What initiatives can the sustainable business movement introduce to help defeat environmental injustice and improve the lives of people in underserved and historically marginalized communities?
- In sustainable business and investing discussions, we need to understand who is most impacted, and to prioritize and amplify their voices.
- The sustainable business movement can and should do a better job bringing under-served and environmentally disadvantaged communities (i.e. historically black and brown people) to the table.
- Compassionate business is sustainable business.
For more data-driven insights in your Inbox, subscribe to the Refinitiv Perspectives weekly newsletter.
Melted glaciers, decimated forests, and extinct wildlife species are the result of climate change. Consuming and investing sustainably can help foster progress toward reversing some of those catastrophes, but businesses can do more.
Sustainable business practice is about much more than planting trees, saving polar bears, or buying environmentally friendly ETFs.
It’s about knowing how climate change, air pollution, and lack of access to green space poison and kill lower income communities that are disproportionately black and brown — and about investing in actionable, measurable solutions that can change this.
Redlining and the need for sustainable business
How do the environment and sustainability intersect with class and race?
Redlining is a great example. These geographical zones, traced in red by lenders practicing decades-long housing discrimination, were in many cases undesirable neighborhoods with little green space and lots of industrial plants.
In many communities, redlining created ongoing health crises that have recently been further exacerbated by COVID-19, a sign the practice — which is now illegal —continues to plague communities today through the health and economic disparities it created.
“’I can’t breathe’ resonates with today’s social injustice, and it’s also what communities of color were saying in the early 1980s because of exposure to toxic fumes and environmental injustice,” says Dr Robert Bullard, Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University.
“Each day, you didn’t know if the chemicals in the air would kill you. Toxic terror is what people experienced in Louisiana’s ‘cancer alley’.”
Residents in ‘cancer alley’ (a stretch of the state full of refineries and industrial plants) have cancer rates nearly 50 per cent higher than the average American, and COVID-19 numbers are some of the highest in the country.
Urban areas lacking the lush vegetation and green plant life found in affluent neighborhoods are called ‘heat islands,’ and the way they absorb heat can lead to respiratory issues.
In addition to the health dangers, there are economic repercussions to living in such poor environmental conditions. For example, as the world continues to experience extreme weather, flood zone residents may see flood insurance as cost prohibitive.
“With the environment, we’re trying to deal with the water, the air, the animals, the trees, but we suck at how we deal with each other. Treating the environment well means treating humans well,” says Dr Thomas RaShad Easley, assistant dean at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
Putting humans at the center is one way businesses and communities can confront issues around sustainability, race, and class head on.
How can sustainable business solve the problem?
Companies that want to drive progress can use the three ways below to help defeat environmental injustice:
1. Engage directly with the communities where you do business
Sustainable businesses understand that they work within an ecosystem of customers, partners, shareholders, and communities, and they leverage all these resources to solve problems.
“Those in underserved communities can inform the scientists about what they’re seeing. Those scientists, academics, and community members can jointly inform companies and explain how their practices may be hurting the community,” says Easley.
People inside and outside business are demanding change, making constructive engagement all the more necessary.
Sally Eaves, chief technology officer at Forbes Technology and founder of Aspirational Futures, says: “The biggest change, and what I’m really optimistic about, is that consumers, employees, supply chains, and different stakeholders are all collectively driving this and holding businesses to account.”
2. Make a plan, make an investment
Firms will benefit from driving an all-encompassing sustainability agenda.
Luke Manning, Global Head of Sustainability and Enterprise Risk at Refinitiv, says: “If we want to truly progress the climate agenda, we need to help everyone understand that tackling it is in all our personal and financial self-interests. It’s not just about the impact we are having on the environment, but the impact the environment is having on us.”
Firms like Refinitiv are setting science-based carbon emissions reduction targets to create long-term goals around climate change and sustainability.
A firm’s industry and region may have a role to play in its specific contributions, but generally companies must plan and use all the intelligence and investment resources at their disposal to create measurable results.
3. Share your stories
We each have different experiences and knowledge gaps around sustainable business.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve learned valuable lessons about active listening. Let’s be willing to share knowledge throughout our sustainability and ESG business departments about how environmental issues impact us differently so we can find solutions.
“If we don’t address climate change and global warming, we’ll see historically marginalized populations become further marginalized,” says Dr Robert Bullard.
Moving sustainable business forward can be the difference between life and death in our communities.