It was anything but business as usual on Friday, 20 September, with businesses across Australia scaling back their operations or even ceasing trading for the day to join an estimated 300,000 people in the Climate Strike.
Many employers right across the country took part in their local strike, from supporting and even encouraging their staff to attend local rallies through to shutting down all operations. They joined thousands of workers and parents who joined school and university students for rallies held Australia-wide.
Organisers of the School Strike 4 Climate claimed that more than 300,000 people across 110 cities and towns across Australia took part in the strike, which they said more than doubled attendance at the last climate strike held in March.
The bulk of those were in the capital cities, with organisers estimating crowds of 100,000 turned out in Melbourne and 80,000 in Sydney, along with 30,000 in Brisbane, 20,000 in Hobart, 15,000 in Canberra and 10,000 each in Adelaide and Perth.
Despite a heavy police presence for the Sydney event, NSW Police said it did not provide its own estimates of crowd sizes.
One of the founders of the Not Business As Usual alliance, Future Super, told My Business that its decision to close for the day, and encourage other businesses to do the same, was “because taking action on climate change is why we started our business”.
“For us, it was a strong statement that we could send to our team and our members, that people shouldn’t have to choose between a pay cheque and the planet,” its managing director and co-founder, Simon Sheikh, said.
“But we knew that the impact would be bigger if we could get other businesses to do the same. The Future Super team reached out to our own networks and we pulled together a group of 25 businesses and made an announcement to the media, and we called on other businesses to take a pledge to do the same.”
Mr Sheikh said that over 2,700 businesses pledged to join the strike, ranging in size from “small businesses like Ralph’s Garage and Penrith Yoga Studio to tech giants like Canva and Atlassian and leading B Corps like KeepCup, Intrepid and Who Gives a Crap”.
“It’s hard to believe that two weeks ago Future Super was one of 25 businesses who came together to kick off the Not Business as Usual alliance,” he said.
“Today we have over 2,700 Australian and global companies on board, and the momentum is only continuing to ramp up in the coming days as the rest of the world strikes and takes a stance.”
Other businesses of various size took to social media to reveal their support for the strike. Among those doing so on Twitter included WORK180, Lyons Architecture, Allen & Unwin, Encycle Consulting, Digital Storytellers, DC Power Co, Athena Home Loans, Cobalt Design, Tech23, Agile Australia Hub and investment group Blackbird.
Sydney-based Compost Revolution tweeted that it would not be taking orders at all on Friday, stating, “Sorry but today we’re not taking orders. We’re on strike to support the Student Strike 4 Climate”.
Meanwhile, cosmetics retailer Lush took down its website altogether and replaced it with a short message about the strike, led by a message that read: “Sorry we are closed due to an emergency. The climate emergency.”
WORK180 CEO Valeria Ignatieva said that plenty of communication in the lead-up to the strike was put out to ensure that all stakeholders and employees knew of the business’s involvement with the strike.
“We have spoken about our approach for a few weeks within the business, in an all-hands meeting, via email, internal comm channels and through one-on-one meetings. We’ve also communicated our commitment to this on our social media channels to publicly show our support,” she said.
However, she said it worked to ensure “this will not impact our customers in any way”.
“Having said, that we expect many of them will also want to get involved. We’re very proud that Atlassian, who are both a client, and more recently one of our investors, is leading this conversation and driving awareness.”
Ms Ignatieva said her company’s decision to visibly and proactively participate was an important one, stating, “You shouldn’t have to choose between a pay cheque and the planet”.
“Our climate is too important for our families and our workplaces to ignore,” she said.
“And we know that the number one reason that people won’t strike is because of work.
“All of us benefit from living in a healthy, stable climate. It’s what has allowed us to build inspiring businesses in the first place. As CEO, I believe in leaving the world in a better place and that is intrinsic in our organisation’s culture and people, so this movement has a very natural alignment for us.”
My Business attended the rally at The Domain in Sydney’s CBD, speaking with a number of people in attendance about their decisions for joining the rally.
One of those was Kate Dezarnaulds, owner of two WorkLife co-working spaces on the NSW South Coast.
Ms Dezarnaulds said her three employees were allowed the day off with pay to attend their local rallies in Nowra and Wollongong, while she and one of her children made the more than two-hour journey to Sydney to attend the main rally.
She said that her husband Jacques’ own business also closed for the day, with his 12 employees having their time paid for thanks to the generosity of a client.
According to Ms Dezarnaulds, many people in regional areas are “reluctant to stand up and be counted” in voicing their concerns about climate change, and that vocal support for climate action has somewhat divided the community.
Asked about the feedback from her customers as a co-working business, she said that it has “been really interesting” and “challenging”.
“We tried to encourage everybody to get involved. I reckon it’s about 30 per cent are not engaged with the issue and are working, 30 per cent for whatever reason can’t today, and the last third are mostly at Nowra[’s rally] and some at Wollongong.”
