Case study: How might employees drive sustainable change in their companies? (Part 1)
Climate activism is needed now more than ever from all stakeholders, including employees. Yet, this is easier said than done — while the majority of employees want to take action on climate in their jobs, most of them do not do so. This three-part fictional case study aims to address this challenge, focusing on exploring the considerations of embracing activism in the first place (Part 1), utilizing political communication to craft effective narratives for change (Part 2), and designing strategies around these narratives (Part 3). In the first part, titled “Should we embrace employee activism?”, we are introduced to the main characters of our story — Olivia, Ron, Shira, and Marcus, who work for HarvestFusion, a global consumer packaged goods (CPG) company. We delve their initial debate on whether to participate in activism at all.
By Raz Godelnik and Lucia Jaramillo
When Olivia joined HarvestFusion in 2015, she believed it was the ideal career move for her fresh out of grad school. Excited about the opportunity to work for a global consumer packaged goods (CPG) company, she was drawn to HarvestFusion’s bold sustainability vision and its commitment to prioritizing the well-being of people and the planet. Not only that, but the company was actively working on developing a substantial regenerative agriculture program, effectively signaling to the world that regenerative food production is a key cornerstone of its future.
Now, eight years later, Olivia serves as a marketing manager at the company’s North America headquarters. She had recently been working on a new campaign for the launch of the company’s sustainable bottled water packaging for one of its leading brands. The packaging is made from 100% recycled PET and uses less plastic than the previous version. Olivia and her team created the “Wasteless Water” campaign, which ultimately won the Best Sustainability Ad award under the CPG category in the International Marketers for Change competition.
That’s why, when Olivia received a lunch invitation from her colleagues to celebrate the achievement, she couldn’t help but feel proud.
Olivia and Marcus, who worked in the same department, were the first to arrive at the restaurant. Shira, HarvestFusion's Assistant to the Head of Procurement, joined them, followed by Ron, an accountant from the finance department. Shira greeted them and promptly asked, “Have you guys seen the news about the lawsuit?” Everyone wore a puzzled expression. It was evident that this was the first they were hearing of it.
Just a few days earlier, the company had been slapped with a lawsuit over its global plastic pollution. Clean Earth For Tomorrow, a global environmental organization, had taken HarvestFusion to court, claiming that the company was neglecting its responsibility to address the detrimental effects of its extensive use of single-use plastic packaging. As Shira recounted the lawsuit to the group, Olivia’s face went blank. She was filled with bewilderment. How could she have won a sustainability award for a company that was now being sued for its lack of sustainability practices?
“Oh, don’t worry,” Ron reassured Olivia upon noticing her expression. “There will always be people out there claiming we’re not doing enough. “You’re right,” Shira chimed in, looking directly at Ron. “But I actually think they might have a valid point. Does it truly make sense for selling bottled water to be a key part of our business if we claim to prioritize sustainability?”
“I don’t know,” Marcus replied. “After all, we’re promoting the consumption of water instead of sugary sodas, and we’re also making a positive impact by providing clean water to communities in need.” Olivia nodded in agreement. “That’s true,” she said. “We’re putting in a lot of effort to ensure our packaging is reusable, recyclable, or compostable. Just look at the substantial investment we made in using more recycled plastic for the production of our new water bottles.”
“That’s true,” Shira responded quickly, “however, these efforts are just optimizations aiming to improve the situation. But is there truly a valid justification today for sourcing, bottling, and shipping water in plastic bottles across the globe? Moreover, in some of our primary markets, there isn’t even a real shortage of clean and drinkable water.” Shira noticed that she had captured everyone’s attention, so she continued, “Even in markets where access to water is limited, why can’t we explore alternative ways to meet people’s needs without relying on single-use plastic bottles?” Olivia couldn’t help but agree with her point.
“Selling single-use water bottles, even if they are made with recycled plastic, is inherently degenerative,” Shira continued. “Personally, I see single-use water bottles as a relic of the past, not a vision for the future. They are certainly not aligned in any way with 1.5C lifestyles. Yet, somehow, we’re accepting the fact that this remains an integral part of our company’s future plans. It just doesn’t sit right with me.”
