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AFRY Insights: Together

Written by Joana Barragan

Why companies need to listen to youth and embrace sustainability.

Corporate survival: an uphill battle?

Covid-19 was the issue of the year until the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Despite the terrible situation facing Ukraine, it is still true that climate change and sustainability are the issues of the century. Devising a vaccine for Covid-19 took 12 months - no small feat - yet the climate challenge will span into the next century and, make no mistake, it will entail gargantuan amounts of effort and a worldwide clasping of hands.

As the world advances towards looming deadlines around environmental targets, the corporate squadron is undergoing major changes, making thumping climate commitments and striving to improve its influential role in society. According to Natural Capital Partners, 38% of Fortune Global 500 companies have made a public climate commitment by 2030. When you are a company that has been around for over a century (AFRY's roots date back to 1895), and still expect to exist for the next 100 years, you soon realise that you must change the way you do business with one key thing in mind: moving from limitless waste and rampant consumerism as the bedrock of traditional business, to a new reality where decorrelating growth from carbon intensity in business is the number one priority.

When situations lack analogies to the past, it is hard to envision the future. Jonas Gustavsson, AFRY's CEO, went a step further at COP26 upholding that “if you think too much on the past, you will not know what to do moving forward”. Towards making future, a fundamental stronghold for the corporate squadron are the young cadets. While, previously, traditional businesses flaunted short-term goals, the ever-shifting territory is impelling companies to take action through the lens of long-term planning, which should gravitate towards incorporating the youth's perspective as, by the target year, millennial recruits will be the ones at the forefront of decision-making. Preparing and involving them early on is the way to go.

Youth to the barricades

We stand on the brink of the 4th Industrial Revolution. In the words of Lucas Joppa, Microsoft's Chief Environmental Officer, in the past three revolutions we have been borrowing from the future to pay for the present.

With the risk of being falsely adjudged as tech-bashers, we [the youth] want to become the first revolution to stop this scrounging cycle. To the benefit of corporate diversity, there are particular characteristics of today's youth that differ from previous generations, and serve as a firm hand to steer through the windings of the next decades. Adding to the corporate blend, the young generation can generally be described as purpose-driven and future-focused, with the desire to have a societal impact, and very importantly, they are technology-oriented.

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Societal and environmental impact through business

The first thing to understand is the profound motivation of today's youth to improve the prospects for the future. The environmental challenge has been entrenched in today's youth since the beginning of their studies, which has resulted in an unfeigned concern for this issue. It seems, however, that while the youth is very much at the frontline in brazenly voicing their concerns in the streets, they are absent in providing a fresh perspective in their office's conference room. It is important for the more experienced to bridge these gaps in communication, particularly with regards to sustainability, acknowledging that (1) today’s youth is not stirred by the current raft of bombastic carbon targets which are already starting to sound like humdrum, (2) they have a zeal for social impact, and (3) engaging with young people should mean adapting towards a new business-as-usual, becoming more visual, interactive and flexible. According to Deloitte Millennials Impact Report, 82% of millennials whose current organisation’s values align with their own, stay with the company for more than five years. Companies can combat staff turnover and retain talent by remaining true to their alleged values.

There are two ways companies ought to embrace sustainability:

  • Internal transformation, i.e. their own operations, their spaces and people. Coupled with this intent, promoting the youth to be part of the sustainability discussion has never been more valuable and can be a first step for a deluge of idea-creation pouring across teams should the right channels be enabled;
  • External transformation, i.e. the impact on society through client projects and communal activities. This transformation can be bolstered by giving the youth the opportunity to ideate solutions and actions, to be trained in strategic foresight and in critical business thinking early on, honing in on corporate responsibilities according to all faces of sustainability, i.e. carbon, waste, water and biodiversity, as well as societal welfare.

Technology: our greatest ally

The youth’s lives are, by and large, latched onto technology. We are talking about a generation that shops with their phones and talks to home appliances. In other words, a marriage between sustainability and a digitalised and interconnected future is bound to chime, playing a birthing role in the transition’s underpinnings. This reality has opened pathways that the corporate garrison is already taking on. An inflexible and play-safe corporate stance repels young talent; it would be a recipe for corporate suicide. This is where the youth, with their ideas and precocious tech-talent can propel solutions forward. Engaging with the youth accelerates adoption of digital technologies without demur. The figure below evinces that greater youth employment correlates to higher digital adoption.

Relationship between digitalisation and utilisation of youth's talents

The youth feels that we need to go far beyond advocacy and corporate branding. The tenet of success is to start early with real actions. To that end, frontline young troops need to develop a sense of self-confidence and understanding of what they can bring to the table; the veterans should encourage them to raise their voices, teaching them not what to think about the future, but how to think about the future. Traditional corporate business-as-usual should work hand in hand with this perspective to achieve 'great', and this can only be conquered through diversity and innovation, as they impact every single thing that we do. None of our skills individually are enough, but every single one ought to be brought to bear.

To companies' advantage, the youth is a powerful engine staring at their face to create raw brilliance. We need always remember that the youth brings an eclectic mix of entrepreneurial minds and the broader this mix is, the better. While it seems the global environmental clout is focused in Europe, we should not flinch over whether to explore or not the perspective of a young employee in Brazil living close to the climate threats. Failing to consult them impairs us from real insight and change.

The greatest triumph would be to hoist the victory flag in some decades' time thanks to a cross-generational collaboration. We wanted purpose, there we have it, to reify humanity's greatest strength: one another.

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Interested in more?

View the full set of articles provided in the last edition of AFRY Insights magazine.