How climate activist Drew Wilkinson, co-founder of Microsoft’s sustainability community, is empowering employees to take climate action

Fireside Chat with Drew Wilkinson, Climate Activist and Community Organizer 🌎

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes 

This article was adapted from a transcript of our fireside chat with Drew. Join our community to participate live in biweekly conversations with experts, activists, policymakers, and more!

What if you could challenge your workplace to give employees a seat at the table when it comes to sustainability decisions? Employees from different backgrounds and companies all over the world see the value of using their employer’s resources to address climate change. So, how do we create enough pressure in the system to encourage companies and entire industries to change?

Co-founding Microsoft’s first employee sustainability community, Drew Wilkinson, (climate activist, community organizer, and small business owner) helped grow his community to 10,000 employees within 5 years, influencing Microsoft’s pivotal role in sustainability. In this fireside chat, Drew shares his experience about how any employee can get organized and work with colleagues to nudge their company to take climate action. 

Here’s what we’ll cover: 

  1. What inspired you to start Microsoft’s first sustainability community?
  2. What are the first steps to applying pressure within your company?
  3. How do we maintain the momentum and drive consistent engagement?
  4. What journey are you currently on?

Now running his own consulting business and engaging with several climate activists, Drew highlights the importance of recognizing the unique ways each employee, company, and industry can challenge the status quo.

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What inspired you to co-create Microsoft’s sustainability community? 

I’ve been an environmentalist since I was a teenager. I’ve done a lot of different kinds of activism—marches, rallies, direct action, and organized locally. I was even working with an organization called Sea Shepard for a little while, protecting marine wildlife from poachers. I’m an activist at heart and a community organizer by experience. 

Microsoft was a weird fluke that I never anticipated in my past life. Before working at Microsoft, I was in a touring punk band—I was on the road playing shows and building community in that way. Somebody from the punk scene helped me get into Microsoft, which was the last thing I ever expected to happen. 

When I got there, I felt like a sell-out. I’m an activist and pretty anti-corporate, to be frank. All of a sudden, I found myself inside the belly of the beast and it was a disorienting experience. 

My entry point was a paralegal, so I was doing legal work to pay my bills. But, I wanted to be able to justify my participation in a Big Tech company. I mostly worked in the environmental nonprofit space before coming to Microsoft; all of a sudden, I was dropped into the headquarters of a trillion-dollar tech company that operates at a scale that is so inconceivable. So, I saw the opportunity to find ways to use the company's resources to fight climate change. 

My colleague and I started an employee sustainability community because we saw that the company wasn’t doing enough. We figured Microsoft would have to respond if we could organize enough employees and create enough pressure in the system. 

After they responded, resources started flowing in. Then, we wondered how we could get everyone involved and tried to figure out the unique ways they could contribute to sustainability with the jobs they already have. We wondered—How do you create a culture of sustainability where everybody feels like they are empowered to innovate and contribute in their unique ways? We built the infrastructure for a global employee sustainability community to happen. 

How did you start building the community and scaling engagement?

There’s so much to say about how we grew the community. Each company is going to be different, so I can give you generalities. I ultimately don’t know the culture of your company and the nature of your industry. That’s the part that you all have to play. 

My first tip is that you should consider the right tool for the job: there are many different kinds of workplace communities where each has a different function. Many employees start with Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) to organize sustainability communities because that’s all that exists in their company. But in my experience, sustainability doesn’t make sense as an ERG. Sustainability matters to everybody whether they realize it or not. 

When you try to shove sustainability into a style of community that’s around protecting marginalized identities and creating affinity groups and allies, there’s kind of an inherent tension and mismatch. It’s important to rethink that. There are other types of communities that you can use. For example, you can use communities of interest or a community of practice. I wrote a blog that goes deeper on this topic in case you want to learn more on how to build your own employee sustainability community.

Another best practice—start by trying to get top-down support from an executive sponsor as soon as possible. Go straight to your Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) or anyone who is ultimately responsible for sustainability in your company. Ask them, “What’s the role of employees in our company’s sustainability strategy?” If you are unsure of the answer, start by looking at their targets, commitments, goals, and overall strategy. You have access to a lot of resources as internal employees that are not available outside of the organization. If they don’t have a clear answer to this question, that’s an invitation to pull up a chair and help them figure it out. 

