Skip to main content

Why sustainability professionals have the edge on anti-racism work

Anti-racist resolutions? 12 reasons you’re already halfway there

Social justice earth

GreenBiz photocollage, via Shutterstock

You’ve made it to 2021. For this alone, you deserve the rarity of a big hug (virtual for now, please). You've earned the self-validation that comes from surviving a historic year filled with uncertainty, anxiety and grief on top of doing climate work that already induces similar sentiments. Looking ahead, you’ve probably already set intentions for this year.

One huge source of encouragement should be realizing how well prepared you are, as a sustainability professional, to do anti-racist work as a core part of the climate action you’re leading in your company. The many parallels that exist between these two worlds of climate action and social justice have been a wellspring of energy for me through a trying year, and I hope they inspire you to take on the continued, long-term work we need to create sustainable and positive change.

The exhaustion many of us felt in 2020 was intensified as we contended with the constant, systemic racism permeating the institutions that shape our everyday lives. We confronted our complicity. We sat with our guilt. We processed shame and hopelessness against an entrenched status quo that has injustice embedded in every social thread.

As sustainability professionals, we know that the compounding crises of COVID-19, economic turmoil, social unrest and extreme climate events are all interconnected.

As sustainability professionals, we know that the compounding crises of COVID-19, economic turmoil, social unrest and extreme climate events are all interconnected. Rather than a string of random, unprecedented, unrelated, disastrous events, 2020 demonstrated the deep interrelated systems on which our society depends. Supply chains breaking down seemingly overnight, essential workers and communities of color bearing the brunt of coronavirus exposure in order to continue harvesting crops, running deliveries and keeping grocery stores open — not only during a pandemic but also through one of the most extreme wildfire seasons to date.

The color and gender of COVID revealed another racial justice paradox: that while the pandemic uncovered the latent injustices faced by Black, Indigenous and people of color, it also exacerbated them.

The fact that climate hardship is compounded by racial inequity underscores the more urgent, compelling and critical need for both a just transition to a decarbonized future and a just recovery from the pandemic.

So, as we set intentions for 2021, it’s important to apply lessons learned from the collective trauma and subsequent anti-racist dialogue that 2020 sparked. While the imminent threats of climate change and the ongoing pandemic are daunting, you already have a solid foundation to follow through on the fight against a different virus: racism.

1. Thinking in whole systems: "Triple bottom line" has been part of your vocabulary for a long time. It’s about the environment, the economy and equity. You understand that doing good can mean doing well for a business and, by extension, a community and all of its stakeholders. Dismantling systemic racism requires the same whole-systems thinking to create holistic solutions.

2. Tackling invisible problems: Climate change and discrimination are seemingly invisible problems — ever-present, often debated and difficult to prove. White privilege and white adjacency blur the ability to see, experience and understand the very real obstacles of environmental racism, police brutality and systemic inequities. Finding solutions for these invisible challenges requires acknowledging that the problems exist — something you know how to do when it comes to the climate crisis and can apply to racial justice.

3. Struggling with infighting: Contending with division among groups that strive for the same larger goal yet disagree on how to get there is a common dynamic you deal with. Grassroots, confrontational and radical mobilizing or political high-level lobbying to advance the environmental agenda? Natural gas as a bridge to cleaner power or only renewable energy as a means to decarbonize? Biden’s specific climate plan or the more far-reaching Green New Deal? Discovering ways to unite and organize around a common goal is something you do frequently, among environmental activists, local governments, corporations and communities. Social justice movements require the same skill.

4. Listening: There is so much noise. But you don’t let climate deniers clutter the science-based objectives you know you must work towards. Being anti-racist will invite a lot more judgment and noise. It will put you in uncomfortable situations. But listening more than lecturing will be a critical tool in building trust and co-creating solutions for all your stakeholders, whether that’s for climate or social progress.

