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Amelia  Ahl headshot

The Climate Crisis Is Pushing Companies Toward Social and Political Activism

Businesses are finding new ways to take on bold activism as the climate crisis, calls for racial justice and the pandemic force companies off the sidelines.
By Amelia Ahl
Climate Crisis

The climate crisis is linked to all the upheaval the world is experiencing in 2020, and more companies are responding in kind. As calls for social and environmental justice grow worldwide, with the global uprising in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and as Climate Week 2020 focused on achieving a net-zero future through a just transition, businesses continue to explore how to build climate equity and environmental justice into their operations.

The climate crisis: Overlooked no more

A recent Oxfam study found that the wealthiest 1 percent of the global population is responsible for more than twice the carbon emissions as the world’s poorest 50 percent. And in 2017, CDP found that 100 fossil fuel producers were responsible for 71 percent of all global GHG emissions.

While the latest research indicates that a relatively small number of individual and corporate actors are contributing to a disproportionate amount of global emissions, the environmental justice movement has been advocating for years to promote awareness on the disproportionate effects of climate change on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), a phenomenon known as environmental racism.

The impacts of these inequitable outcomes can be seen in the United States, where Black and Hispanic people are more likely to live in neighborhoods with high pollution levels, and Black Americans are three times more likely to die of asthma than their white counterparts.

How can businesses not only adapt, but lead on climate equity?

Recently, sustainability-focused Presidio Graduate School partnered with the startup grassroots "think-and-do tank," Hypha Collective, to bring together industry experts and academics to discuss business strategies that acknowledge and adapt to the climate crisis.

Panelists examined how the business world is taking these realities into account when developing strategies to address climate change and environmental racism. It turns out that today’s leaders draw inspiration from some surprising sources, pushing the boundaries of business by considering the intersection of ecological and social frameworks.

One area of focus is on the human relationship to the natural world, with traditional practices of Indigenous land management showing time-tested examples of effective ways to sequester carbon and protect biodiversity. In Brazil, advocates of Indigenous land rights and ownership are urging businesses and the government to consider the potential of these practices to reduce carbon emissions and benefit the local economy by an estimated $523 billion, adding up to $1.165 trillion over the next 20 years.

“It’s crucial to look at these long held Indigenous practices to center the voices of those at the front lines of the climate crisis, and incorporate justice into our climate equity work,” said Khalid Kadir, provost and professor at Presidio Graduate School.

“Communities at the frontline of the climate crisis need to be designing these new systems,” added Alfredo Gonzalez Valenzuela, community engagement and organizational change expert and Presidio Graduate School alumni. “We can do better than inviting people to have a seat at the table. We should start by going to them and listening to what solutions and support they want.”

Beyond a focus on traditional land management practices, businesses around the world are also turning to biomimicry, a process of studying and replicating individual flora, fauna, and natural systems in their products or operations to solve ecological and social dilemmas. While biomimicry is relatively new in the business world, many Indigenous communities have traditionally modeled their cultures and practices after the natural world.

The focus on climate has led to other forms of activism

Other sources of inspiration include commitments to social and political action. In the lead-up to the 2020 general election in the U.S., small businesses and major companies alike have promised to provide employees with paid time off to vote, and public support for election day as a paid holiday among the business community is increasing. Time to Vote, a nonpartisan coalition of businesses started by Patagonia, Levi Strauss & Co, and PayPal before the 2018 midterm elections, which works to increase voter participation in the U.S., currently has the support of more than 700 companies.

And in the wake of the global uprising against racism and police brutality in recent months, as businesses determine how to respond to calls for action and solidarity, anti-racist practices such as the examination of white supremacy characteristics in organizations and the design justice principles that support organizational shifts toward regenerative and healing practices provide a useful starting point.

“We must push our organizations to change their policies and at the same time, recognize that these efforts alone may not be enough to support the kind of change we want to see. As Audre Lorde said, ‘we can’t use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house’,” said Chelsea Schiller, an organizational sustainability consultant and Presidio Graduate School student.

There are as many approaches to social and environmental justice through business practices as there are companies. And as with any complex process, there is no one-size-fits-all model. These frameworks and tools offer a starting point for leaders committed to making meaningful changes to their operations in order to pursue an equitable future for all.

Editor’s note: Make sure you register for the free virtual 3BL Forum, starting next Thursday, October 8, at 12 p.m. ET.

The 3BL Forum starts virtually on Thursday, October 8.

Image credit: Katie Rodriquez/Unsplash


Amelia  Ahl headshot

Amelia Ahl is an MBA/MPA candidate at Presidio Graduate School, pursuing a degree in sustainable solutions. She has a background in humanitarian and international development, which fueled her interest in regenerative business models. Amelia's experience ranges from social business and impact investing to policy and the nonprofit sector. Her research and work is guided by social justice and antiracism. Amelia is a consultant for sustainable businesses and the co-founder of an accountability group for female and non-binary entrepreneurs.

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