Starting with that top-down support helps legitimize the community, especially if you’re relying on volunteer labor to grow it. If you have a person like a CSO saying “this community is an official part of our strategy,” it makes it harder for people to ignore. It also adds legitimacy, which makes it easier to continuously recruit volunteers to come in and participate in the ways that your community needs to grow and be vibrant. 

You can’t control the culture of your company, but you can influence and shape it. Try to create an environment where everyone can learn, grow, and share. One way you can start is by asking people for their ideas and centralizing them in the open. Ask what they think the company should be doing to be more sustainable. You can even have the community vote on ideas or continuously engage on an idea that feels sticky.  If you’re running one of these employee sustainability communities, you can create the culture that you want to see, live, and experience in your day-to-day life at work. 

How did you begin creating the pressure needed for Microsoft to take climate action? How did you decide what questions to ask and what to work on to create a vibrant community that went beyond a Slack or Teams channel?

I started the community at Microsoft in 2018 and we spent the first 2 years finding all the environmentalists at Microsoft. We gathered them all in one place, so they could chat, and share ideas and experiences. Once we found a critical mass of employees, we discussed what Microsoft was doing as a company for sustainability. We asked ourselves, “Is it enough?” The answer was  always “no,  and they’re moving too slowly on their own.”

In the first 2 years (pre-COVID), we tried to create pressure in the system to say to the company—from an organized group of employees—that they’re not doing enough as a trillion-dollar company. We had live town halls every month where the CEO and different senior leaders would talk directly to the entire company and livestream the discussion. There was a hot mic—if you got there early enough, you could stand in line and ask any question you wanted. We went to these town halls 6 months in a row with sustainability questions asking what they’re doing as a company, how are they involving employees in their sustainability strategy, what roles should employees play, etc. It was a low-hanging fruit to spend 30 seconds asking a question to the CEO in front of the entire company, and it created an enormous amount of pressure for them to respond.

The first thing that you should ask for is sustainability training. It’s a very tactical ask because a company wants its employees to be skillful in very general topics such as business ethics, compliance, etc. Companies aren’t providing sustainability training— so how can they expect their workforce to do something meaningful on sustainability if they're not providing training?

Ultimately, try to position yourself as a cooperative force in the company. Asking the company to change can be framed as a cooperative statement. Say you want to help this company be better for XYZ reasons. It can diffuse a lot of tensions that upper management gets. 

How did you maintain the momentum of a sustainability community?

There are a lot of people, especially young workers, who experience dread, fear, and anxiety about the future if we don’t address climate change. That’s a powerful motivator that encourages people to stay engaged when the community provides comfort, answers, solutions, a sense of agency, and empowerment. You serve as a space where you can translate people’s sense of anxiety into action. 

Persistence is really important, especially for large companies with hierarchical structures. We were successful because of the contributions of hundreds of volunteers over the years that helped it grow. Our success stemmed from us being so tenacious and consistently asking for answers. 

You’re trying to influence without an authority to leaders whose jobs depend on the status quo and you’re also trying to disrupt that. They're going to zealously protect and defend the status quo because it's what they're used to. It's what gives them power and prestige in a company. 

You just have to keep coming back and building collective power with your fellow employees. It's very easy to say no to 2 people and never respond. It's much harder to ignore or say no to 1,000 people who continuously keep asking the same questions repeatedly in different venues.

How do we speak to executives about sustainability? 

When we ask company leaders about why they should care about sustainability, we approach it from a moral or emotional standpoint. It’s the right approach, but it doesn’t always work. CEOs aren’t necessarily motivated by morality. Try to use different vehicles to deliver the message that weaves into the issues they generally already care about. For example, Deloitte publishes an annual survey, revealing that young workers are not going to work for companies unless they’re serious about sustainability. You can tie this finding to generic HR functions that matter in every company. Companies want the best and brightest, but if companies are not serious about sustainability, and they’re not providing opportunities for employees to get involved in these sustainability efforts, then they will struggle to find new talent. That’s something that makes executives' ears perk up every time.

