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Emerging leaders weigh in on what's missing from corporate climate action

Climate action requires listening to and learning from one another. That’s part of the work being done at GreenBiz Group’s annual gathering for sustainability practitioners.

Emerging Leaders stand on stage during GreenBiz 22

The GreenBiz 22 Emerging Leaders take the stage. Image by Louis Bryant III for GreenBiz.

As alarm bells continue to ring and draw attention to the climate crisis, governments and the business community are being urged to respond more swiftly. 

"Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all," reads the latest global assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

For the business community, climate action requires listening to and learning from one another. That’s part of the work being done at GreenBiz Group’s annual gathering for sustainability practitioners.

Among the more than 1,300 people who attended GreenBiz 22 in February, there were 10 students and young professionals who were part of the Emerging Leaders program, which aims to elevate, cultivate and support the next generation of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) professionals and upcoming leaders in sustainable business.

"Finding innovative, sustainable business solutions and creating pathways to success for underrepresented communities are fundamental to who we are at SC Johnson," said Alan VanderMolen, chief communications officer at SC Johnson, which sponsored the program for the event. "We enthusiastically support the GreenBiz Emerging Leaders Scholarship program, which shares our vision of equipping the next generation of sustainability leaders."

At GreenBiz 22, we asked the Emerging Leaders cohort, "What do you think is missing from conversations about sustainability and corporate action on addressing the climate crisis?" Read on for their responses.

Connor Donnelly headshot
Connor Donnelly

MBA/MS Environmental Justice Candidate, University of Michigan

"Environmental justice is backward-facing for it is the repairing of past wrongs. Climate justice is forward-facing because it involves centering voices of BIPOC in an inclusive way," said Jorge Fontanez, CEO of B Lab US & Canada, during GreenBiz 22.

The climate crisis is currently humanity’s greatest obstacle. Considering the gargantuan nature of this emergency, it is normal to feel dejected. Still, I left GreenBiz 22 beyond inspired and incredibly reinvigorated to combat climate change because I am not alone; over [1,300] business sustainability leaders who attended the conference are actively trying to fight global warming through the power of business.

Nevertheless, especially as a current MBA/MS Environmental Justice candidate that actively tries to integrate justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) into my work, it is clear environmental and climate justice need to be more quickly and strongly integrated into the actions of larger organizations. Indeed, JEDI needs to be a mandatory lens that organizations integrate into all their actions, rather than distinct activities performed periodically, so that both the climate crisis and larger inequities are adequately addressed in tandem.

Some things I learned from GreenBiz 22 surrounding the JEDI integration include:

  • "SMARTIE Goals: equity and inclusion should be integrated into all organizational efforts." [Editor's note: SMARTIE stands for Strategic, Measurable, Ambitious, Realistic, Time-bound, Inclusive and Equitable.]
  • "You cannot spell ‘Sustainability’ without the S (in ESG)."
  • "Your DEI is only as effective as your relations with your community on the front lines."

Let’s put these words into action through a comprehensive systems approach!

Jordan McDonald headshot
Jordan McDonald

Master's Student in Sustainability Management, Columbia University; Environmental and Sustainability Engineer, 3M Company

The conversations that are missing from sustainability and corporate action that are addressing the climate crisis are how ethics and justice are an immovable critical core component of achieving holistic sustainability. It is Black and Brown communities that experience ecological handicaps at a disproportionate rate and therefore any sustainability initiatives must factor in equity. Humans are as much a part of the natural world as any other component and are deserving of the same investment and attention that the non-human parts of the earth are receiving. Ethical and justice-related items are following a similar path that environmental sustainability has. Although there has been continued efforts within the environmental and sustainability groups, the collective acknowledgement from other industries is new and is allowing for unprecedented change. Science based environmental sustainability efforts are now a core focus of both governmental agencies and private corporations, and a similar trajectory should be expected for ethics and justice.

Making improvements to the current system is no longer sufficient. What we need is systems change.
Idris Ajibade headshot
Idris Ajibade

Master's Student in Computer Science and Quantitative Methods, Predictive Analytics Concentration, Austin Peay State University

One of the key missing items discussing sustainability and the impact of climate is the participation of consumers in the choice of production materials. Consumers need to understand the effect of their choices on the environment in terms of the production materials; there is a need to educate consumers around why certain products will not be available or will be available with different compositions factoring sustainability in the production chain.

