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Two Steps Forward

What would MLK have to say about sustainable business?

A lesson about a great leader began at age 13.


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Reprinted from GreenBuzz Weekly, a free newsletter. Subscribe here.

On this MLK Day, a reflection.

Back in February 1965 — a few weeks before he led the celebrated Selma-to-Montgomery march to support voting rights, and more than three years before his assassination — I made Martin Luther King Jr. the focus of my bar mitzvah speech.

My family was not very religious. When my parents reluctantly agreed to let me have a bar mitzvah, we agreed that the topic of that week’s Torah portion — the traditional focus of a bar mitzvah speech — needed to be made "relevant" to our friends and family, none of whom were particularly religious either. I no longer recall the biblical story from that week that was the basis of my talk except that the central character had lived up to the courage of his convictions — at least, that was how my parents and I framed it.

And that became the theme of my talk: living up to the courage of one’s convictions. Starting there, it was a fairly short journey to Dr. King, who embodied that courage.

All of us in sustainability need to stand by the courage of our convictions, even when it is uncomfortable or unpopular to do so.

Of course, 13-year-old me did not know that Dr. King would become the icon whose ideals and principles still reverberate across the globe. In 1965, he was better known — to me at least — as someone willing to go to jail, suffer beatings and humiliations and still stand firm on his beliefs. I marveled that in the "I have a dream" speech, delivered during the March on Washington about 18 months prior, he envisioned that "little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers." He was referring in that speech to children in Alabama, but he might as well have been talking about my community in Oakland, too.

More than a half-century later, now ensconced in the work that I do, I sometimes wonder, "What would MLK have to say about sustainable business?"

Just and equitable

Sustainability, of course, was not a topic back then; the word didn’t come into common usage until the late 1980s, at least in this context. So, anything about what Dr. King might have thought or said about this topic is purely conjecture.

But he did allude to what we would later call "corporate responsibility" — the role of the private sector in creating a just and equitable society.

Dr. King is best known for advocating for racial justice and against social, political and economic discrimination against Black Americans. But his focus extended, particularly in his later work, beyond race to inequality in wealth and living standards for all. He singled out the lack of equality in employment and business, and preached that companies have a responsibility to be forces of good in the world and must lead by example. He inspired millions to stand up against businesses that condoned mistreating and abusing an entire segment of the population based on race or other factors. He called for radical change and the potential dismantling of unjust structures, institutions and economic systems.

In his acclaimed 1963 "Letter from Birmingham Jail," addressed to "My Dear Fellow Clergymen," Dr. King wrote what could easily be a manifesto for today’s social justice movement:

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

The writer Drew Dellinger, in a 2017 opinion piece on the subject for the New York Times, observed: "Over two years before the first national Earth Day, before ‘ecology’ and ‘the environment’ became catchwords of the ’70s, before popular knowledge of ‘Gaia theory’ and ‘systems thinking,’ Dr. King was tying his vision of justice and peace to the interrelated structure of the universe."

EJ’s harbinger

Among Dr. King’s last efforts was supporting a sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, Tennessee, in March 1968. It focused on the unequal working conditions of Black workers, who did more dangerous and dirty work for lower pay than their white peers, and who bore the burden of the associated health and safety risks. That campaign was a harbinger of the environmental justice movement that would follow, focusing on how people of color and the poor enjoy far fewer environmental protections and suffer far greater risks in their homes, communities and jobs.

Equally important, Dr. King recognized that many struggles of his time — and ours — including racial inequality, poverty, human rights and the health effects of air and water pollution, are inextricably linked. He likely would have embraced the goals of the Green New Deal, which aims to create economic opportunity and ensure access to nature, clean air and water, healthy food and climate protection for all. So, too, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which aim to end poverty and hunger, empower the disadvantaged and reduce inequities, issues at the core of Dr. King’s life’s work.

He likely would have been a fierce advocate for addressing the climate crisis, particularly given that low-income families and people of color bear a disproportionate burden of climate impacts. But he would likely have chastised the modern environmental movement for prioritizing critters over communities — for seemingly placing polar bears ahead of poverty, for example.

Sadly, were he alive today (he would be 93), Dr. King would have seen how most of the struggles he embraced back then are still relevant today. Capitalism’s role in creating prosperity for the relative few remains a major civil rights issue. Access to clean air and water remains tilted toward the "haves." The interconnectedness of social justice, environmental issues, economic equity and political discord is somewhat better understood now than then, but for most they remain disconnected dots.

And the role of business in addressing these issues, while demonstrably far more proactive today than in the 1960s, remains wholly inadequate, even as the societal power of business has expanded. Dr. King would no doubt be profoundly disappointed in the reticence of most companies to take on social justice issues beyond philanthropy (even after the seeming burst of consciousness within business following the 2020 murder of George Floyd).

But I believe MLK would find solace and support among the business leaders and entrepreneurs who do understand our "inescapable network of mutuality" and are actively working to democratize access to food, housing, well-paid jobs and a healthy environment. And who recognize that failing to do so endangers their customers, employers and communities and, ultimately, their companies.

For me, the prime lesson of Dr. King comes back to the topic of my bar mitzvah speech: that all of us in sustainability need to stand by the courage of our convictions, even when it is uncomfortable or unpopular to do so. It is a task as challenging now as it was back then.

That’s not just a business lesson, of course, but a human one.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter, subscribe to my Monday morning newsletter, GreenBuzz, from which this was reprinted, and listen to GreenBiz 350, my weekly podcast, co-hosted with Heather Clancy.

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