of action can positively boost the company’s bottom line.

Beyond recruiting top talent and improving employee morale, there are also potential PR and positive media gains on the table. Smart leaders know that receiving positive media coverage in the form of television exposure, newspaper articles, social media shares and beyond is priceless. There’s also the potential of getting the business B Corp certified, so it can join the legions of highly respected and wildly popular B Corp brands like Patagonia, The Body Shop and Ben and Jerry’s.

Ultimately, it all boils down to pitching your idea in a way that shows leaders what's in it for them and what's in it for the business (and its shareholders).

If you’re the sole brave employee pitching these ideas within your organisation, you’re not alone. There are plenty of clever, experienced, engaged professionals out there who are sharing ideas, support and knowledge, including within the WorkforClimate community. You might meet some opposition, but together I believe we can prevail and get more businesses engaged in climate activism.

Want to accelerate your company's decarbonisation efforts? Our self-paced, online WorkforClimate Academy can help turn your company into a climate champion while honing your influence and leadership skills.

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