Mar 2 2022 - NY, United States

Why environmental justice matters for business

March 2019 climate protest, San Francisco, CA; image by Li-An Lim, Unsplash.

March 2019 climate protest, San Francisco, CA; image by Li-An Lim, Unsplash.

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Eric Johnson photo.

Eric Johnson

Editor in Residence at Intersectional Environmentalist

Intersectional Environmentalist’s Editor in Residence, Eric Johnson, gives an overview of the intersection of climate and inclusion, why this movement is so important, and three ways businesses can take action to support it.

If you are new to the concept of environmental justice, start here: Environmental justice is defined as the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies” (EPA, 2022). Essentially, it recognizes that every human or non-human deserves to coexist safely without the threat of toxins creating disproportionate impact. Environmental justice issues affect communities throughout the world differently—from the Flint Water Crisis in 2014 to the Australia Wildfires in 2020—and the Global Climate Strike in 2021 showed us that climate concern is universal.

For me, environmental justice creates pathways to discuss and understand the experiences of people we may not agree with, understand or know. For this mission, we must unearth the ways systems of oppression hinder us from creating a just society. Environmental justice matters because businesses have an inherent social responsibility to contribute resources to marginalized populations. And committing to environmental justice is not just good practice, it’s good business: In a 2018 poll by Sustainable Brands, 90% of Gen Z consumers believe companies must take action on social and environmental issues, and 72% factor in a company’s Purpose when shopping.

From my experience, the institutions and systems we have in place today are anything but fair to people from historically marginalized communities. And while I believe corporations are interested in supporting those communities, the lack of understanding of intersectionality, the lack of diversity on boards and at the C-suite level, and the generational wealth imbalance (and the racial wealth gap) forces us to ask: How can companies help solve a problem without clarity of the problem? Here are three ways companies can begin to understand environmental justice and support the movement:

Embody intersectionality

As Kimberlé Crenshaw, a lawyer and professor who coined Intersectional Theory, explains it: "Intersectionality is a metaphor for understanding the ways that multiple forms of inequality, or disadvantage, sometimes compound themselves and create obstacles that are often not understood within conventional ways of thinking about anti-racism or feminism, or whatever social justice advocacies/structures we have." By creating a new bridge to communicate, we can find new ways to understand one another.

Action Items

Listen to Kimberlé Crenshaw's TED Talk on Intersectionality or her podcast, Intersectionality Matters! Educate yourself and your team about the environmental issues impacting people with marginalized identities in communities you do business in—and listen and learn about their experiences. Only then can we begin to build a coalition that is rooted in fighting injustice.

Remember representation matters

What people see around them can positively or negatively shape their expectations for themselves and each other. When it comes to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), disabled, queer, trans, immigrant, and other frontline communities, do your part to make sure that they can see themselves and all of their peers as strong, creative, capable, happy, and beautiful. We can create change by telling a story that everyone understands and has access to. It's not just about representation at introductory positions but in high-level decision-making spaces that impact many people. Most important to hiring: Diversity in representation also leads to diversity in thought about how to address environmental justice.

Action Items

When hiring a potential candidate, look at more than the traditional indicators for projected success. Because the human experience is so fluid, shouldn't that reflect the process we use to make hiring decisions? Skills can be cultivated in many different environments, and we have to do a better job at seeing that. Actively seek out BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and other diverse groups to ensure your candidate pool reflects a range of identities.

Help restore generational wealth

Promoting economic alternatives, such as introducing new technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and 5G, allows industries to have more partnerships highlighting values like openness, sharing, and collaboration. By replacing traditional capitalist values like secrecy, individualism, and competition, we can contribute to the development of environmentally safe livelihoods. This promotes a community environment where access to basic human needs like clean water, healthy food, and quality education is normalized. In recent years, generational wealth has become a focal point of discussions about the racial wealth gap and the increasing concentration of wealth in the U.S. because it plays a substantial role in both (Investopedia, 2022). Restoring generational wealth does not equal charity but creates long-lasting relationships with communities. When we start investing in segments of our society that have fallen behind, we give people the chance to experience new opportunities. And from that point, we can leave communities to create their ethos.

Action Items

Identify the environmental justice issues that are meaningful to you and your company based on your corporate footprint. Is it food justice? Clean water access? Build partnerships with grassroots organizations that support those initiatives. Creating unrestricted grants and investments into historically oppressed communities and working with locals who understand the issues the best is an equation for success.

Now is the time to listen to the people and communities most impacted by the climate crisis, support their initiatives, and take action internally and externally to voice your solidarity. As capitalism has influenced our society the past few decades, it has also placed business as the most powerful institution to make changes. We are looking to you to use your power and influence to create positive change—are you up for the challenge?

This content is provided by Intersectional Environmentalist.

Eric Johnson is the Editor in Residence at Intersectional Environmentalist (IE), a 501c3 nonprofit community and resource hub creating space, dialogue, and educational resources for climate justice action. Eric served as an editorial fellow at Forbes and Google News Initiative and is a graduate student at Columbia University in New York City.