“I can’t say I disagree with you,” Olivia said, munching on her salad. “Every day, we hear about the dire consequences of climate change. The climate crisis should be a real wake-up call for all of us.”
Ron, who had been quiet so far, focused on his plate and then raised his head. “I don’t think we’re ignoring the climate crisis. The company keeps innovating and striving to improve. We’ve already doubled the recycled content in our plastics in just a couple of years. I don’t know, maybe you’re right, and we’re not changing our business model fast enough. But let’s face it, what can you really expect from HarvestFusion? I mean, it’s a public company, and at the end of the day, we have to make a profit.”
“I’m not exactly sure what the ideal pace of change is,” Shira responded. “But I do believe that we need to push for more radical transformation. It doesn’t make sense to have a regenerative vision for the future while being involved in a degenerative business that continues to expand. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”
The conversation became so intense that they didn’t even notice dessert time had arrived. “We need to try the chocolate cake; I’ve heard it’s amazing,” Ron said, smiling. “But seriously, even if, for the sake of the argument, we agree the company should do better, what can we do about it? We’re not part of the C-suite, and we have very little impact on these types of decisions. Let’s face it — we can vent as much as we want about the choices the company is making, but we can’t do much beyond that,” he added while trying to get the waiter’s attention for the famous dessert.
“I think there are actually plenty of things we can do if we genuinely want to hold leadership accountable for sustainability and ensure that we practice what we preach,” Shira said, sounding hopeful. However, Olivia remained unconvinced. “The company’s leadership may talk about wanting to adopt more sustainable approaches, but ultimately, it all comes down to profits. So, what chance do we really have to make a difference?” she questioned.
Marcus remembered a story he had recently read in the newspaper. The article described how employees in a PR company managed to pressure the company’s leadership to stop working with fossil fuel companies as a way to show the company’s commitment to fighting the climate crisis. This example got everyone’s attention. “But how did they even make that happen? After all, I imagine the company sacrificed a lot of money by agreeing to stop accepting those types of clients” Ron said with a skeptical tone. “It may be true in the short-term,” Marcus replied, “but at the same time it could support your brand and help you gain new customers that want to do business with companies that have a strong stand on climate.” His mind was always focusing on the marketing angle.
“And let’s not forget that companies with a stronger focus on sustainability are also more appealing to potential employees,” Shira interjected. “I read a survey that showed that for over 70% of employees in the US and UK, social and environmental issues are key considerations when looking for a job.” Ron remained unimpressed by the data. “You don’t have to convince me about the business case for sustainability; we all understand it. However, it’s one thing to acknowledge it and another to challenge our company and demand more than what it’s currently doing. Aren’t you concerned about the risks of opposing the company’s leadership? If we take that step, we could potentially jeopardize our jobs and harm our careers. Personally, this is a significant consideration for me,” he continued.
“You’re right that there is always a risk in taking a stand,” Marcus looked at Ron, “but this is 2023, and the notion of employees voicing their concerns over their companies’ policies and actions is far more common. Employees are increasingly becoming more vocal about social and environmental issues at work because they want to be part of organizations that align with their values.” Olivia listened attentively. “I think both of you have valid points, but if we, as employees, have more power now, shouldn’t we use it? Even if it means stepping out of our comfort zones or taking risks to challenge the company?”
The waiter brought the check to the table. Shira tried to maintain the momentum. “So, what do you think, guys? Maybe we can take some action and ask the company to reconsider our approach to the water business and stop selling single-use water bottles?” Her invitation went largely unnoticed as others were preoccupied with checking their phones. With everyone having to return to the office, the conversation gradually faded away. Despite the lack of attention to her invitation, Shira expressed her hope that they could continue the conversation and perhaps brainstorm ways to move forward.
To act or not to act
The news about the legal suit left Olivia with numerous questions. Was HarvestFusion’s commitment to sustainability truly authentic? What role could she, as an employee, play in driving meaningful change? It might be time for her to take action, but she remained uncertain about the specific steps to take.
Alongside her concerns about the effectiveness of activism, Olivia found herself worrying about the potential risks at stake. Was she willing to put her career in jeopardy for a fight that might not yield success? Moreover, if she decided to take a stand, would other employees be willing to join her?
