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Emerging Leaders: Here's what previous generations of sustainability professionals have missed

We asked the next generation of sustainability professionals what their predecessors have overlooked. A common thread running through their responses: Centering environmental justice within ESG strategy.

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Emerging Leaders for GreenBiz23. Image by Amayah Harrison of Burgundy Visuals.

Earlier this month in Scottsdale, Arizona, close to 2,000 sustainability professionals met at GreenBiz23. These individuals are doing the hard work of tackling unsustainable operational practices that have been built into business over the last few generations — processes that rely on fossil fuel technologies, packaging that is made from polluting plastic, historic farming techniques that degrade the environment, and materials sourcing that harms local communities. 

Attending alongside the veterans was the newest GreenBiz Emerging Leaders cohort, members of the next generation of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) leaders in the sustainability community. And they are looking beyond today’s current problems towards the issues that future sustainability leaders will face. 

Understanding what these Emerging Leaders think about the current batch of sustainability professionals, and their view on what their predecessors have neglected, provides a unique view into the priorities of the next generation. 

So we asked this current class of Emerging Leaders after GreenBiz 23: What has the previous generation of sustainability professionals overlooked that you would prioritize?

Here are their answers. 

Charles Hua Headshot

Charles Hua

Statistics and Mathematics, Harvard University

"I believe sustainability professionals would benefit from even greater prioritization of environmental justice and equity considerations in advancing sustainability initiatives. Justice and equity impact sustainability in a variety of ways. For example, sustainability efforts should consider intergenerational equity, or how future generations are impacted by present decisions; equity between the developed and developing world; and equity within countries, such as differences in opportunities and outcomes based on racial, gender and income lines. As the base of customers, employees, investors, managers and leaders continues to diversify, it will be increasingly important for organizations to adopt strategies, programs and practices that advance diversity, equity and inclusion internally and externally. While advancing environmental justice has traditionally been left to the public and NGO sectors, companies have an important role to play. They should seek to eliminate environmental injustices directly or indirectly caused by their operations and broader influence, then pursue opportunities for further value creation by investing in and engaging more with historically underserved communities, while contributing to a greener and more inclusive economy."

Headshot emily Ng

Emily Ng

Urban Planning, University of Southern California

"I would continue to strengthen and amplify partnerships. Collective action is essential in addressing the climate crisis. By continuing to promote diversity — across sectors, expertises, skillsets and lived-experiences, together — we can leverage our strengths to develop new, creative solutions. One of my favorite sessions at GreenBiz 23 focused on integrating climate justice into business transformations. I learned more about innovative, cross-sectoral partnerships that promote climate justice by collaborating with historically underinvested communities to implement local climate resilience projects. Moving forward, I will continue to acknowledge and leverage the power of these partnerships."

Jacob Kennedy Headshot

Jacob Kennedy

Ross School of Business, University of Michigan 

"Something that hasn't been part of the conversation until recently has been social justice. In the past, a lot of conversations revolved around molecules and not so much the people they impact. An area I'd like to see further expansion on is the intersectional nature of our work. For instance, conversations about sustainable agriculture need to include labor, migration and equitable financing — it doesn't matter how well we're treating the soil if there's no one to tend to the land. It was encouraging to see some of those conversations unfold in the regenerative agriculture panels at GreenBiz 23, but I wouldn't say it's gone mainstream yet."

Headshot Lauren Ng

Lauren Ng

Sustainability Coordinator, Scripps College

"We need to prioritize creating more job opportunities for a growing sustainability workforce, one that is more diverse and more representative of the communities who are on the frontlines of climate change. There is more demand for sustainability jobs than ever before: Our generation wants to work for organizations that are aligned with our values, in roles that focus on social and environmental impact. When the previous generation started doing this work, the language and expectations around sustainability were totally different — there were no college degrees that focused on sustainability, and words like climate adaptation and resilience were not yet part of our vocabulary. Now we have young professionals in their 20s who are already well-versed in these concepts and willing to dedicate their time and talent towards solving these issues. If we want to ensure a habitable planet 30 years from now, we need to develop a sustainability workforce that is empowered to solve these challenges."


