The ‘climate quitters’ ditching corporate roles

A growing number of workers are making the decision to walk out of companies whose environmental values don’t align with their own

By Deborah Nicholls-Lee, BBC

Steffen Krutzinna had a lucrative career as an energy trader for Next Kraftwerke in Cologne, Germany. “I was fully committed to my job and super happy with my team and colleagues,” says the 38-year-old.

But in June, when parent company Shell announced a strategy that abandoned its climate promises to cut oil production, Krutzinna made what he describes as a “swift and crystal clear” decision to hand in his resignation, even without another role lined up.

“I perceive that as a pivotal shift in corporate values, and I feel that short-term profits are above social and environmental responsibilities,” he shared on LinkedIn. “I don’t want to be part of that, so I’m out.”

Krutzinna is part of a growing trend of ‘climate quitters’: workers walking out on companies whose environmental policies are at odds with their own values.

According to research by carbon removal marketplace Supercritical, 35% of the 2,000 UK office workers surveyed said they were willing to quit their jobs over weak climate action from their employers, with the figure increasing to 53% for Gen Z employees.

Climate campaigner Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever and the author of Net Positive: How Courageous Companies Thrive by Giving More Than They Take, says climate quitting is more prevalent today because the crises we’re facing are “existential”.

“We’re literally talking about the future of humanity,” he says. Polman, who is credited with significantly improving Unilever’s climate action, adds that workers today are far more climate-aware than in the past.

“People are realising that a few good business initiatives and a sprinkling of corporate social responsibility (CSR) aren’t going to cut it. We need businesses that thrive by fixing the world’s problems instead of creating them.”

Climate campaigner Paul Polman says climate quitting is more prevalent today because the crises we’re facing are “existential” (Credit: Alamy)

Polman’s 2023 survey of 4,000 employees across the UK and the US showed two-thirds of employees were anxious about the environment and wanted their companies to take a stronger stance on it, and half were willing to quit over a mismatch of ethics.

The results are a mark of “how deeply people now feel about the crises”, he says. “People of every age, but especially millennials and Gen Z, want to give their time and talent to the companies which share their values and are contributing to a more hopeful future.”

‘It’s an extremely powerful form of lobbying’

Dorset, UK-based safety consultant Caroline Dennett, 52, also walked off the job after an 11-year contract with Shell, based on what she says was their “disregard for climate change risks”. Last year, she posted a resignation video on LinkedIn that has more than 17,000 reactions and 1,800 reposts to date.

Indeed, experts say climate quitters can be a publicity nightmare and spur action. “It’s an extremely powerful form of lobbying,” says Alexis Normand, CEO and co-founder of global carbon-accounting platform Greenly, BBC wrote.

“As an employer, if I had people publicly quitting … it would be such a big PR problem that I would immediately announce a set of measures to show that we care about this stuff.”

Even as companies may be working on bettering their policies, says Normand, he believes climate quitters are making deficient companies “move much faster”.

Some workers who’ve quit over climate concerns feel their exit has negatively impacted their former employers. Mathew Hampshire-Waugh, 39, from Essex, UK, is the author of Climate Change and the Road to Net Zero and the founder of a consulting service helping organizations accelerate their climate action.

He quit his job in equities research at investment bank Credit Suisse in 2019. Focusing on new energy technologies, his role involved analyzing listed companies and identifying future “winners and losers”.

As an employer, if I had people publicly quitting … it would be such a big PR problem that I would immediately announce a set of measures to show that we care about this stuff – Alexis Normand

At face value, he says it appeared his employer was invested in raising awareness on climate change, but when his analysis suggested that the uptake of electric vehicles signaled an imminent peak in oil use, he says he found himself “butting heads with the oil and gas team [who] were reluctant to change their view”.

In another instance, he says he tried to establish an environmental, social, and governance standards (ESG) team within his research department, but felt unsupported there, too. Ultimately, he left. Hampshire-Waugh believes his departure was detrimental to his team, and “left a hole which got filled by somebody less experienced”. (Credit Suisse did not respond to a request for comment.)

KPMG research from 2023 shows companies are hurting when employees quit over climate matters. Beyond losing staff, their talent pool may shrink: of 6,000 UK workers surveyed, 20% said they’d turned down a job offer when a company’s ESG commitments didn’t align with their personal values. This number rose to 33% for 18-to-24-year-olds.

“Before climate quitting, there’s a selection bias. Young graduates from top business schools are refusing to join companies that are seen as wrecking the environment,” says Normand, citing the example of the students’ boycott of TotalEnergies last year at a recruitment fair at the prestigious business school HEC Paris.

Staying power

As much as climate quitting may be spreading, for some people, it’s an impossible ideal, rather than a norm.

Dennett, who walked away from her Shell contract, acknowledged in her video she was “privileged to be able to make this choice and many people working in fossil fuel companies aren’t so lucky … But the fossil fuel industry, it’s the past, and if you can find a way out, then please walk away while there is still time”.

Mathew Hampshire-Waugh quit his job at an investment bank when he found himself “butting heads” with his company over climate (Credit: Courtesy of Mathew Hampshire-Waugh)

For Sharon Keilthy from Dublin, pictured at the top, the enormity of the climate crisis left her feeling “far away from the front line” in her senior role at global management consulting firm McKinsey & Co, where climate action was not a key part of her job. The now-44-year-old left in 2018 to set up the sustainable toy company Jiminy Eco Toys. Like Dennett, she acknowledges her privilege to be able to walk away from her full-time position. Keilthy had savings, thanks to “a modest lifestyle” and “the luxury of having had a white-collar job”.

But staying in a job can also drive change

Hampshire-Waugh initially worked as part of the team of a chemical with no climate focus. “I moved it in that direction,” he says. “There’s always a way to bring what you are passionate about into your day job.”

He advises reading company reports, finding out what’s missing, and engaging stakeholders, like managers or members of a board. “There are lots of routes to take direct action and engage a company on climate.”

Keilthy agrees walking away isn’t the only solution to galvanize change. “Probably the single biggest thing people can do is to wear their climate hat at work,” she says. “We need every job to be a climate job: graphic designers, accountants, janitors, bus drivers.” Employees who stay, she believes, can put pressure on their companies to move in sustainable directions.

Some research shows staying in a job and voicing climate concerns can, in fact, move the needle – especially if companies want to keep their workers.

May 2023 McKinsey & Co research, led by senior partner Lucy Perez, showed “one-third of workers said their organizations’ work with ESG topics had a strong positive effect on their own commitment to the organization and on overall employee retention”.

Although she took the decision to quit her job, Keilthy sometimes wonders if she did the right thing. Employees in large companies “might have a lot more impact by staying”, rather than “stepping outside the mainstream and being the voice of climate change on the fringes”, she says.

“An analogy I’d use is: if you’re in a difficult relationship, you can toss your hair and storm off, or you can first give them a chance to change.”

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