Inside Job: Crafting Climate Careers Without Changing Employers
by Drew Wilkinson
Just 1 person, 2% of respondents, said they had tried to influence their current employer! This answer reflects a bottleneck that’s keeping thousands of frustrated job seekers on the sidelines, unable to land that coveted climate job. In this article, I’ll argue that staying in your current company and advocating for more resources for sustainability is not only a more practical and accessible path to getting a climate job, but it can also unlock resources and opportunities for you and all your colleagues.
How do I know? Because I’ve done it. In 2018, I co-founded Microsoft's employee sustainability community and helped it grow to 10,000 members. The community successfully pushed the company to become a corporate sustainability leader, which helped unlock a tidal wave of resources that led to a 10x increase in climate jobs and opened the door for every employee to make sustainability part of their current job.
You can, and should, do the same where you work, even if your goal is to ultimately work somewhere else. The skills you develop doing this work in your own company will give you valuable hands-on experience and the relationships you build with sustainability professionals can lead to valuable referrals. Both things will ultimately help you secure a full-time climate job.
How Microsoft employees made sustainability part of everybody’s job
In 2016, I joined Microsoft as an Associate Paralegal. I spent my early career working in environmental nonprofits and the arts, but suddenly found myself in the headquarters of a trillion-dollar tech company. It was a shocking and disorienting experience. I started asking "what is the company doing for the climate crisis?" and "how can regular employees like me get involved?" When there weren't clear answers to either, I resolved to find them.
The initial challenge was hard to ignore: overflowing trash cans all over campus. Partnering with another concerned employee, we initiated a waste audit, quantifying the problem and crafting proposals for change. Our persistence led to Microsoft's first zero waste cafeteria. Inspired by this achievement, we formed a local meetup group in Seattle, gradually evolving into a global community of 10,000 members in 37 chapters worldwide by 2023. Hybrid meetups with virtual options increased participation, teaching us the importance of meeting people where they're at. Securing executive sponsorship early on, notably from the Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO), proved crucial. This top-down support brought resources and legitimacy, bridging grassroots efforts with corporate sustainability goals. Our success underscored the value of relationship management in building trust and fostering a cultural shift, making sustainability a shared responsibility for all employees.
The community continuously pushed the company from the inside, resulting in its industry leading commitments to become carbon negative, water positive, and zero waste by 2030. With these commitments in place, the resources started flowing: a $1b Climate Innovation Fund, a $15 per metric ton internal carbon tax on business group's emissions, and from 2020-2023, a 10x increase in the number of full-time sustainability jobs at the company. While the employee community wasn’t the sole reason these things happened, it did make them happen faster and more holistically.
The community’s most important contribution, however, was changing the paradigm of who got to work on sustainability. It was no longer restricted to people who had the title or expertise: sustainability was now a part of everybody’s job. By democratizing sustainability, the community created meaningful opportunities for every employee to create real world solutions to the world’s most pressing environmental challenges using Microsoft’s resources. This unlocked all kinds of incredible new innovation from employees in every part of the company:
Software engineers started asking “how can we embed sustainability into our day to day work and codify a set of practices for the entire industry?” which eventually led to the creation of the Green Software Foundation | GSF, an international nonprofit working with academics, practitioners, and engineers to build a trusted ecosystem of people, standards, tooling and best practices for green software
Designers started asking “how does sustainability intersect with design and what is the environmental impact of all this digital stuff we create?” which led to the creation of the Green Design Principles
Others wondered if it would be possible to create “carbon aware computing” so that major compute workloads would only run when renewable energy was in high supply on the grid. That feature is now a standard part of the Windows 11 operating system
Employees leveraged the annual Hackathon to spawn hundreds of sustainability projects. Some even left the company and are doing incredible things in the real world, including partnerships with TerraPraxis and The Ocean Cleanup project, to name a few
Community members also advocated for basic sustainability training for the entire workforce and got it: to date, tens of thousands of employees have taken it
Far from an exhaustive list, this is just a snapshot of what happened when everyone was invited to work on sustainability and given the resources to turn ideas into action. Having the support and structure provided by a global employee sustainability community ensured it all happened bigger, faster, and in the open so everyone could benefit. In the process, something interesting happened. Employees from across the company were given the opportunity to work on climate in flexible unconventional ways: occasionally, seasonally, or part-time through rotation programs and apprenticeships. In the end, this approach gave a larger group of people more hands-on experience than traditional full-time jobs could have, and it reinforced the idea that every job is a climate job.
If Microsoft employees could make it happen there, so can employees across all companies and industries. There are encouraging signs the work has already started. In its 2023 CxO Sustainability Report, Deloitte found more than 50% of C-suite executives saying employee activism on climate had led their organizations to increase sustainability actions over the past year; 24% said it led to a “significant” increase. Presently, the demand for climate jobs far outstrips the supply. At the same time, we need people pushing every company in every industry to be more sustainable from the inside. If we can funnel all the energy from frustrated climate job seekers into transforming the places they already work, we can drive greater impact and create more climate job opportunities in established, powerful, and well-resourced companies, the kinds that can move markets. Ultimately, this is about systems change more than individual people getting climate jobs.
