Drew Wilkinson never expected to work at Microsoft. For a decade, he’d played in a punk band and worked at small, scrappy environmental nonprofits when he wasn’t touring. But in 2016, when he needed to find a new way to pay bills, a friend told him about an opening on the tech giant’s paralegal team, and Wilkinson ended up getting the job. As he adjusted to office life, he also started thinking about something different: How could he bring his environmental advocacy to a giant corporation?
The company had a “green” group, which was basically an email list where people flagged small issues they noticed at work, like why the company used gas-powered leaf blowers rather than electric. “It was mostly people complaining,” he says. “I didn’t really see any employees who were willing to take initiative to try and understand who the decision makers were, and why did they make this decision, and how could we maybe convince them to make different ones.”
He connected with another employee, Holly Beale, who wanted to go farther. Beale had already started working on one problem—the amount of waste generated in the company’s huge cafeterias. After prodding, the facilities department gathered data on the waste, and the volumes were staggering. “It was something like 13 million coffee cups a year, just at the Redmond campus,” Wilkinson says.
Although the cups were compostable, “it was obviously just a very wasteful thing,” he says. “And for all the really hard, complex challenges in sustainability, getting people to bring their own thermos or water bottle is not really hard to solve. So then we started scanning the internal org chart and trying to figure out: who do we convince that this is really wasteful? I know there’s a better way to do this.”
They eventually set up a meeting, armed with a one-page sheet that laid out the data from the waste audit and made a list of recommendations—things that the company could do tomorrow, at no cost; medium-term solutions that would cost a little money; and a longer-term goal of a zero-waste cafeteria. The meeting went well, but then six months went by and they hadn’t heard more.
“At that point, we were starting to think, I guess that didn’t work,” he says. “But then we got an invite to a soft opening of a recently remodeled cafeteria. They took us through it and said, ‘Look, this is Microsoft’s first zero-waste cafeteria. We took as many ideas as possible and built them into it.” They’d even incorporated small suggestions, like using text messages to replace receipts on unrecyclable thermal paper.
That first experiment helped Wilkinson realize what was possible. “If two random employees with no influence, no power, who don’t have sustainability in their job titles—at that point, neither of us did—can convince a company the size of Microsoft to become more sustainable, what would happen if thousands of us did?” he says. “So we started to organize.”
Over the next five years, the company’s sustainability community grew to more than 10,000 people around the world. (Wilkinson eventually became a community program manager for the group.) Software engineers worked on finding new ways to reduce energy consumption in computing. Designers experimented with ways to design more sustainably. And advocates like Wilkinson helped pressure the company to make ambitious climate goals, including the target to become “carbon negative” by 2030.
Wilkinson’s job was one of thousands that the company cut earlier this year, but he’s now beginning to consult with other businesses that want to help employees set up sustainability groups. If you want to launch your own, here’s where to start.
- Research your company’s current climate plan (or whether it exists).
Look up your company’s sustainability report, or any other details that you can find about its current plans and what has been accomplished so far. “Maybe the company has a carbon reduction commitment: Great, understand what that means,” says Wilkinson. “Maybe your company is doing literally nothing. First, you just have to survey the landscape. Then that will help you start to understand who are the internal stakeholders that you’re gonna need support from.”
2. Meet with decision makers.
Part of the reason Microsoft’s sustainability community was successful, he says, is that the team got buy-in from the chief sustainability officer from the beginning. “We said, here’s what we’re trying to do—do you think that’s valuable?” Wilkinson says. “And he was like, ‘If employees can self organize and speak as a constituent group and help communicate to me what they care about, that is extremely valuable. I can take that to the senior leadership of the company and I can say, look, employees are one of our most important stakeholder groups, here’s what they think.’” Later, the CSO at the time, Lucas Joppa, told employees that their support had played a significant role in getting the company to make its most important sustainability commitments.
3. Don’t be afraid to dive in.
It’s easy to feel like you don’t know enough about sustainability or climate to tell your company what to do—these are obviously complex topics involving multiple scientific disciplines, a lot of jargon, and frequent greenwashing. But, Wilkinson says, “the best way to learn is to build a community. You don’t need to be a subject matter expert . . . just by doing the work, you’ll start to learn. Fight through the imposter syndrome. You’re doing something that in many cases hasn’t been done before, at least at your company. That can be intimidating and scary and you can feel alone—and you’ll always feel like you don’t know enough to do it. So you can’t let that be an excuse.”
4. Speak up.
As Microsoft was considering new sustainability commitments, the employee sustainability group put on the pressure. In 2018 and 2019, before COVID, Wilkinson says that the group came to every monthly town hall and made use of the open mic. “We hit on six months in a row with sustainability questions,” he says. “That was like 30 seconds worth of effort each time, but we just got it on the agenda.” The employee group, he says, was positioned as a cooperative group that could help the company, “but we also played a confrontational role when necessary to hold the company accountable.”