The next morning, as Olivia was getting ready for the office, she received a text from Shira: “Morning! Let’s talk about taking a stand on the company’s waters business.” Olivia felt a mix of emotions as she read the message. What should she say to Shira? What was the right thing to do? She often found clarity while walking, so she hoped a walk to work would help her think things through. She grabbed her bag and closed the door behind her.
So, should Olivia and her colleagues take action to drive change in HarvestFusion?
To further explore the options Olivia and her colleagues are considering, we asked ChatGPT to generate summaries of the two main choices they have in front of them. Here’s what it came up with:
Yes, they should.
Engaging in employee activism is highly recommended for HarvestFusion employees to drive sustainable change within the company. Examples from companies like Amazon and Google highlight the significant influence of employee activism in promoting corporate sustainability. Despite potential risks, such as internal conflicts and career implications, employees have the power to shape decision-making, drive positive environmental change, and enhance the company’s reputation as a responsible organization. By leveraging their collective voice, HarvestFusion employees can make a meaningful impact on sustainability and attract like-minded customers and top-tier talent.
Employee activism offers a valuable avenue for driving progress toward a more sustainable future within the organization. It empowers employees to advocate for alternative approaches, challenge existing practices, and align the company’s operations with its sustainability goals. Furthermore, by voicing concerns and demanding change, employees can contribute to a positive corporate image, attract environmentally conscious customers, and create a more attractive work environment for prospective talent. While employee activism carries some risks, its potential benefits make it a worthwhile endeavor for HarvestFusion employees seeking to foster sustainable change and contribute to the company’s long-term success.
No, they shouldn’t.
While employee activism can be a powerful force for change, it is important to consider the potential drawbacks and offer an alternative perspective. In the case of HarvestFusion, employees should carefully evaluate the risks and implications before engaging in activism within the company. While activism may seem like a viable option to drive sustainable change, it could lead to strained relationships with management, internal conflicts, and potential career repercussions.
HarvestFusion employees should prioritize open dialogue and collaboration with management to address sustainability concerns. Rather than engaging in activism, they can focus on fostering constructive conversations, suggesting innovative solutions, and working within existing structures to advocate for sustainability initiatives. By demonstrating their commitment through proactive engagement and aligning with the company’s goals, employees can have a positive influence on sustainable practices without risking the potential negative consequences associated with activism.
It is important to note that the decision to engage in employee activism ultimately depends on the specific context and culture of the organization. Employees should carefully weigh the potential benefits and risks, consider alternative approaches, and evaluate the receptiveness of the company towards their sustainability concerns.
- Kite Insights (2022). Every job is a climate job: Why corporate transformation needs climate literacy. https://bit.ly/3XRsdue.
- Lewis A. et al. (2021). 1.5-Degree Lifestyles: Towards A Fair Consumption Space for All. Hot or Cool Institute, Berlin, Germany. https://hotorcool.org/1-5-degree-lifestyles-report/
- BBMG & GlobeScan (2022). Leading Regenerative Brands: Five Paradigm Shifts to Thrive in a World in Flux. https://bit.ly/3Xe2LQE
- 2023 Net Positive Employee Barometer. https://bit.ly/3YO33O8
- Miles, Stephen and Larcker, David F. and Tayan, Brian, Protests from Within: Engaging with Employee Activists (March 8, 2021). Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University Working Paper. https://ssrn.com/abstract=3801120
- Briscoe F., & Gupta A. (2021). ‘Business Disruption From the Inside Out’, Stanford Social Innovation Review, 19(1), 48–54. https://doi.org/10.48558/4EHP-4D02
- Karen Wiese, “Employees Push Amazon to Do More on Climate,” The New York Times (April 11, 2019).https://bit.ly/3p2xLpY
- Daisuke Wakabayashi and Scott Shane, “Google to Quit Pentagon Work That Riled Staff,” The New York Times (June 2, 2018). https://bit.ly/43YqF4z
Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design & Management at Parsons School of Design — The New School.
Lucia Jaramillo is a graduate student in the MS Strategic Design and Management Program at Parsons School of Design — The New School.