Real Leaders

Don’t Even Think About It — Why Ignoring Young Voices Can Be Bad for Your Business

The impatience of youth and why it may be our best weapon against climate change

We’ve been conditioned by the mainstream media to only focus on one crisis at a time. It was nothing but non-stop coverage of the global pandemic for two years, punctuated by the odd severe storm warning. Then, racial tension, social justice causes, and deadly police force morphed into political insurrections and conspiracy. More recently, a war in Eastern Europe created continuous coverage on TV. Each time, the issue at hand was raised to a national or global crisis level.

Yet one problem continues to march on relentlessly, untainted by human news cycles or political squabbling: the climate crisis. It’s an issue that 29-year-old Mexican-Chilean climate activist Xiye Bastida has devoted her life to, which she intends to keep firmly on the global agenda. She was the recipient of the UN Spirit award in 2018 and is currently a student at the University of Pennsylvania, which acts as the home base for her role as one of the lead organizers, along with Greta Thunberg, of the Fridays For Future youth climate strike movement.

“The important thing to remember is that none of the aforementioned crises are unrelated,” says Bastida. “They’re all connected somehow, and a climate crisis can worsen these social, political, and weather crises. Take the Ukraine-Russia crisis as one example. We’ve heard much commentary from economists and politicians about energy security and the reliance of Europe on Russian fossil fuels. This has sparked a debate in the United States about what energy security means. But, instead of languishing over a lack of preparedness to store enough fossil fuel for a crisis, the debate should focus on what comes next: What clean energy source will allow countries to achieve energy democracy?”

For Bastida, a safer future is a climate-conscious future, a future where people aren’t afraid that another conflict will create suffering from a lack of basic needs. There have been many parallels drawn between the pandemic and the climate crisis. One example is how we cared for our wellbeing and safety during COVID-19. “Yet, we also need to look after the environment’s health, too,” says Bastida. “And also the health of movements, and robust scientific thought. These all contribute to a healthier world. We can’t just pick and choose what we’d like to hear from our scientists or allow political agendas to skew its meaning.”

Bastida spoke alongside numerous world leaders at the White House climate summit in April 2021, where she called for immediate action, highlighting climate change’s uneven effects on poor and indigenous communities. In his introduction of her, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted that drought and later intense flooding had forced Bastida from her hometown in Mexico as a child. Her uncompromising passion for climate solutions was on full display when she told Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador that he “lacked ambition” for his proposal to phase out the country’s reliance on fossil fuel at a snail’s pace and cling to coal for the foreseeable future.

A pet peeve of Bastida’s is endless debate. She sees so many concerned people establishing platforms, forums, and events to discuss the problems, but it’s action she wants to see. Call it youthful impatience or exuberance, but today’s young people don’t care about grand speeches from self-important people seeking to sound right for their constituencies or employees. To garner respect from the next generation, they will have to demonstrate action, a quality Bastida and her peers value more than anything in the climate movement. “There’s so much time being wasted on debates that focus on what might be real or just plain conspiracy that it’s stopping us from finding real solutions. COVID has taught us a lot about communication, data, and storytelling. It’s shown us the appropriate response to a crisis: creative engagement on a global scale. So why can’t we act like this around climate action?”

One significant challenge is that people like to focus on their immediate surroundings. If you live in a forest, why should you consider people’s experiences in a desert thousands of miles away? If you’re a farmer in middle America, why should you care about the health of the oceans? Bastida, who’s been taking classes in climate psychology, agrees that most people only respond to what’s immediately in front of them. “But we’ve also seen a shift in climate messaging that compounds the issue,” she says. “Twenty years ago, the world was told we had 100 years before climate change became a threat. This was too far in the future to have any meaningful impact on most people’s lives. Now we’re being told that the climate crisis is happening now. So again, there’s a sense of detachment from reality for billions of people. Unless you live on a sinking island or an area prone to frequent wildfires, you might say, ‘Climate crisis? What climate crisis?’ But this is where the power of youth comes in,” says Bastida.

The young people of today are connected like no generation before. “We know what is happening around the world with our friends on any given day,” she says. “They don’t even have to be close friends; our generation feels an affinity to each other based on a cause, not physical distance.” Bastida and her friends know about the 39,000 tons of clothing dumped in the Atacama Desert in Chile that even the charities don’t want, much of it from rich countries addicted to fast fashion. The UK throws away some 13 million items of clothing every week, and 70% of it is sent overseas, according to sustainability charity WRAP. While some companies try to hide mountains of dirty laundry in a desert that will take 200 years to degrade, Bastida and her fellow climate activists are exposing them through social media. Businesses that are harming the environment have more to fear than persistent investigative journalists these days — even more powerful is a teenager with social media and a mobile phone.  

Bastida is adamant that acting local is the place to start when wondering how to become involved in the fight against climate change. “You might start with the water quality of your neighborhood,” she suggests. “Let people know that any impurities in your drinking water are not a coincidence; some companies have chosen to pollute the water, either through negligence or cutting corners to increase profits. Likewise, the quality of the air you breathe is determined by corporate lobbying to governments, which usually results in those less economically powerful ending up with toxic manufacturing near their homes. “When you approach the climate crisis from an angle of social justice, you show people that environmentalism is not just about plastic straws and turtles but about human health, security, and long-term economic stability.”

