Time Magazine doesn't choose its "Person of the Year" lightly. The process begins every Fall with nominations, followed by teams of researchers helping to select the finalists. The winner can be a public figure, such as Mahatma Gandhi, a group, such as the Ebola fighters of 2014, or an inanimate object, such as the computer. But it always captures what is most significant in the moment.
What Time's editors realized this year, with their selection of 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, was not just that Thunberg was a popular figure garnering attention from millions of people around the world and mobilizing youth to strike for action on climate change. They realized that her success meant that change is happening.
Time's profile on Thunberg notes: "She has succeeded in creating a global attitudinal shift, transforming millions of vague, middle-of-the-night anxieties into a worldwide movement calling for urgent change. She has offered a moral clarion call to those who are willing to act, and hurled shame on those who are not. She has persuaded leaders, from mayors to Presidents, to make commitments where they had previously fumbled: after she spoke to Parliament and demonstrated with the British environmental group Extinction Rebellion, the U.K. passed a law requiring that the country eliminate its carbon footprint."
Time notes that 60 countries in the past year have said that they will eliminate carbon emissions by 2050, and that as this year comes to an end the momentum for implementing clean energy policy has increased dramatically. In the US, California and other states are heavily focused on emissions and on other aspects of environmental policy, as are many cities. A backlash against political correctness, including high-profile complaints about water-saving toilets and energy-saving lightbulbs, rings hollow in the face of tangible effects of climate change like fire and flooding.
Here are three ways the Greta phenomenon will impact your business:
1. Be prepared to decarbonize.
If so many cities, states and countries are committing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, businesses will eventually be required to do their part. This will include reducing the carbon footprint of your products during their lifecycle, reviewing the sources of energy you use to run your offices and servers, and cutting back on your transportation emissions. It might very well mean factoring in a price on carbon. While you're at it, you will probably have to step up other sustainability programs like waste management and elimination of single-use plastics.
2. Expect pressure from customers.
Whether your clients are other businesses or end consumers, they are likely to examine your sustainability record with a fine-tooth comb. It may sound counter-intuitive, but some young consumers will want to know what your company is doing to reduce consumption, given that the consumer culture itself is being perceived as a villain. Be prepared to be held to a much higher environmental standard.
3. Expect employees to rise up in protest.
Greta has become a symbol of empowerment. Employees have demanded big-name companies such as Amazon and Google act on climate, and yours will too. The workplace (or school or college campus) is the most immediate sphere of influence a young person can have.
Whatever you do, it won't be enough. Many companies started decades ago on the path to sustainability with a mandate to do less harm. Soon that became an opportunity to do more good. Now, the stakes are much higher. Your company will be expected to commit to zero carbon emissions. It will be expected to pay a carbon tax. You will be expected to take a stand publicly on environmental and social issues; your employees will demand that. And over time, you will be expected to turn your company into a regenerative business, with only positive impacts.
Where should you start? Take a look at the environmental and human rights impacts you have now, both your own and those of your suppliers. Figure out how to map and measure these impacts. Once you have a sense of your footprint, you can get creative. Your strategic planning and investment strategy should be looking at market factors anyway, and these will need to include the Greta phenomenon. The cover of Time has spoken.