4 Ways to Make Your Job Work for Climate and Social Justice

You can make a difference on climate and justice from where you are—no career switch necessary.
Matt Scott in a black suit giving a presentation to an audience at George Washington University's 2022 Planet Forward Summit
Source: George Washington University

In the exasperated words of Dolly Parton, “Working 9 to 5, what a way to make a living!”

The world of work is evolving, such as strictly in-office workspaces becoming hybrid-remote, to robots in the workplace. Many of today’s workers seek to bring personal interests and causes to their job.

It is possible to bring these interests in environmental and social issues to nearly any job, even if “climate” or “justice” isn’t part of the description. More than 60% of workers want their employers to act on issues like climate change, equality, and poverty, according to a 2021 study by Atlassian. Though, unfortunately, in many parts of the nation, policies or cultures can make it dangerous or even illegal to fight back against racism or speak up on climate.

If you can bring your interests to the workplace, it’s important that you do. The climate crisis is affecting people around the world and social tensions are at a high. Learning how to address these issues as best you can in your current role is a great place to start.

Start Where You Are

Ask yourself: how can you align your job with climate and social justice goals?

Look for places to make change. If you work in finance, can you move the company’s finances towards sustainable investments or switch to a community development bank or credit union? If you work in human resources, could you offer greener benefits like socially responsible retirement plan options or add goals to job descriptions that seek climate and social justice outcomes? Communications teams can help translate complex climate language into something that makes sense for their audience. Supply chain managers can seek partnerships with manufacturers that treat their warehouse workers fairly.

“Legal teams inside companies are often the liaison with the board of directors and we need ESG [environmental, social, and governance] outcomes tied to executive compensation and tied to board performance,” says Jamie Alexander, director of Drawdown Labs at Project Drawdown, a nonprofit providing science-based climate solutions to help the world reduce and draw down greenhouse gas emissions. “The more legal teams can [make] carbon reductions and other climate outcomes legally binding within the company is hugely important.”

You don’t have to work at an office to make a change. Hair stylists can recycle foils and use vegan products as Head Case Hair Studio does in Dallas, Texas. Coffee shops are hubs for conversation, so baristas can support climate conversation by putting up flyers in support of local climate events, making vegan milks the default, and providing discounts for customers that bring in reusable cups.

Some actions require approval from management. With your request, point to a 2021 report from GreenPrint that says 66% of people are willing to pay more for sustainable products. It may not be so hard to convince your boss when profits might increase. Just make sure that the products you offer are truly sustainable—do your research.

You don’t have to stop there. Addressing social tensions is possible when leading with empathy.

Listen, Amplify, and Represent

Matt Scott, director of storytelling and engagement at Project Drawdown, suggests listening to those that are historically excluded from social justice conversations. Amplifying marginalized voices forwards representation, says Scott, who knows first-hand as a Black, queer storyteller featuring underrepresented voices in the series “Drawdown’s Neighborhood.” Sometimes that may be amplifying coworkers of color, low-wage workers without safe workplace conditions down the supply chain, or interviewing underrepresented voices in an article.

“Open up those lines of communication and have conversations that allow you to better understand,” says Scott on connecting with marginalized groups. “What would be best for business and most impactful at the same time? How could you leverage your superpowers as an organization, as an employee, to make an impact?”

As a writer or filmmaker, how could your story benefit from an interview with marginalized groups? Workers in government and community affairs can look towards how a company can use its influence to support social justice policy that is informed by affected groups. Human resources professionals can offer workplace diversity trainings. Clothing and handmade goods could come with tags that say the names of artisans. Bookstore clerks can put anti-racism and local history books on display.

Mitigate Risks Through Community

No matter your role, anyone can work towards building a vibrant workplace. Conversations in the break room or check-in questions at meetings are all pulse checks on what co-workers are interested in, whether that’s a conscious choice or not. Bringing social and climate justice issues into these conversations helps normalize these topics.

“This work is hard to do alone. There’s this fear of, ‘What will my supervisor say if I try to make these changes?’” says Alexander. “Having a solid group of people who are working on this together and have one another to learn from—strength in numbers is really important.”

No one should lose their job for bringing up their concerns, but it could be a risk, depending on management, and what and how you ask. Start pragmatically by outlining the benefits to the company. For example, purpose-driven companies have 40% higher workforce retention than competitors, according to a 2020 report from Deloitte. If leadership learns that climate action and social justice results in improved profits, customer loyalty, and more, they are more likely to agree.

“Center the why” when presenting arguments, says Scott. Personal examples and science-based ones appeal to the emotional and analytical sides of people. “[Make sure] folks will understand the benefit. When it comes to diversity, for example, studies have talked about and continue to talk about how diversity leads to more creative organizations and leads to more profitable organizations,” he says.

In the workplace, this may look like developing a pitch for diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice trainings—you don’t have to work in human resources to ask for this. Use science-based research like the 2021 report from Catalyst that states empathetic workplaces have stronger cultures and productivity, as well as personal examples of reduced burnout and increased morale.

However, if that doesn’t work, and you opt for collective action approaches such as walkouts and strikes, developing a community is vital.

“Having folks you can turn to for support and just validate your work or speak up for the efforts you are trying to forward could go a long way,” Scott says. “It gives you a position of being more resilient in facing the challenges you could have.”

No matter what your position, ask yourself how you can forward climate outcomes and social justice in the workplace. Small solutions are just as vital as large ones—and working towards them together will bring ideas to reality.

How do you approach climate and justice concerns in your work? Email us to share your story.

Thank you to Krista Kurth, who inspired this piece.

From Green American Magazine Issue