Lukas Gutierrez Headshot

Lukas Gutierrez

Master of Sustainability Solutions, Arizona State University

"One thing that previous generations have struggled with is implementing holistic sustainability tools and frameworks at scale. And I am sympathetic to them: Using a holistic systems-thinking approach to sustainability can be incredibly complex in theory, let alone in practice. Added to the challenges of having to constantly justify sustainability in the first place, I don’t blame the previous generation for taking on what they could, piece by piece. However, we have grown to realize that recognizing the complex and interdependent nature of sustainability challenges and working collaboratively across sectors is the only way to truly. Here, I think technology can play a powerful role in fostering coordination and collective action toward sustainability goals. Blockchain technology can promote transparency and accountability, circular economy platforms facilitate the reuse and recycling of materials, while open data platforms provide access to information and enable informed decision-making for promoting sustainable practices. By leveraging technology responsibly and inclusively, we can enable greater engagement and awareness among the wider public. With the recent growth of nature-based solutions and reporting frameworks, there seems to be the potential for a more holistic approach to tackling environmental issues as a whole. I look forward to seeing these new frameworks and perspectives mature into embedded corporate strategies that fully support people and the planet, and what technologies might be deployed in the process. Prioritizing a more holistic and intersectional approach is key to achieving this vision and making a meaningful impact toward a more sustainable future for all."

Headshot Ngozi Chukwueke

Ngozi Chukwueke

Technical Associate of Responsible Sourcing Strategies, SCS Global Services

"I feel that sustainability professionals of the previous generation have overlooked the need for formalized pipelines to sustainability careers. Sustainability is unique in that people of every academic background can work on sustainability-related topics within their industry, but there's still a huge lack of support when it comes to working in sustainability roles directly out of undergraduate school, especially in the corporate world. There is no "standard sustainability background," which is an advantage. Having professionals with different work/academic backgrounds encourages diversity of thought, an essential part of our work. Integrated solutions require integrated approaches, which means sourcing for talent in traditional and non-traditional spaces: communications, finance, hospitality management and more. If professionals in the workforce reach back to support, guide and inform students of the options available to them within sustainability early on, I believe it'll contribute majorly towards the mission of training a workforce that is prepared to meet science-based targets using cross-sector solutions."

Samuel Arayedupin Headshot

Samuel Arayedupin

MBA Candidate, University of Virginia Darden School of Business

"Blended finance has been largely ignored as a tool to promote sustainability investments, despite its potential to drive capital to large-scale, high-impact projects. Blended finance combines different sources of public and private capital to leverage resources and increase the impact of investments in sustainability. It could be a powerful tool to mobilize capital and encourage sustainable investments, but it has yet to be widely adopted and implemented. The lack of attention to blended finance for sustainability investments can be attributed to a variety of factors. First, the complexity of blended finance and its unfamiliarity to many mainstream investors have limited its appeal. Second, there is a lack of interest from public and private actors in the development of blended finance instruments and the necessary infrastructure, such as standardization and risk assessment tools. To fully realize the potential of blended finance for sustainability investments, governments and investors must recognize its potential and invest in the necessary infrastructure and processes. If blended finance is embraced and supported, it could help drive large-scale, sustainable investments and move us closer to achieving a more sustainable future."

Thea Gay Headshot

Thea Gay

Sociology, University of Florida

"One thing that the previous generation of sustainability professionals overlooked that I would prioritize is analyzing the harms of a Saviorism mindset. As sustainability professionals, we should not expect those advocating for more climate-just policies and/or those disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis to be grateful for our work. Especially when they have been historically excluded from actively participating in the sustainability space. People's lives are on the line; we can play a significant role in these life-or-death moments. We are incredibly lucky to have roles where we can make such a powerful impact, so that should not be taken for granted. As leaders, we must constantly examine the intersections of our individual identities and collective organizations to understand how that then plays into power and privilege. This can help break the cycle of feeling the need to be rewarded for just doing what urgently needs to be done. By caring for our planet and its inhabitants, we are caring for ourselves, which, in turn, is incredibly rewarding in it of itself." 

Ramanan Yukta Headshot

Yukta Ramanan

Jefferson Scholar,  University of Virginia

"Sustainable business is not a measure of insular corporate action; rather, it should be composed of strategic partnerships between the private and public sector. The United States has a longstanding relationship with the ‘invisible hand’ — the idea that competition and self-interest automatically regulate equilibrium in the free market economy. However, the notion of self-interest has led to businesses reaping profit at the expense of environmental damage and humanitarian violations. The previous generation of sustainability professionals has struggled to leverage their stake in public policy, and their wariness to get involved compounds the idea that ESG is unattainable under capitalism. Instead of lobbying for supply chain policies that meet the growing demand for ethical procurement, companies have resorted to performative quotas and greenwashing that temporarily appease their consumers. The blossoming generation of professionals must actively work with the government to intertwine command-and-control legal frameworks with incentives that smoothly transition businesses to sustainable marketplaces. Under stakeholder capitalism, businesses should be recognized as powerful socioeconomic institutions that not only have the legal right, but also the responsibility, to drive conscious consumerism forward."

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