5. Managing guilt: We’ve all dealt with crippling guilt from feeling imperfect — perhaps you’re ashamed about your spike in single-use plastic waste as you take COVID precautions or can’t get over the time you inadvertently used a racial slur. No one’s perfect. Whether you’re an environmentalist or social justice advocate, Dr. Renée Lertzman reminds us how these feelings can actually be transformed into something productive. It takes practice to unlearn many bad behaviors society imposes on us and to reject conveniences that don’t align with our values. Naturally, practice comes with making mistakes. Mistakes allow you to learn. Just as you’ve learned to manage guilt around measuring how sustainable your lifestyle is, you also can do the same in creating practical and ongoing habits for being anti-racist.

6. Dealing with burnout: Ever felt like you couldn’t take a break because people’s lives are at risk? Maybe you tell yourself that skipping that weeklong vacation means one less week the planet has to burn? Climate work is existential! In the context of long-term change, self-care is critical for you to sustainably do the work that’s needed today, tomorrow and years from now. Without the right mechanisms in place to take care of yourself, you cannot care for others whether that’s in the name of climate progress or social justice. Check out Chris Gaither’s Sustainable You column for ideas and strategies on how to replenish your energy for mission-based work.

7. Understanding tradeoffs: It’s never a popular message to say it’s impossible to achieve all of our goals. You understand that while you can’t meet every objective right now, there is a path forward that requires trade-offs. Revamping your operations to be more sustainable — whether that’s through powering your facilities with renewable energy, mandating a self-imposed carbon tax, or even shutting down lines of business that are inherently unsustainable — will affect margins and could jeopardize the overall business. However, barreling forward in the name of financial gain, without taking sustainability measures into account, is accelerating environmental destruction as profits are prioritized over the planet and people. Overhaul changes for climate and social justice require tradeoffs. You might move slower as an organization or sacrifice certain milestones along the way but understanding that the right type of progress requires hard tradeoffs is critical to a just and sustainable future.

8. Dedicated for the long-haul: There’s no way we can transition off fossil fuels overnight. Americans will never give up their Big Mac even if Impossible Burger is doing a great job bringing plant-based meat to the mainstream market in the name of global biodiversity. Similarly, as Terraformation recognizes, reforesting 3 billion acres of land to achieve the carbon drawdown we need won't be achieved by one company alone. Progress is possible, thanks to your commitment to push one step closer every day to a sustainable planet and a society that prioritizes justice.

9. Being inclusive: Sustainability professionals have been advocates for inclusion for decades. Shifting from shareholder to stakeholder groups marked the business world’s broader acceptance of "stakeholder capitalism" and the need to include more segments of people — investors and board members, yes, but also consumers, activists, governments, the environment, biodiversity, suppliers and partners. Social justice requires the same type of fierce inclusion that you already advocate for to ensure holistic solutions. Black and Brown voices, Gen Z, people of the Global South — all need the invitation, inclusion and allyship that you already know how to provide to stakeholders around a climate agenda.

10. Understanding the importance of integration: The trend of establishing green teams and DEI functions is a positive demonstration of companies’ priorities. However, the day we hire a vice president of sustainability or a chief diversity officer must be the day we start making that job obsolete. Only then do we know that we have successfully integrated the values and the practice of sustainability and equity across the organization. Otherwise, that leader or team is relegated with the impossible responsibility of changing a whole system, while often being a siloed office without the influence or resources to effect change throughout the core competencies of an organization or community. Integration is the best method to ensure these teams are not just set up but set up to succeed.

11. Prioritizing justice: You know what’s right for the earth. It deserves to thrive, and we depend on it to do so. Deep down, under all the unconscious biases we carry, you know what’s right for marginalized communities in our society. Apply your environmental moral compass to the work that will advance social justice for the vulnerable, high-risk, and de-prioritized BIPOC communities that need your voice.

12. Taking action: Words and language are important. We need to create smart goals that fuel our ambition and entice our imagination to solve outside the status quo models that are abysmally failing the environment, the economy and social equity. Without follow-through, corporate social responsibility initiatives turn to empty greenwashing statements, and last summer's social media black square posts stand as painful reminders of hollow PR stunts. Only action will combat cynicism, eradicate apathy and stave off hopelessness in the grand fight for climate progress and social progress.

More on this topic