Over time, there is no way we can have a meaningful engagement at the corporate or manufacturing level without factoring in the role consumers will play in getting all of this to work. We also need to show them the long-term impact on our climate and its stability vis-à-vis our sustainability drive.

Wadia Mahzabeen headshot
Wadia Mahzabeen

Corporate Sustainability Analyst, Resonance Global

Attending GreenBiz 22 was a whirlwind of exposure to new ideas, innovations and thought leaders within sustainability. I was especially inspired by Allbirds Head of Sustainability Hana Kajimura’s keynote address. The level of visibility into the supply chain and transparency and engagement with suppliers and factories that the company has achieved is a challenge for most incumbents.

I’m sure a large part of this is due to the size and age of Allbirds as well as the streamlined and simplified nature of the company’s products, which may be difficult to replicate for larger, more established players. For me, this raises an important question, one I feel is missing from conversations about corporate action on addressing the climate crisis. Would smaller, more agile companies be able to achieve sustainable outcomes better than existing players? What are the types of business models that might emulate this visibility and control even within a larger corporation? Localizing supply chains and adopting new models might be the key to ensuring representation and prioritization of community needs, ensuring a just transition. Making improvements to the current system is no longer sufficient, echoing the words of [former Unilever CEO] Paul Polman during his keynote address: What we need is systems change. I look forward to more conversations around action-oriented strategies for shifting the status quo.

GreenBiz 22 Emerging Leaders on stage.

The Emerging Leaders program aims to elevate, cultivate and support the next generation of BIPOC professionals and upcoming leaders in sustainable business. Image by Louis Bryant III.

Hector Aguirre headshot
Hector Aguirre

MBA Candidate, Sustainability, Concentration on Circular Value Chains, Bard College 

GreenBiz 22 was a wonderful opportunity to meet sustainability professionals from all walks of life focusing on different areas of impact. It was amazing to hear all the different focus areas and paths many of these professionals have taken, engaging them in conversation was a definite value add to understanding the career path I’d like to continue to forge for myself.

Due to its existential threat, climate change was the predominant focus area in most conversations, and although the conference itself did a good job at bringing topics of social equity into the mix, the broader conversation amongst professionals on the conference floor oftentimes seemed to miss this crucial point. At some point, keynote speaker [journalist and venture capitalist] Molly Wood mentioned the harsh reality that in order to achieve a lot of climate commitments countries and corporations have made, there might be some tough decisions that might have to be made along the way, and the social costs at which these decisions might come are something that still seems to not become fully ingrained as part of the dialogue.

Having increased representation and diversity in an organization will not be enough to ensure that corporations are diversifying their brain share and avoiding negative social outcomes from their actions. Creating work environments that allow folks to feel comfortable enough to speak up against social atrocities might not even be enough, but changing the conversation around corporate governance and bylaws and creating internal checks and balances that bring to front of mind the consequences of our actions while working towards a better and more sustainable future is something that needs to be better integrated into the conversation of the everyday sustainability practitioner.

Stephanie Rivas headshot
Stephanie Rivas

Regional Coordinator (California), The Climate Initiative

As I attended sessions surrounding sustainability and corporate action in addressing the climate crisis, it was clear that corporations were only focusing on the good they were doing. They weren’t addressing the past or current harm they have done to the environment. This was incredibly disappointing considering that a prominent theme throughout the event was that collaboration, communication, transparency and a solid commitment to justice and equity are integral to solving the climate crisis. There needs to be more conversation around past, and current harm corporations are committing against the land and underserved communities and how they have or are working on fostering change to not contribute to the degradation of the planet.

Additionally, every conversation touched on justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. Yet, the people speaking on these matters were rarely from the communities they were speaking for. There needs to be better representation of the very people and voices that these corporations were speaking for. These community members from BIPOC communities have their knowledge and thoughts — which are just as valuable and necessary in the conversation. We would do well to learn directly from them on how collaborating with a corporation embodied these themes of collaboration, JEDI and transparency — ultimately, showing how corporations can be partners and not enemies in the climate crisis, especially through a just and equitable manner. There are many lessons to be learned from how corporations seek to rewrite their wrongs, and accountability is the first step towards gaining the trust of folks and building a green and resilient future.