Surprisingly for a climate warrior, Bastida’s strategy to shift people’s views on the climate crisis is not about telling people to become greener. “Large soft drink manufacturers have spent millions of dollars pushing plastic bottle recycling campaigns, shifting the guilt and responsibility onto individuals to act,” she says. “But what we really need are campaigns that challenge companies to stop producing plastic bottles in the first place. We want to be able to trust you; we don’t want greenwashing or deception. And when we see you doing the right thing, we’ll support you. You lose everything by lying to us.”

Many seemingly good ideas can backfire if not thought through properly. For example, a few years ago, a greening project in Mexico gave fruit trees to impoverished communities to stimulate the economy and encourage tree planting. However, the recipients ended up burning vast swaths of virgin forest to make room for planting the fruit trees. As a result, it created more problems than before. “Solutions must be fully thought out before they begin,” says Bastida.  

While the world remains dazzled by technology, science, and new exploration, there’s indigenous wisdom that’s been around for centuries from which we can draw inspiration and solutions, Bastida points out. “We’re not asking business leaders to throw out cutting-edge innovations and replace them with old techniques,” she explains. “Rather, we’d like to see people embody different morals and philosophies in the work they already do.” Growing up as a member of the indigenous Mexican Otomi-Toltec nation, Bastida, whose first name means “rain,” was given clear ancestral wisdom on living in harmony with nature. Now living in New York in one of the most polluting nations on Earth, the irony is not lost on her. But at age 19, she still feels she has something to teach older business leaders. “The seven generational principle is one such lesson,” she explains. “We should make decisions today based on the wisdom and knowledge of the past seven generations to ensure the stability of the next seven generations. Business plans, budgets, and political careers are so short-term — quarterly, yearly, four-year cycles — but we’re not thinking long-term enough for what’s needed for a stable and healthy planet.”

Young people have energy; older people have wisdom. Consider inviting people of various ages to your board to invigorate an idea. “Keeping intergenerational conversations alive is crucial,” says Bastida. “One of the mistakes we made when we started the youth climate strike was saying to our elders, ‘You have stolen our future,’ instead of saying, ‘How can we work together to achieve that future?’ I’m a huge advocate of not shutting down the voices of the generations before us. We’ve never had so much information in one place in history, and we’re going to lose everything unless we appeal to every person who has the means and influence to create positive change.

Bastida acknowledges that young people see a mentor as highly desirable in advancing their careers, yet may ignore wisdom from older generations in the context of climate action. It’s a gap she hopes to close. “Age does not always equal wisdom,” she says. “We live in a world that praises and promotes specialization in a certain profession, but that sometimes blocks out the answers and solutions to everything else. My goal is to know a little about many things in the world. The best way to find ideas that help solve the climate crisis is to open your mind to how other people see the world. Sometimes we all need to do more listening and less talking.”

Bastida’s Top Tips for Business 

  1. Ask yourself: Where does my energy come from? And consider how you might move toward a greener, more renewable solution. Some airlines are offsetting their carbon emissions by planting trees in the middle of the Amazon jungle, but these can create other problems — privatizing indigenous land to plant trees, planting trees that aren’t indigenous to the region, or disrupting natural systems. While many initiatives have good intentions at heart, a deeper understanding of the broader issues is sometimes needed. Netflix is a good example of a company that deals directly with beneficiary communities in their quest for carbon neutrality to ensure no hidden surprises when dealing with third parties.
  2. Don’t greenwash. Don’t create an Earth Day campaign where you commit to a certain percentage of your products being sustainable. It’s a big red flag for environmentalists like Bastida, who see this as a one-off marketing campaign and not permanently built into your company values. “Youth consumers don’t want to see you appear once a year with an Earth message,” she says. “We’re a generation that wields enormous consumer power, so just think of the benefits of being authentic with us.”
  3. Tell young people the truth. The power of social media allows for transparency like never before. If the tomatoes in my tomato sauce come from a farm that sickens a community downriver from the manufacturing plant, we’ll get to hear about it. Young people use their mobile and social communication channels to make decisions. Stay on their radar in a good way — it can be profitable too.
  4. Don’t be afraid to admit you’re not perfect. Admitting you don’t know where to start when it comes to climate action or sustainable business is OK. Saying, “We haven’t done well, but are trying to do better,” is a better strategy than painting a perfect picture that falls short. It’s not easy; even within the climate organizations Bastida works with, some forget that communicating transparently is something they hold others to but sometimes forget to do themselves.
  5. Apply the principle of reciprocity. Whatever you take, consider what you might give back. The agricultural sector worldwide creates some of the biggest factors contributing to climate change — such as carbon emissions and soil degradation — but regenerative farming has shown that any industry can apply the same principles of giving back to ensure a more sustainable outcome.
  6. Collaboration is everything. Make people realize that doing things your way will be beneficial for them. Selflessly approach a new project by explaining the benefits to them first. Bastida’s metric for collaborative success is when she attends climate conferences where she sees new faces every time. “The effectiveness of collaboration is diluted when you interact with the same 10 people at every event, on every panel discussion,” she says. Shake up your collaborative mix more often.

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