How can sustainability professionals champion intersectionality in 2021?

The events of 2020 both highlighted and widened existing social inequalities. While the appetite for climate action in the process of 'building back better' is palpable, many sustainability professionals want to see the same level of commitment to social justice.

The links between social sustainability and environmental sustainability are clearer than ever. But how can professionals ensure they respond to interconnected crises holistically?

The links between social sustainability and environmental sustainability are clearer than ever. But how can professionals ensure they respond to interconnected crises holistically?

The need for a “just” low-carbon transition was a major discussion point for speakers at the third and final day of edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum last Thursday (4 February).

Jonathon Porritt, Forum For the Future’s founder-director, set the tone for the morning. He said: “We’ve had a remarkable year in terms of moving agendas forward – not just climate, but biodiversity, social inclusion, a lot more on diversity. And the word ‘justice’ has come into so many of the different framings that we hear now of the challenges that confront businesses today.”

For Porritt, this change in framing has been “impressive” to see after decades of environmental work. But he warned that a simple acknowledgement of the interconnectivity of crises will not solve them: Moreover, Porritt expressed concerns that organisations to have begun taking action are broadly underestimating the breadth, depth and speed of the actions they must take to remediate crises, because of “lag effects”.

In climate terms, Porritt explained, the emissions generated in 2019 were not the sole contributor to record temperatures in 2020. Instead, it is the culmination of decades’ worth of emissions, compounded by the degradation of natural systems that once acted as carbon sinks.  

Lag effects are caused, he continued, by the series of delays in responding to these cumulative issues. Scientists take time to gather and analyse data. Governments then take time to shift policies in line with updated science. And, finally, laggard businesses only move when new compliance rules are enacted.

Because of these “ubiquitous and compound” lag effects, Porritt warned, most business responses to major systemic issues are as much as ten years too late. This means responses are “in no way proportional” to the scale of the crises and that they often come with “all sorts of traps”.

Examples are many and clear in the climate space. For example, many businesses and nations that aligned plans with 2C after the Paris Agreement was ratified are now having to develop 1.5C-aligned plans, in the wake of the IPCC’s landmark report in 2018. Porritt spoke of how, the later change is left, the more “abrupt and disorderly” the consequences will be for business.

But lag effects can also be seen in responses to pressing social challenges. Black communities in the US are not just affected by the incidents of police brutality highlighted during the protests of 2020, for example. They are dealing with the systemic aftermath of years of racial segregation, including disparities in access to housing and education; implicit biases in hiring and microaggressions in the workplace. Some have sought to discredit the Black Lives Matter movement by claiming that society has moved foreword and that knock-on effects cannot be persisting after decades. But this, in a world of lag effects, is simply not the case.

Systems approach

Because lag effects do not happen in a silo, systems thinking must become a core tenet of sustainability leadership in 2021 and beyond. There is a reason why so many school strikers carry signs bearing the slogan "systems change, not climate change". 

While Porritt said he has felt “particular awe” at the ways in which sustainability professionals have “pushed their companies into doing things that would have been unthinkable even a couple of years ago”, like setting net-zero targets that will require fundamental business model shifts, he warned of the risk of failing to see the bigger picture.

“Unless we have a much clearer sense of the way we need to evolve capitalism into something very different, then a lot of these disconnected corporate sustainability initiatives may not achieve the really positive outcome we are seeking,” he said. 

Porritt’s speech was introduced by Futerra’s chief solutionist Solitaire Townsend, who coined the term ‘Scope X’. This refers to an organisation’s total responsibility for influencing society, from its touch-points with staff and consumers, to its supply chains, its policy engagement and the way it can shape culture.

When asked by Townsend to provide his advice on leveraging Scope X for good, Porritt emphasised the importance of trade bodies. Some businesses have successfully pressured trade bodies into ceasing counter-productive lobbying from within, while others have found that leaving sends a stronger message. Porritt also emphasised the importance of putting clear and concise asks to policymakers in cases of direct engagement, as their to-do lists are likely growing amid the pandemic.

Additionally, he provided advice to professionals looking to be proactive, rather than reactive, to changes elsewhere in socio-economic systems. He urged them to pre-empt changes in climate science by working with C-suites on the possibility of bringing net-zero targets forward. While some organisations, including Tesco, John Lewis & Partners and London’s City Hall, have made public announcements, behind-the-scenes work can be just as valuable, he said.

People-focussed collaborators

Porritt’s speech was followed by a panel discussion on ensuring social sustainability throughout the net-zero transition. When discussing the soft skills that professionals will need to adopt an intersectional approach, panellists mentioned vulnerability, honesty and collaboration with those from different backgrounds several times.

“By getting a diverse group of people together, as humans, not as business leaders, we’re capable of anything,” Morgan Sindall’s head of social value and sustainability, Louise Townsend, summarised. “We’re not in control of everything. We are collaborators. And I think we’ve taken our eye off the ball of what’s really important.” Indeed, a “human” approach has been listed as a key feature in many frameworks detailing what leadership looks like in the time of Covid-19, including those from EY and Boston Consulting Group.

While having uncomfortable conversations with diverse groups is a critically important starting point, panellists agreed that it is by no means the endpoint. And organisations that argue that it is a means to an end, Women in Sustainability’s Aberdeen Hub lead Lola Okunrinboye said, will not reap the full benefits as they will fail to win trust.

She said: “Trust needs to be built. This is a major problem. When you ask why you’re invited to the table, you sometimes realise that you’re only there because they’re trying to fill a quota. Understand that people need to be engaged; sit down and get their opinion on what the problems are before you create a solution.”

Okunrinboye provided several pieces of advice for building on initial conversations. She urged listeners to examine their own privileges and leverage them to uplift those without these privileges. She spoke of the need to go beyond “token” representation at all levels, including in boardrooms, communications and specific collaborative projects. She highlighted the importance of accessing the vast array of resources already available on allyship – on both personal and organisational levels – before asking for free help from marginalised individuals.

It is only through intersectionality, panellists agreed, that sustainability professionals will have the best chances of addressing systemic challenges both within the profession locally and on a global scale. To the former, almost 97% of environment professionals in the UK are white, according to a 2018 paper from the NUS. In comparison, some 80.5% of the national population is white.

To the latter, as Okunrinboye put it: “All sections of society will be affected by the climate crisis. So all sections need to be represented in the solutions.”

This is the first half of a two-part feature. The second part explores how businesses can ensure social inclusivity through the climate emergency response. You can read the second half here. 

Sarah George



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