You can also bring up risk because CEOs care about mitigating risk. Employee activism on climate change is an inevitable part of the future of business. What matters is how companies respond. Eventually, that pressure is going to mount and it’s going to blow up, whether it’s internally with their employees or externally with negative press. Instead, by engaging employees proactively, execs can funnel that energy into productive areas and mitigate that risk simultaneously.

Budgeting for sustainability projects can be challenging and influences how a company prioritizes sustainability. How do we take action within these limitations?

You can focus first on initiatives that don’t require a budget like building a robust and healthy employee community. Use your company’s internal digital tools (eg., Slack, Teams, etc). Build a digital space to recruit volunteers and drive consistent programming. It shouldn’t cost much money. 

Ultimately, it’s good to ask for a budget for the community. Having a budget is a signal from the company that they care about the cause. I recommend finding a way to tie what you’re doing to the company’s purpose. Companies only spend money on things they care about. They’ll always say that employees are their most valuable resource. Call them on their bluff and, in the meantime, build something sophisticated with a critical mass that can’t be ignored for free. Show them what you’ve done and how much farther it could go with their support and resources.

What journey are you currently on? What are you currently learning and what’s the next chapter?

What I’ve mentioned is a general approach to employee engagement and employee community organizing. I define employee engagement as actions to increase employee participation in a company’s environmental sustainability efforts. But, this can look different under different companies.

Employee engagement is not a new thing. It’s a generic HR term that generally means employees get to know about the induced work that the employer thinks is important. But, within the context of sustainability, it’s a pretty new discipline. 

My experience at Microsoft gave me a solid blueprint for employee engagement, but that’s just one company. I started my consulting business to get a broader view of what employee engagement looks like in other companies and industries.

I’ve just been experimenting and trying to get a view into what employee engagement looks like elsewhere by talking to people and hearing their experiences. I’ve been doing paid client work and I’m developing content, such as e-learning modules and live workshops, where anyone can consume to get a 101 level understanding of these topics. I’ve also been volunteering for Work on Climate for the past six months, which is a large sustainability community (27,000 people on Slack) that has around 50 volunteers running different teams and programs. It’s been a great place to plug in and learn more. I’ve also done free webinars, one is a two-hour master class with MCJ on how to build an effective employee sustainability community. In my other webinar, I will share how everyone can make climate a part of their job. 

I will also be working on a long-form playbook tentatively called the Employee Guide to Climate Activism, which will outline these different skills on climate literacy, community organizing, managing volunteers, influencing your company without authority, and building collective power with your employees. 

If I could boil it down to one sentence, I want to create as many climate activists in as many companies as possible and teach them a baseline of skills that they need to be effective organizers and leaders. This is a style of leadership that has nothing to do with somebody giving you a title. This is the kind of leadership you earn by showing up and being earnest, trustworthy, and empathetic. I’m trying to help people do that in a scalable way. I want to empower a critical mass of people all over the place and help them plant a seed. The ultimate goal is to create a super community where everybody can share best practices. We need to all be learning in real-time about what’s working and what’s not. 

What’s one final piece of advice you have for everyone?

You can influence sustainability at your company through your existing role. Look at the intersection of the job you already have. Start to reimagine what that would look like if it accounted for sustainability from the beginning. That’s a very critical thing we can do besides trying to change the macro environment that our companies operate in. You can also read examples from Microsoft in my article with MCJ or check out Drawdown’s Job Function Action Guide for inspiration.

Thousands or maybe millions of other people have your job. If you’re one of the first people to articulate the intersection of that job with sustainability within your professional circles, you instantly become a thought leader. Every job can be a climate job—it’s an invitation to every single one of us to redefine how we see our job description and how we can uniquely contribute to climate change. Keep going, don’t give up, build collective power, and don’t take no for an answer. 

Drew is always eager and happy to meet fellow activists and help them on their journey. You can support Drew by checking out all of his resources, features, and written work on his website. If you’d like to engage your workforce, reach out to Drew to collaborate! 

Fight climate change in a way that works for you.

💌 Thinking about sustainability can be overwhelming after a busy workday, so we're here to help. Join over 7,000 other busy people and subscribe to Changeletter, a bite-sized action plan that'll take you 3 minutes or less to read every week.
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"Making social change always felt so overwhelming until I started reading this newsletter." - Meghan Mehta, Google

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