When it comes to the climate crisis, businesses are often a step behind. While the severity of climate change has been understood for some time, many corporations are just beginning to take action to reduce their environmental impact. Now, history is seeming to repeat itself in the arena of environmental justice (EJ), or the idea that people of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds should be treated fairly in the implementation and creation of environmental policies. Climate change does not affect everyone equally. Racial minorities too often bear the brunt of this worsening issue. Yet despite mounting evidence and the increase in environmental justice activism, businesses have been slow to acknowledge this issue and especially to act on it.
Industry plays a substantial role in creating and perpetuating environmental injustice. Dating back to the early 20th century, discriminatory land policies allowed large corporations to acquire huge parcels of land in African American communities, which were most often used for heavy polluting facilities. Today, Black and other minority communities continue to be exposed to disproportionate levels of particulate matter and toxic runoff from factories and make up 56% of the population near harmful factories, compared to 30% elsewhere. Beyond factory pollution, industrial toxic waste sites are also overwhelmingly located in areas with large minority populations, posing even further health risks. More generally, BIPOC communities have fewer resources to adapt to the warming patterns and extreme weather caused in large part by industrial emissions and are hit harder by these phenomena.
The intersection between the climate crisis and social justice is undeniable, meaning businesses have a unique opportunity to combat environmental injustice as they transition to the sustainable economy of the future. Also, since many of the barriers that prevent BIPOC communities from thriving also hinder business growth, acting on behalf of environmental justice can help a company’s bottom line. Below are five methods businesses can use to promote environmental justice initiatives, and wield their corporate power for good.
1. Understand Social Impact
Before a business can act on environmental justice, it must first understand how it impacts local communities and fuels ongoing racial inequalities -- not a straightforward task. Social impact measures are often qualitative, somewhat subjective, and difficult to track down. As a starting point, businesses can consult the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s guide to conducting a Social Impact Assessment or review the B Corp Certification assessment guidelines. On a basic level, businesses should consider which communities they are impacting, whether or not these communities are systematically oppressed, if there are alternative sites that would create less harmful impact, and whether or not they are involved in the communities they are impacting. These questions should give a business a general idea of their environmental justice impact, and allow them to narrow in on specifically problematic actions or sites.
2. Learn From Others
While there has yet to be a critical mass of organizations acting on environmental justice, a few trailblazers have set a good example. For one, the local governments of Portland, Oregon and Oakland, California have developed extensive climate action plans that aim to address social inequalities in addition to global warming. Notably, the two plans feature a transition to alternative energy that will create many high-paying jobs in traditionally disadvantaged neighborhoods. Other role models to follow include the Pacific Gas and Electric company, which hires a full time environmental justice (EJ) program manager, runs EJ education programs for employees, acknowledges its historical EJ impact, and manages facilities in order to minimize structural inequalities. Finally, the energy company Valero provides an example of local action as it opened a health clinic next to its facility and invests in the local communities where its plants are located. These are not perfect examples, but instead examples of businesses starting to take action.
3. Listen to Local Communities
Ultimately, local communities know what is best for them. Businesses don’t usually have to reinvent the wheel for innovative environmental justice solutions, they simply have to listen to the people that are affected. This means making space for productive community input and elevating minority voices are essential, whether it be through frequent forums or designated representatives that field public feedback.
4. Write a Formal Environmental Justice Plan
Once a business understands their impact and the needs of local communities, the next step is to lay out their environmental justice goals. A formalized environmental justice plan conveys the business’ acknowledgement of the intersection between climate change and racial justice, and formulates steps to achieve environmental justice goals. Making this plan accessible to the public is key, as it improves transparency and allows consumers to hold companies accountable for their EJ promises. Ideally, this plan should be integrated with the company’s existing sustainability or climate action plan to ensure that both sets of goals can be achieved simultaneously.
5. Leverage Power
It is no secret that businesses are powerful entities. For one, they have immense power as buyers, given their huge demand for raw materials and energy. Thus, many businesses have the power to boycott and can seriously undermine a supplier that is committing environmental injustices. Businesses also have sizable political sway through lobbying, and can utilize this influence to advocate for environmental justice reforms at all levels of government. Wielding these two forms of power, businesses can further environmental justice beyond the scope of their own operations, and attempt to make structural change.
According to a recent study, Americans overwhelmingly want to see companies acting to advance racial equity. Companies can no longer be content with a bare-bones sustainability plan, but instead must integrate environmental justice into their climate initiatives, and consider their social impact. The sooner a business acts on environmental justice, the better prepared they will be for the sustainable and equitable economy of the future.