Addressing the racial diversity gap: Insights from sustainability professionals on transformative progress

In the ongoing journey towards sustainability, the lack of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) within corporates and environmental organisations remains a critical concern. edie spoke with sustainability professionals from diverse backgrounds to uncover the current challenges and map out essential strategies for catalysing transformative progress.

Addressing the racial diversity gap: Insights from sustainability professionals on transformative progress

Black, Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities in the UK face significant disparities in both pay and labour force participation.

While nearly three-quarters of UK corporates have a budget dedicated to DEI initiatives, the reality remains unchanged: racially and ethnically minoritised groups continue to be underrepresented and underpaid in the UK.

In 2022, while 77% of white individuals were employed, only 69% of people from all other ethnic groups combined held employment. Research indicates that Black, Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities in the UK face significant disparities in both pay and labour force participation.

This disparity is even more pronounced within the environmental sector. The RACE Report campaign highlighted that a mere 6% of employees in environmental organisations identify as people of colour or other minoritised racial or ethnic groups—a figure that has shown minimal improvement over time. This falls well below the UK workforce average of 15%.

It bears noting that the sector’s diversity shortfall likely stems from systemic factors, beginning as early as in schools. Racial diversity among UK higher education subjects relevant to environmental professions considerably lags behind the diversity seen across all subjects.

To gain deeper insights into the experience of racially and ethnically minoritised individuals within the corporate sustainability sector, edie interviewed sustainability professionals hailing from these underrepresented communities.

Beyond numbers: Stories of diversity in corporate sustainability

“My story starts in 2007 and two things happened in my life at the same time,” tells Munish Datta, director of sustainability at Specsavers.

He adds: “At the time I was at Marks and Spencer. I had started working on some quite big strategic projects in our head office. Conversely, in my personal life, I realised I was going to become a father for the first time.”

Datta recalls that during that period, M&S’ former chief executive officer, Stuart Rose, was deeply impacted by Al Gore’s documentary, ‘An Inconvenient Truth.’ That year, M&S launched Plan A, a pioneering corporate strategy focused on corporate responsibility.

Datta continues: “Plan A was born, and my son was born, and my personal perspective on life changed instantly at that moment when I realised I was going to have the responsibility of bringing another human being onto this planet.”

Nevertheless, amidst these personal and professional milestones, the stark lack of diversity within the industry remained conspicuous to him.

“At that time, society wasn’t very diverse, and businesses can only recruit from the society,” tells Datta.

“If I think of the cohort of people that came into the M&S with me and went on the graduate scheme, I think I was the only coloured person in my cohort.”

Much like many other children from racially and ethnically minoritised backgrounds, Datta recounts being taught that despite societal racial prejudice, he could overcome barriers through diligence and determination. However, he now holds the belief that such barriers shouldn’t exist in the first place.

He says: “My generation was conditioned to succeed with barriers, actually, to ignore them. Why should we ignore them? We should call them out when it happens.”

“They question your experience”: Persisting unconscious biases

Similar to Datta, Lola Okunrinboye, head of Environment at C2X, embarked on her journey in the sustainability sector almost two decades ago.

Okunrinboye completed her master’s degree in Environmental and Energy Engineering and promptly commenced her professional career.

“It’s been almost 20 years now that I’ve been working as an environmentalist and sustainability professional…and I’ll say that there were a few biases. Sometimes you meet people, and they sort of question your experience,” she tells edie.

Okunrinboye recalls that when she started working, there was a scarcity of black leaders, especially black female leaders, in her field. This lack of representation made it challenging for her to find relatable role models.

She says: “In this field, you don’t have a lot of people you can look up to that look like you and say I’d like to be like this person.

“I’ve always had mentors and people that inspire me, but it’s difficult to find strong female, black female mentors in the industry.”

A recent analysis by Green Park, a Europe-based recruitment and organisational consultancy dedicated to advancing DEI progress, revealed significant underrepresentation of women in various roles, including the C-suite, across FTSE 350 companies.

Additionally, the analysis highlighted that black representation remains considerably low, with figures at the top-level declining since 2019.

A survey analysis reveals that white professionals attribute the lack of diversity in their organisations to recruitment process challenges such as unconscious bias.

Okunrinboye adds: “Inclusive work environment does not just mean having workshops and talking but it also means training people and having experts help them understand how to address unconscious bias, because that’s something that is prevalent all over the world.”

Cultivating diversity: Steps towards an inclusive environment

To embed diversity, equity and inclusion into business, Green Park’s chief executive officer and Race Equality Matters’ chairman Raj Tulsiani suggests transcending conventional narratives surrounding diversity to catalyse real action.

Race Equality Matters is a not-for-profit community interest company which collaborates with organisations to co-create solutions to drive race equality within communities in the UK and beyond.

Tulsiani argues that diversity is not merely a social, talent, or legal matter, but that organisations must identify a unifying reason for diversity, equity and inclusion to become integral to their business ethos.

Moreover, he suggests that for businesses distinguishing between a lack of technical skill and a lack of will is crucial. Sustainable progress demands a fusion of technical expertise and unwavering commitment.

Tulsiani says: “Progress has to be something that’s owned and constructed with people who’ve lived experience but also completely making leadership accountable for it.

“I see a lot of organisations who do sensible things but can’t release any meaningful business benefit from them because they haven’t co-created the pathway to delivering that benefit with the people of lived experience.”

Additionally, Tulsiani emphasises the significance of competence and confidence among organisational leaders in championing diversity.

Just as expertise is sought for financial or technical issues, leadership must possess the requisite skills for stewardship and governance in DEI initiatives, particularly as the retention of international talent emerges as another significant challenge amidst the tightening labour market in the UK.

Shifting trends: Business case for DEI strategies

Datta and Okunrinboye vividly recall that it has been four years since they were last questioned about the progress on DEI within the industry, amidst the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020.

According to Tulsiani, the significance of diversity and inclusion has evolved. While it was initially emphasised in reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement, resulting in short-term, performative actions to protect brands, the focus has now shifted.

Tulsiani believes that the current emphasis on DEI stems from the practical necessity of attracting and retaining talent amidst competitive labour markets.

He says: “People are worried about being able to keep talent and being able to get the right abilities within management to attract, retain and develop talent because it can’t just chop and change. The labour markets are not going to allow that.”

Tulsiani argues that this shift towards a more sustainable and strategic approach to DEI is beneficial for organisations.

He stresses that organisations must integrate diversity, equity and inclusion into their core business strategies to effectively navigate the challenges of talent attraction and retention in the current landscape.

He concludes: “Unless you’re agile and intelligent about how you implement these activities, you’ll get sub optimal returns and sub optimal returns are like kryptonite for doing more work, and there’s lots of work that needs to be done.”

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