Making the switch to a climate job
Despite the surge in interest for people wanting climate jobs, I’m not convinced we have a shared definition of what they actually are. Here’s one I like:
A primary occupation largely focused on work that helps fix or adapt to climate change OR in any role at a company whose primary mission is to fix or adapt to climate change OR in any role where >50% of your clients / customers are for companies / projects focused on fixing or adapting to climate change
I like this definition because it teases out the difference between working in climate and working on climate - a subtle but important distinction. It also illustrates that you may not need to go from 0 to 100% in one shot to get a climate job. Instead, it can be something you do gradually over time, often by staying with your current employer and leveraging their career development resources. This work can also be fractional (i.e. a formal part of your job, but not all of it) or seasonal (when needs are greater, i.e. around reporting and disclosures). The point is: sustainability work at your current employer often has a lower bar for entry, more flexibility, and may contribute to your other career development goals.
What if we thought about transitioning to a climate job as a dial we turn instead of a switch we suddenly flip?
For most of us, turning the dial slowly over time is a more practical and accessible path to climate work, especially if the end goal isn’t a full-time climate job. Not everyone wants to be a Chief Sustainability Officer or work in sustainability 100% of the time. When you consider that in most companies, full-time sustainability roles make up less than 1% of the workforce, having even 10% of employees work on sustainability 25% of their time has a ton of potential for impact and scale. While this work may not be a direct substitute for the work full-time sustainability professionals do, it can certainly augment it.
What you can do:
Organizing with your colleagues and advocating for more sustainability resourcing might look very different in your company than it did at Microsoft, and that’s OK. But the general principle of changing the paradigm of who gets to work on sustainability at your employer should be the same. Here are some tips to get you started:
See what already exists and leverage it: One of the most common barriers to successfully organizing with your colleagues is the existence of multiple groups who might be doing the same thing but in a disconnected way. Before creating something new, take the time to see what has already been created and go from there. If possible, talk to current or past organizers to understand what has been tried and how it went - don’t reinvent the wheel.
Build trusted relationships with key stakeholders: Who makes decisions about sustainability in your company? What role do employees currently play in sustainability commitments and strategy? What would you like to see changed? As you start advocating, who might be a sympathetic ally? Who might be an obstacle? Take the time to map out the key stakeholders you will need to influence to succeed, and then systematically build trusted relationships with them. Be clear about your intentions and curious about their ideas.
Get executive sponsorship: Having top down support makes a big difference. In this case, you should start with your company’s Chief Sustainability Officer or equivalent. Make sure they understand the value of an engaged workforce, so they can advocate for employees, and provide resources for their initiatives.
Make it easy to participate: People are busy at work. If you don’t make it easy to engage, you will struggle to grow and sustain your community and build power.
Meet people where they’re at: What platforms, tools, and processes does your company already use to run communities or invite open collaboration? Go with the current workflow to start. I’ve seen communities run on things as simple as email distribution lists. Version 1 doesn’t need to be fancy, it needs to be easy to find and use. You can improve and iterate over time as the community grows and matures.
These conditions invite us to think creatively about what climate jobs look like, and to pursue the path of least resistance to get started. Staying in your current company and advocating for more resources for sustainability can create more opportunities to work on climate for you and all of your colleagues. Considering fractional, seasonal, or other unconventional ways to work on climate offers flexibility, and the chance to align work with other career development goals. Finally, working on climate is a journey, not a destination: it’s a dial you turn, not a switch you flip. And you may need to make the first turns of that dial in the job you already have, at the company you already work for, to kickstart your climate career change.
✨ Coming up on Feb 8 join MCJ Collective and Drew Wilkinson for a 2-hour interactive workshop that will give you the skills and resources needed to develop an effective workplace sustainability community. Participants will learn the fundamentals of employee community organizing through expert lectures followed by individual workbook assignments, and small group breakouts for networking and communal learning.
🍿 The Lean Back
🎙️ My Climate Journey Podcast
⚡️ Tisha Schuller, founding CEO of Adamantine Energy, helped us kick off a new year of pods with a conversation about her work in helping oil and gas leaders navigate the energy transition. Not all listeners will agree with Tisha's perspective, but a big part of her message starts from a shared vision of the future and works backward. Listen to the episode here.
♻️ Stanley Janicki, Chief Revenue Officer at Sedron, joined Cody for a discussion on waste streams and his company’s technology that reclaims beneficial nutrients in dairy and animal agriculture, wastewater treatment, and distillery waste. Listen to the Startup Series here.
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👩💻 Climate Jobs
Manager, Client Relations at Arcadia (Remote/US)
Executive Assistant at Crusoe Energy (Denver, CO)
Environmental Lead at Heirloom (Houston, TX)
Energy Data Analyst at LevelTen Energy (Seattle, WA)
Manufacturing Process Engineer at Mill (San Bruno, CA)
Mechanical Engineer at Nitricity (Bay Area, CA)
Associate Field Technician at Runwise (Washington DC)
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🗓 Climate Events
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⚡️ MCJ AMA with Ari Matusiak - Rewiring America: Ari’s impressive background covers affordable housing, philanthropy, and the Obama White House. Check out his episode on the My Climate Journey podcast here and get your questions ready! (Jan 10)
👩💻 MCJ x Climate People Career Advancement Meetup: Learn and apply strengths-based approaches to your work to build a climate career that nourishes the planet and yourself! (Jan 10)
🌉 MCJ SF Climate Tech Meetup: Come meet up with the Bay Area MCJ city hosts and members. (Jan 17)
🍻 MCJ Minneapolis / St. Paul Climate Meetup: Monthly meetup for the local climate community. (Jan 18)
💡 MCJ Monthly Idea Jams: Two presenters pitch their ideas to the group and attending community members provide feedback ranging from the presentation style to thoughts on the idea or market. (Jan 19)
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