Ms Dezarnaulds admitted that “it’s a bit of a risk to stick your brand next to this campaign, and we’ve copped a bit of backlash for that”, but that she and her family have felt it important to stand up for what they believe in.
She also suggested that regional areas are less keen to publicly state their views on the issue, but that “there’s a lot of people who are silently supportive but not very vocal”.
“Lots of people do [support our approach], but I haven’t been overwhelmed by it, I’ve felt the tension. I wish I could say it was overwhelmingly supportive reaction, but it’s a bit of column A and a bit of column B.”
Not all employers were happy to have their brands attached to the strike, despite being supportive of individuals and even groups of employees attending the rallies, as the experiences of two employees suggest.
Sophie*, a management consultant with a global consulting firm, said that she is passionate about supporting climate action and so worked with her employer to take leave for the afternoon to attend the strike.
“I told them and my client that I was going on strike today, and they were quite happy for me to take the time out and come along to it,” she told My Business.
She admitted that not many of her colleagues had joined her, although she was “sending them lots of photos”.
“We’ve had some meetings this afternoon, so my colleagues have stayed and covered those and I’ve come alone.”
But Sophie said that the company, despite its support for her personal stance, is less keen to be associated with the movement.
“It hasn’t been particularly widely publicised [internally],” she said.
“I don’t know [why that is], I’m trying to find out.
“I’m trying to find out at the moment if we have an environmental policy guide in Australia, and what our policies are about carbon emissions etc. etc.”
Sophie said that she was pleased to have been able to attend the event.
“It’s amazing,” she said.
“There are so many people here, the signs are amazing, it’s a great atmosphere. I didn’t expect the turnout to be this big... really glad to be a part of it.”
Catherine*, an engineer for a much smaller Australian business, echoed Sophie’s sentiments in that her employer was happy for her and some of her colleagues to join the strike, but did not want the business name attached to it.
She told My Business that it was still unclear whether they would be required to take annual leave to cover their time out of the job.
“We’ll see on Monday whether they give us an allowance or not,” she said, but added that her workplace is generally quite flexible and that she planned to make up the hours.
“But they basically said ‘feel free to take some time, take a long lunch, go and head out’, so [they have been] very supportive.”
According to Catherine, it was very much her and her colleagues’ push to attend.
“We basically told our bosses about it: ‘Hey, this is happening, we believe in it, what do you guys think?’,” she said.
“They even helped us find the stuff for the posters and gave us some textas and things.
“I think they would have liked to come too, but they’re a bit more flexible ‘cos we’re a bit younger, I guess.”
Despite this support, Catherine said her employer was “happy for us to come and be here as individuals; they weren’t as keen to put their name behind it”.
“We get a lot of work through councils and state government funding, so I don’t know if there’s some conflicts potentially there.”
Catherine confessed that working for a business that is associated with weather-driven impacts that did not want to associate its brand with the cause was a little disappointing, but she took a realistic view of the overall needs of the business.
“We’re only a small company, and so it’s kind of a big hit to just have 10 people out of the office for three hours. So they’re doing a reasonable effort I think.”
Another of the attendees at the rally was Timoth de Atholia, an economist with the Reserve Bank.
Mr de Atholia said it was important for him and his children to show his support, and did so during his normal lunch break rather than taking time off work.
“I’m here because I’m concerned for my children’s survival,” he told My Business.
“And my own survival in 30 years’ time.”
According to Mr de Atholia, “under a 2 degrees warming scenario, agricultural volumes in South East Asia will fall by a third”.
“In 2050, what are those people going to have to eat?”
Speaking from his own personal point of view rather than that of the RBA, Mr de Atholia suggested that the strike would have little if any impact on the Australian economy.
“We can’t predict the numbers of people who are going to turn up to these sort of things,” he said.
“[But] it’s going to go for two hours, that’s the strike time. A lot of people are just coming for small parts of the strike and then going back to work, like myself.”
He also suggested that at lunchtime on a Friday, the impact to productivity was likely to be minimal anyway, plus any negative impact would likely be offset by large numbers of people gathering in urban centres and then spending money at shops, cafes and pubs.
“To be honest, it would be so minor that it wouldn’t really be worth forecasting, even if we could,” he added.
While today’s events were the highest-profile and most co-ordinated rallies for action on climate change, Eventbrite said that climate strikes in Australia are becoming much more common.
“The increasing number of local events and rallies hosted on Eventbrite that are focused on climate change demonstrates that there are more Australians than ever demanding action on this important environmental issue,” its acting general manager, Josh McNicol, said.
*Surnames and company names were withheld to protect both the individuals and their employers.
Adam Zuchetti is the editor of My Business, and has steered the publication’s editorial direction since early 2016.