Kirstin Hunter: Does climate activism have a place in the corporate world?

Should businesses and brands lend their voice to climate activism? WorkforClimate Ambassador Kirstin Hunter believes they have a duty to speak up.

Kirstin Hunter
November 22, 2022
5 min read
A girl wearing a black face mask holds a cardboard sign that says "#people not profit" at a climate march

Can capitalism and activism work together for the common good? WorkforClimate Ambassador Kirstin Hunter explains how the business community can – and must – drive positive social change.

When I was at Future Super in 2019, we worked on the Not Business As Usual campaign that saw 3,500 businesses give their workers time off to support the global student-led climate strike movement. In the aftermath, one of the lines from governments and commentators was that business leaders should stay in their lane; that they should shut up about the climate and only talk about the economy.

But the climate is the economy.

A stable economy requires a stable climate. Just look at the fires, floods and droughts wreaking havoc on Australia in the last few years. In his recent budget speeches, Treasurer Jim Chalmers spoke about finding ways to support the community through these crises while plugging the budget gap. That could mean more taxes, or at the very least, fewer dollars allocated to incentives and hand-outs to support the business community.

So businesses can – and should – have a voice on climate activism, just as they’ve had a voice on other social and community issues over time.

Shaking up the status quo

I often wonder who decided a 40-hour week and commuting to an office every day is how white-collar professionals are supposed to work? We blindly accept these as standard working conditions, but they’re just ideas that some other people put into practice many years ago.

The good news is that we can come up with new ideas – ones that demand sustainable and socially fair business practices. For inspiration, look to the likes of Patagonia, Aesop or the wider B Corp movement – any large organisation that’s harnessing its influence and using it as a force for good when it comes to people and the planet.

There are some great examples of where activism and capitalism can intersect, for the benefit of all. 

Reproductive health tech start-up Kin Fertility spearheaded the #WeNeedMoreLeave campaign, which resulted in more than 70 companies offering paid compassionate leave to employees experiencing a miscarriage or pregnancy-related illness. This campaign would have been unthinkable even five years ago when miscarriage was seen as a private issue.

When I worked for Future Super, we explored gender inequity within Australia’s superannuation system. On average, women retire with about 45% less super than men. To address this, we introduced policies that helped to close the superannuation gender gap, like gender-neutral parental leave and paying super at a full-time rate to parents who returned to work part-time.

These innovative policies at start-ups and smaller organisations are now influencing workplace culture on a broader scale and filtering back to the big end of town. After all, the message is clear: people don’t want to associate with corporations entrenched in dated or harmful ways of operating. If your business isn’t keeping up, you’re at risk of losing customers as your best staff get poached by companies that are pushing the margins of progress.

People-powered corporate climate policies

In the same way every business has a social impact, every business has a climate impact too. So if you want your company to lead – not lag – in the climate space, the first step is recognising you have power and agency to influence that impact, no matter what part of the business you work in. After all, businesses can’t function without engaged, willing staff members working in all levels of the organisation.

Thankfully, there are many helpful resources to tap into if you’re stuck in a big company and feeling alone in wanting to see your employer behave differently. Start a conversation about limiting business travel with your co-worker, discuss switching to renewable energy during your next team meeting, chat to your boss about responsible procurement – you’ll likely find a few allies who support your ideas.

Your wins may be big or small, but we need everyone – including you – to act now in the name of the planet.

Want your workplace to step up on climate action? WorkforClimate is here to help on every step of your journey to influence and accelerate your company's decarbonisation efforts.

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