Climate Ignorance Wins No Talent Wars
Young people don’t want to work for companies that ignore their climate responsibilities
Ten years ago, I launched a one-week Master’s module on the future of business. The idea was to get students out of a lecture theatre (where no business has ever been conducted) and take them to meet real people working in active companies. The students’ mission was to assess how resilient those organizations were: were they ready to face the challenges posed by the future? Launched in the wake of the global financial crisis, the original brief focused on stability. Now in the midst of a climate crisis, it’s sustainability that’s crucial. Over the years, these encounters have become a fascinating lens through which to see how these businesses — from large global corporations to new local start ups — appear to the rising generation. In no year has the shock has been greater than 2022.
The change between the companies which students thought they might want to work for, and those that they concluded they might want to work for, was extreme. Few brands survived the first contact with reality; disillusionment with big famous names was profound; curiosity for lesser-known, often private and sometimes brand new businesses was piqued. But for the most part, what struck me as they reported back was how little most companies were thinking about the future.
When students asked executives about the corporate sustainability strategy, what they heard back largely consisted of recycling. The life cycle of raw materials? Not a concern. Palm oil? Still being used, no plans for phasing it out. The idea that business sustainability requires social cohesion? Like biodiversity loss, it was “not our problem.” The lifecycle of carbon or impact of rising inequality: in very few organizations did such issues seem to matter or to be understood. Many marketing campaigns struck students as out-of-date, insincere and unaware. Of the 14 companies they visited, just one was carbon net positive.
It would be invidious to single out specific companies, because this willful blindness tallies so precisely with PWC research showing that 57 percent of global business leaders don’t think their companies emit significant carbon emissions, 55 percent of CEOs say they don’t have the capability to measure their company’s emissions and a mere 13 percent have incentives linked to decarbonization.
If companies seek to attract an eager, educated workforce — and we are told the ‘war for talent’ has never been fiercer — they will have to do better than this. A generation fully aware that it will reap the whirlwind of the climate crisis will not be drawn to companies that turn a blind eye to it. The students can tell that any business so out of touch is obviously failing to take advantage of the young people that they do hire. This is a waste. I recall Eliza Manningham-Buller, who led both MI5 and the Wellcome Trust, urging executives always to talk early to the new, young recruits early, because their instincts and observations offered the freshest, unvarnished insights into how the organization looks to the outside world. Their rawness is an asset, not a flaw to be sanded down.
I recognize of course that the cohort of companies visited by my students isn’t a representative sample of business as a whole. But it isn’t unrepresentative either. The rhetoric around “building back” betrays a nostalgia for a predictable age that is over. Business does not go back any more than history does — and the past holds no allure or meaning to the rising generation. The critical thinking of a generation brought up on crises and protest isn’t easily persuaded that business as usual offers any kind of future at all. Any organization that truly seeks the energy, commitment and creativity of bright, educated young people needs to start talking less and listening more to get a clear-eyed view of the road ahead.