Discover more from Honest Work
Finding your focus as an employee activist
Looking for your company's biggest impacts
So, you little purposeful worker you, once you’ve decided you want to push your company to be more ethical or more sustainable, how do you work out what that really looks like? Large companies in particular have footprints that are global and impacts so diverse that it can be difficult to work out where to actually begin.
Employees have challenged company practices across a range of areas. In 2022 alone, known incidents of employee activism included challenging employers’: operations in Russia following the invasion of Ukraine; development of surveillance technology; hosting of allegedly transphobic content; positions on abortion; animal testing. And, of course, climate change – everything from the sustainability of yoga pants to brokering insurance for an oil pipeline in east Africa.
Thanks for reading Honest Work! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Waves of employee-employer clashes are often driven by issues that are topical at a given moment. Last year, that was the conflict in Ukraine. In 2020, there was widespread focus on racial issues following the death of George Floyd. And in 2018-19, employees in multiple sectors sought to end their companies’ relationships with U.S. border agencies following the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant families (the infamous “kids in cages”). In each case, employees became aware of an issue in the news, which prompted them to look within their own sphere of influence to see how they could make a positive impact.
The upside of this approach is that the topical nature of these issues tend to mobilise large number of employees to speak up and get involved with internal advocacy efforts. When employees have gone public with their concerns it has also generated a lot of media attention, increasing the pressure on companies to accede to employee demands.
The downside is that frequently such issues are only loosely connected with companies’ own main sphere of influence and material impacts. Thus employers might view or characterise employees’ concerns as immaterial or a distraction, and even if employees’ efforts are successful they may constitute little more than a symbolic victory. Furniture company Wayfair is perhaps a good example of this; employees there walked out after discovering the company had sold furniture to a U.S. border detention centre, prompting a company town hall on the issue. The action was ultimately unsuccessful, with the founder stating the company should remain neutral regarding to whom they sell their products. Yet even if they’d achieved their goal, would it have struck even a minor blow against U.S. immigration policy?
Symbolic actions can of course be important, but for multi-billion dollar companies such as Wayfair, their impacts are real and far-reaching. Given the effort that goes into employee organising, it is worth considering what goals should be prioritised.
Finding your company’s main impact areas
For many companies, their main impacts are going to be glaringly obvious. At an energy company, their contribution to climate change via emissions is obviously critical. At social media companies, their approach to content moderation is likely the most significant issue. For others, though, some digging beneath the surface may be needed. Renewable energy companies obviously make significant contributions to the fight against climate change, but many have mixed impacts on human rights.
There’s no rule of thumb; a company’s main sources of positive or negative impact will vary company-to-company and industry-to-industry. It may arise from the nature of the product or service itself (tobacco, weaponry, tax consulting services); the product supply chain (clothing, fish, chocolate); whether the product or service is made too widely or not widely enough available (medicine, bank lending, insurance underwriting).
There are a number of potential sources of information to dig into how your company impacts people and planet:
The Honest Work website (naturally) – this has a number of pages on different industries and the main issues they face, as well as a page on cross-cutting issues like climate change and human rights. Where available, NGO reports comparing different companies in a sector are included – maybe your company is among them.
Third-party sources – there are a range of websites used by investors, consumers and others to evaluate the sustainability and ESG performance of companies and catalogue disclosures. Much of it is behind a paywall, but ones with at least some publicly available information include Refinitiv and Sustainalytics (for external ratings and data), CDP (for emissions data), Ethical Consumer (for consumer goods companies).
Company’s own disclosures – most companies will produce an annual report, and publicly-listed companies will produce additional reporting. These are long documents and will require a lot of digging and reading between the lines. Sustainability reports can indicate challenges on which the company is making progress, while sections in the annual report on “risk factors” and “litigation” can also reveal information that otherwise won’t be proactively communicated. Public companies will also have AGMs where shareholders may submit proposals asking companies to improve certain practices, so it may also be worth seeking out their proxy statement.
Ask your sustainability team (if you have one) – because of its interest to many staff, some companies have internal channels where staff can receive updates on the company’s sustainability function. If not, consider reaching out to find out what they’re working on and what are the main challenges.
Internet search engines – if all else fails, that’s what Google and all the others are for. You can set up a Google News Alert (e.g. “[Your company name] + ESG”) to stay up to date on stories related to your company.
All that being said, a good employee change strategy will balance the impactfulness of the change they’re trying to make against other factors – in particular, something which is popular enough to mobilise colleagues, with a change that is narrow and realistic enough to be achievable. More on that in a later newsletter.
Last month in employee activism
At Amazon, somewhere between several hundred and 1,000+ employees participated in a protest concerning a combination of the company’s return-to-office mandate and under-counting its carbon footprint. The company’s commitment to achieve net zero emissions by 2040 is itself a product of employee activism, in 2019.
Not to mention the sustainability of a company’s plans on NFTs (non-fungible tokens) or a publisher of scientific journals’ ties to the fossil fuel industry – as good an illustration as any that climate truly touches everything.