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Policy Voice

How companies become allies for environmental justice

It is not a big stretch for corporate policy teams already dealing with community relations to keep track of environmental justice battles in the surrounding frontline communities and speak up as an ally.

Social justice word cloud

Image via Shutterstock/Arloo

Environmental justice belongs at the core of our efforts to address climate change. Frontline communities — those most directly and often brutally affected by the effects of climate change — must be central to our efforts to mitigate this crisis. Then why does it seem companies too often give lip service to environmental justice and little more? The corporate sector is falling further out of step with where the climate movement is headed — a direction more closely aligned with a larger vision of social justice.

One of the most meaningful opportunities I had while leading sustainability at Facebook was to join the board of Sierra Club Foundation, where I got schooled in what environmental justice (a.k.a. EJ) is and what it means to support it. I’m not suggesting Sierra Club or Sierra Club Foundation is at the front of the pack when it comes to justice concerns. They are actively wrestling with difficult issues and making progress, and being part of that work was eye-opening for me.

I learned the core precepts behind environmental justice so beautifully summarized in the Jemez Principles, developed by a multiracial group of environmental activists in 1996 at a meeting in Jemez, New Mexico. Principles such as inclusion, bottom-up organizing and taking the lead from impacted communities can provide a roadmap to true environmental justice. I’m thrilled to see that the new executive director of Sierra Club, former NAACP President Ben Jealous, is leading the organization in this direction.

One key takeaway for me from learning about environmental justice at Sierra Club is that a critical element to achieve environmental justice and to correct historical and systemic injustices is a process that brings impacted groups to the table and honors their experience. It doesn’t work to just tack EJ on to a policy proposal or bring in impacted communities at the last minute to rubber-stamp other people’s ideas. Last year’s historic Inflation Reduction Act, while investing a remarkable $40 billion-60 billion in impacted communities, leaves in place many existing power dynamics. Advancing environmental justice is a complex process and no one has gotten it exactly right — but we need to work much, much harder to get there.

So, where are major companies engaging in the climate justice struggle? As I’ve written before, they are mostly nowhere on climate policy in general, and environmental justice is no exception. On the positive side, a few forward-looking companies including Patagonia and Danone have joined with others in the B Corp Climate Collective to educate and motivate the corporate sector on this issue. A few other companies have begun to address the issue — at least in general terms.

As one recent example, Microsoft included environmental justice in a policy brief published in September, albeit as a bit of a footnote:

"Finally, the clean energy transition needs a new strategy for community and stakeholder engagement that ensures participation for those that have been historically impacted by carbon-intensive energy development and those that stand to benefit the most from the expansion of the electrical grid."

But this well-intentioned kind of statement by individual companies is far eclipsed by the very active opposition to environmental justice concerns by the trade association to which most of them belong, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber endorsed the controversial Willow oil and gas extraction project as "a win for energy security," despite its negative impact on Indigenous communities in Alaska, which the Indigenous Environmental Network called an "open violation" of the community’s rights. The Chamber also backed a permitting reform proposal that would have fast-tracked a pipeline through Black, Indigenous and low-income communities in Virginia and West Virginia.

As long as companies continue to defer to the Chamber’s stance on the crucial issue of environmental justice (and more specifically, climate justice), we will reap negative results for our climate, our planet and our society as a whole. It’s ominous that on another important social justice issue where companies were once bold leaders — LGBTQ rights — most are keeping mum due to the political attacks on the trans community. Companies need to step up, be proactive and lead on environmental justice, and on climate policy in general.

The corporate sector is falling further out of step with where the climate movement is headed — a direction more closely aligned with a larger vision of social justice.

Easy enough to say, but the truth is that this stuff is hard. When a wealthy profitable company and its executives engage with a nuanced social issue, they’re likely to get some things wrong, which perhaps is why many companies steer clear of real engagement. But companies have a lot to offer and can help build and scale real solutions if they’re willing to engage. 

What would that look like? The Climate Justice Playbook from the B Corp Climate Collective is a great resource. As you’ll see if you read it, it’s also an example of how things can go wrong and how to own up to mistakes and work to correct them. It goes into depth with suggestions for how businesses can center justice in their work on climate — far more than I have room for here. Here are some key elements:

  • Show good intentions (and take responsibility for negative impact when good intentions go wrong)
  • Demonstrate a desire to listen and learn
  • Be willing to own up to (and correct) mistakes
  • Invest real resources (time, influence and money) to create solutions
  • Model a deep commitment to real partnership with frontline communities, which will require sharing (and even ceding) power in decision-making

Many companies already engage with the communities around their offices, data centers, factories, etc. on issues such as housing, traffic, transit and pollution. It is not a big stretch for those same teams already dealing with community relations to keep track of environmental justice battles in the surrounding communities — and then to engage, learn and speak up as an ally for the members of the frontline communities.

If a company approaches environmental justice with humility, I believe it can find partners who will gladly work with them. The result will be far better collective solutions to the very real problems faced by frontline communities. 

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