Sustainable Business Consulting

Environmental Justice: What Can Your Business Do About It?

As businesses go about their social impact and sustainability work, many tend to overlook environmental justice issues. Today’s environmental justice issues are the product of long-stemming racism and flawed environmental policies and practices. As such, they may be less “visible” and hard to understand than some of the other sustainability issues your business might be tackling.

For instance, communities of color and other marginalized groups are disproportionately harmed by environmental hazards. In the US, numerous studies have shown that Black and Brown communities are exposed to higher proportions of air pollution, toxic waste sites, landfills, lead poisoning, and other industrial complexes compared to their White counterparts.

Consider “Cancer Alley,” an 85-mile stretch along the banks of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Here, toxic pollution from 150 petrochemical facilities has led to a spike in cancer and cardiovascular disorders. It’s no coincidence that these areas also have higher percentages of Black and poor residents. In fact, people of color are exposed to 38% more polluted air than Whites and they are 75% more likely to reside near facilities that produce hazardous waste.

Yet the concept of Cancer Alley is not unique to Louisiana. Various industries are hurting disadvantaged communities in many other parts of the world, especially where environmental and social protections are weak.

So, what can your business do about today’s environmental justice issues? Though it may be difficult to see, all companies have a say in how these issues play out through their direct operations, their supply chains, and public policy.

Your business has an opportunity to lead the transition to a more just and sustainable world. No matter where your company stands, we hope the tools below will help you take a meaningful stance and raise awareness on environmental justice issues throughout your operations and supply chains.

The Business Case for Supporting Impacted Communities

As a corporate citizen, you have a responsibility to ensure that communities have equal protection from environmental and social harms. In addition to the moral case, ignoring these issues can have a serious effect on your company’s bottom line, degrade your brand reputation, and lead to employee backlash.

Brands are not only facing public scrutiny about the impact of their operations and their supply chains, but also their “ripple effects” on communities. Companies must look deep within their value chains, engage and hold their suppliers accountable, self-report pollutants such as emissions and waste, and collaborate with impacted communities to identify solutions.

To support impacted communities and become an environmental justice advocate, consider these steps – 1) engage, 2) plan, and 3) enact.

1) Engage

It’s important to cultivate healthy relationships with your workers, their unions, and other key stakeholders. Start by identifying the individuals, communities, and stakeholders that might be impacted by your company. To uncover any environmental justice issues within your business, you must deepen those relationships and build trust with people who are willing to collaborate on solutions. Here are just a few examples of what you can do:

Create a safe space for open dialogue through trainings, listening sessions, roundtables, workshops, and meetings focused on addressing justice issues. Discourse around a just transition can help reduce the impact of short-term shocks, in addition to facilitating adjustments in wages, flexible working time, and other benefits.

Engage your C-suite and harness stakeholder’s willingness to invest in these issues. Get buy-in from executive leadership to invest in green infrastructure, climate-friendly technology, reskilling programs, and other measures that will bring more resilience to your organization and the community at large. Are C-suite leaders discussing and listening to concerns about your company’s sustainability strategy and support for a just transition? What if there’s already strong buy-in but you haven’t witnessed any change?

According to WE Communications, 61% of executives say their company is implementing or planning to implement a “just transition” strategy, but only 40% of senior and middle managers are aware of such a strategy.

Close the gap between C-Suite aspirations and company-wide action. In other words, make sure your implementation wing (middle managers) is on board, informed, and empowered.

Engage your supply chains and become aware of how your operations affect local communities. There’s a lot you can learn from your suppliers. Engaging your suppliers is critical to reducing social and environmental impacts.

For instance, if you’re a jewelry manufacturer using gold and diamonds in your products, you might engage your mining communities in western Mali to determine how your operations influence their day-to-day lives and collaborate through initiatives such as the Global Mercury Partnership to reduce mercury use for gold production.

2) Plan

Once you’ve identified the issues, now it’s time to roll up your sleeves and develop a concrete plan to support impacted communities. Collaborate with relevant stakeholders and create a time-bound plan to secure a just transition through the following activities:

Invest in digital infrastructure and reskilling programs to help workers in developing markets thrive in a just transition. Once you’ve identified where your company can address environmental justice issues, support the local workforce with proper training and tools. For instance, if your business uses raw materials like sugarcane, cacao, or coffee, consider launching a program to help smallholder farmers produce these more sustainably.

