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How will you change the world?
Reader, welcome to the very first Honest Work newsletter.
It’s entering your inbox while climate change is having its annual fortnight in the spotlight, courtesy of the COP27 international climate conference. It’s a time for watching political leaders you may or may not have voted for make speeches, maybe some incremental progress, but the significant action we need generally fails to materialise.
At times like these it’s hard not to feel powerless. Most people in most of the world support stronger climate action, and have done so for years. Yet the will of the people breaks like a wave against the unflinching wall of inertia, and limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees gets ever further out of reach.
Times like these can be a good opportunity to reflect on what tools you, reader, have at your disposal to make a positive change in the world. How can you be your most impactful for the issue(s) you care most about?
Volunteer work or charitable donations are very direct ways to make a positive contribution. They are tangible, your contribution is measurable, they are ways to live up to your values to the extent your busy life allows. The downside is that they can rarely be more than a small part of the time and/or money that you spend, and your impact there may be outweighed by your other impacts through your participation in economic life, which may reinforce existing systems and structures.
Your consumer choices are another path to impact, with apps to help you align your purchasing power with your ethical beliefs. Companies are responsive to economic incentives, and so consumer pressure or boycotts en masse can be very influential. However, we make so many buying decisions every day, across a range of goods and services (your food, your clothes, your bloody pension!), potentially touching so many different issues (worker rights, deforestation, recyclable packaging, occupied territories…), and your individual purchasing decisions count for a negligible amount of the sellers’ revenues. It can be hard to find the time or motivation to do your due diligence on every purchase, and pay the premium often involved.
And then there’s your participation in Politics. Voting is part of your civic duty, but is infrequent and involves a choice between predetermined options. Ensuring those options are actually good enough requires more active participation: becoming a member of a political party, getting involved in local organising, joining a protest movement. As politics shapes the rules of the games that we all play, here the fruits of victory are largest. The downsides are that the chances of impact as one citizen among millions are also lowest, and will require enormous amounts of your time to have any shot, which is challenging if you have a full-time job.
By and large, that is the totality of tools most people think they have in their toolbox. All have their strengths and weaknesses. All have inherent value irrespective of impact. And pretty much all seem to exist in a realm separate to our day-to-day life, so we try to squeeze in what we can around our obligations to work, family, friends, exercise, etc.
Most people are workers. The (physical or virtual) workplace is where we spend the largest chunk of our working life. It’s where we have an informational advantage – you probably know more about your company and what it does than non-colleagues. It’s also where we have a voice advantage – you are probably a higher proportion of your company’s workforce than you are of any company’s customers, or your constituency’s registered voters.
Your voice is rarely louder than when you speak up as an employee.
Whistleblowers are perhaps the biggest example of this. Former Facebook employees Sophie Zhang and Frances Haugen shined a light on how the social media network was being used to undermine elections around the world and damaging teens’ mental health. An ex-PwC auditor helped reveal the massive scale of tax avoidance practiced by many multinational companies. An ex-Uber lobbyist showed the company’s role in violating or hollowing out workers’ rights around the world. More than one investor has seen their head of sustainability call out hypocrisy and greenwashing on their way out the door.
Not all employee activism has to involve a dramatic departure or acting alone; some of the most impactful actions have been groups of employees working to change their companies from within. Workers using everything from sign-on letters to walkouts to internal debates got Microsoft to commit to net negative emissions by 2030, got Walmart to stop selling certain weapons, got PR company Edelman to stop whitewashing the reputation of a private prisons client.
Pushing for change as a worker faces challenges just as it does in any other capacity, number one being the risk to your livelihood. We’ll explore this in future newsletters. None of the above is to say employee activism is the best tool for everyone, or even most people, to make a change. But of all tools it may be the most underused, and massive progress is possible if more workers learn to wield it.
The idea that our workplace is a largely untapped arena for positive impact – and the inspiration offered by worker success stories – is what motivated the founding of Honest Work.
Finding a job that allows us to have the impact we want is hard. Tech workers who signed up to connect the world find themselves contributing to its division. Pharma workers who wanted to help create life-saving medicines end up at companies whose aggressive drug pricing keep it out of the hands of those who need it. ESG staff find themselves limited by superiors with low ambition. The mission of Honest Work: help as many workers as possible bridge that gap between desire and impact.
We’re planning to do this in a few ways:
Information: our website has a run-down of some of the biggest issues we collectively face today, research ranking how different companies (maybe yours!) are contributing to problems and solutions, and what changes you can ask from your company
Tips: do you know what you want to change but no idea how? We have a basic step-by-step guide on how to go about advocating in your workplace.
Community: over time, build an online network of worker activists, who can connect within and across companies and sectors, share advice and support each other
And of course, this newsletter, once a month. You’ll get a rundown of employee activism on ethical and sustainability issues over the previous month, opportunities to get involved, links to new resources, analysis of big questions.
Don’t just read; Act
While this newsletter and project hopes to inform, the goal is to trigger action. Consuming news, watching a hard-hitting documentary, sharing hot takes on social media; all this can feel like doing something but has little effect.
Don’t you dare read this newsletter and then go about your day as you would have anyway. Each month there will be one task for you to do. Your first task is below; it’s an easy one to get started, and slightly self-serving, but it should help us both.
ACTION: Share this newsletter with one friend or colleague. Maybe it’s someone passionate about having a positive impact. Maybe a colleague in a position of influence. Maybe one of those people who are just annoyingly impressive at getting things done. Pick someone with whom you can talk about your goals and struggles, and you can hold each other accountable. Maybe share it with multiple people, form a little group of changemakers embarking on a journey together. Because change can start with one but requires many.
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See you next month.
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