Isabella Canales Claudio headshot
Isabella Canales Claudio

Master's Student of Science in Environmental Economics, University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences

In conversations about social sustainability, DEI is the cornerstone, but DEI policies and practices often fail to consider the perspectives and knowledge of grassroots organizers and Indigenous leaders. Community knowledge gleaned from these individuals has historically been a source of significant innovation and policy change. Diversity, equity and inclusion strategies should build out current frameworks to account for this source of community knowledge and build a path for community organizers or Indigenous leaders to be involved in the ideation and completion of environmental projects at any level.

A crucial element of this relationship as it develops should be curiosity from the company working on a project within the community. Asking questions should always come before the determination of what a community may need — oftentimes assumptions are made about how best to help a community navigate environmental change and asking what they need is always the best approach. It is also important to note that assumptions can lead to greater harm than anticipated with the implementation of any change both internally within the organization and externally with any projects.

DEI at the root is about harm reduction across diverse groups of people and global communities, and it is ultimately the responsibility of organizations to include the perspectives of grassroots community organizers and indigenous leaders.

There needs to be more conversation around past, and current harm corporations are committing against the land and underserved communities.
Treston Rudder headshot
Treston Rudder

MBA Candidate, Sustainability, Bard College

Today, sustainability is the ultimate goal for many influential corporations, GreenBiz 22 underscored this point. Sustainability, however, should be looked at as a milestone on the pathway to becoming regenerative. Paul Polman advocated for this in his keynote at the conference. He encouraged business leaders to pursue net positive goals with a systems thinking approach.

Much of the narrative today is focused on achieving sustainability and net-zero carbon emission. This approach only gets us back to baseline. Instead, we need an approach that actively regenerates human, natural and financial capital. A regenerative economy heals the damaged parts of society and puts us on track to thrive for generations to come.

I hope to see more companies developing plans for net positive impact. And, [that] at future GreenBiz conferences, leaders will share their best practices for regenerative business models.

Sade Bamimore headshot
Sade Bamimore

Sustainability Consultant, ERM

Attending GreenBiz 22 provided valuable experience to learn about the latest corporate sustainability trends from business leaders across various industries. In many sessions, there were discussions about embedding sustainability throughout a company or organization. Sustainability leaders are cross-functional collaborators working in their organizations to get everyone on the same team toward the common goal of addressing the climate crisis. There needs to be an active effort for equipping leaders from multiple functions such as procurement, HR, IT or legal, for example, to be sustainability leaders in their own right and in their own function. I think this goes a step further than traditional employee engagement and considers how employees can be empowered to drive the change in their own departments so that sustainability is not just "10 percent of someone’s job but is 100 percent of everyone’s job," as was stated in one of the sessions this year. Perhaps transforming how we understand sustainability leaders and building up others throughout organizations means inviting them into spaces like these to take part in the enriching dialogue around ESG and sustainability. I think this is one area that is missing in corporate action as we seek to mobilize and embed sustainability and climate action today throughout organizations.

Chi Nguyen headshot
Chi Nguyen

Student, Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science, University of Arizona

I think the missing piece from conversations about sustainability and corporate action on addressing the climate crisis is that there is no clear regulation and standards that could guide or hold big corporations accountable. We have seen a lot of corporations setting goals of going net zero and their reports every year on their progress. However, without taking a closer investigation, we don't know exactly where they are on their climate journey. While there are companies with targets of going net zero or reducing emission by a certain year, a lot of them are not ambitious enough. Moreover, the steps to achieve those goals are not clear enough, which may seem like they are just following the current climate trend. One thing that was mentioned in some of the breakout rooms at GreenBiz 22 is what corporations are doing in order to reduce Scope 3 emissions, which is caused by suppliers and customers. While it is great that this is being touched on, I do feel like this is a real challenge, and it should be tackled more rigorously.


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