Also consider what technology or infrastructure upgrades you might need to monitor progress and maintain accountability. For example, do you need to update your ESG reporting systems or create new software to monitor emissions or waste? Do you have systems in place to quickly identify and act on human rights violations throughout your value chain?

Promote ambitious goals, strategic plans and policies that seek to address your social and environmental impacts. Does your organization’s sustainability strategy account for the impact it will have on a multiplicity of stakeholders—from your own employees to communities across your value chain? Develop sound community involvement practices that focus on issues tied to energy and climate, water use, biodiversity, community health, and workforce diversity and satisfaction.

Keep in mind that your plans should prioritize direct impact over tactics such as offsets and philanthropic investment. While there’s good intention at the heart of offsetting and donations, there’s much more value in addressing your impact directly within your operations and supply chains.

Ensure diversity of your workforce (including C-suite and board members) and reserve a seat at the table for other stakeholder groups, like workers and the community. The more diverse a group is, the better they’ll perform. Your long-term resilience will increase, too. The Harvard Business Review backed this up, demonstrating that diversity increases innovation, revenue, and profits.

Expand your impact through supportive lobbying. Your plans should involve advocating for policies that promote a just transition at the local, state, or federal level. Decision makers can become so focused on getting something done that they sacrifice community participation. So, use your political influence to protect people and advocate for a just transition. According to the World Benchmarking Alliance, only 4% of companies demonstrate advocacy for just transition policies and regulations.

One policy area that could use more support is equitable clean energy access for communities. We’ve seen some signs of progress at the state level but much more work is needed. For example, New York passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which includes a carve-out for environmental justice communities. Similarly, California’s Senate Bill 535 redistributes a portion of cap-and-trade benefits to disadvantaged communities.

Develop meaningful community-based initiatives through strategic partnerships and pre-competitive collaboration. Be intentional about your relationships by working with like-minded organizations, suppliers, and even competitors. Partnerships that succeed tend to focus on areas where the collective win for everyone is greater than the possible downsides. So, start with collaborative visioning and smart partnership design so that each party is fully bought in and willing to do what it takes for the initiative to succeed.

For example, Beauty Counter made a commitment to support the local community through the sourcing of their mica. Over the past year, they’ve been conducting on-the-ground audits throughout their supply chain to build healthier communities. For decades there has been public outcry around corruption in mica mining, including forced labor and wage theft. Beauty Counter is bringing its suppliers and impacted communities along on their journey to transform the mica industry by shedding light on these issues and doing something about it.

3) Enact

After you’ve engaged your stakeholders to develop a comprehensive plan, you can start to deliver on your commitment! It’s critical to set your team up for success with the right resources and tools to carry out those plans. A few considerations to keep in mind:

Who will be leading the charge and what resources and skills do they require? For example, do they need a support team? What should their budget be? A good leader with the right resources can motivate everyone in the company to act while preserving productivity.

Are there companies or organizations you can talk to about the success (or failure) of their programs? This is an opportunity to learn from one another and share lessons learned. Sharing lessons learned will prevent you from repeating the same mistakes and allows you to take advantage of best practices.

Industry groups are a great way for companies to put their heads together to solve shared issues. This is especially true when it comes to protecting communities from the environmental and social harms associated with your industry. Luckily, there are collaborations already tackling these challenges across nearly every sector! Bonsucro for brands with sugarcane supply chains, Rainforest Alliance for companies using agricultural or forest products, and Responsible Business Alliance for electronics manufacturers, to name a few.

Bottom line – find a working group in your industry and get involved! When businesses collaborate, change accelerates.

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The just transition is an emerging concept and we at SBC are here to help guide you. Whether it’s COVID-19, compounding climate disasters, economic crisis or some combination of events, business as usual cannot last. Together we have an opportunity to decide whether we proceed through this crisis by disaster, or by design. This transition is inevitable, and we all have a corporate responsibility to make sure it is just.

About the author: Arcadia Lee is an energy and sustainability expert working with businesses and nonprofits to advance their climate goals and improve their supply chains. She is especially passionate about equitable clean energy access and building sector decarbonization. She holds a masters in energy policy and economics from Rutgers University and a carbon footprinting certificate from UNH.

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