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The Sustainability Industry Needs Sustainable Change For Racial Justice

This article by Solver Garry Cooper, CEO of Rheaply, first appeared in the LinkedIn newsletter "The Sustainable Business: stories at the intersection of climate tech, ESG goals, and business social responsibility and reform."

I didn’t think I’d ever be writing this piece.

I have no background as an activist. My background is in neuroscience, not social science. I spend my days working on advancing and easing the adoption of the circular economy, and while I have always been aware of issues of racial injustice, I didn’t feel it was my role to write about them—I instead focused on the industries I work in. This newsletter series, for example, will focus on sustainability.

With everything happening around the country (and the world) in recent months, however, I have felt compelled to write about my experience as a Black man, and a Black business leader, in America. And as someone who spends his life in sustainability technology, I feel compelled to write about the relationship of racial inequity and sustainability, topics that may seem unrelated but are in fact deeply intertwined.

Much of that stems from a single, crucially important fact: people of color are generally most affected by climate change and other effects of a destabilized environment. A study from April of this year by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication noted that people of color are more concerned about climate change than white Americans, and with good reason, because “climate change disproportionately affects members of [disinvested] communities and groups who face socioeconomic inequalities, including many people of color.” As the Fourth National Climate Assessment stated in 2018, “people who are already vulnerable, including [underserved] communities, have lower capacity to prepare for and cope with extreme weather and climate-related events and are expected to experience greater impacts.”

This is not simply an abstract projection. We saw this firsthand, for example, in New Orleans in 2005 and Houston in 2017, when Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey tore through thousands of homes, displacing so many from the poorest Black and Latino communities. Today, these neighborhoods are still smaller and poorer than they were before. In an example of another kind, just last month The New York Times reported on harrowing research about potential harm to African American mothers and babies due to exposure to high temperatures or air pollution. As the article states, “the research adds to a growing body of evidence that minorities bear a disproportionate share of the danger from pollution and global warming. Not only are minority communities in the United States far more likely to be hotter than the surrounding areas, a phenomenon known as the ‘heat island’ effect, but they are also more likely to be located near polluting industries.”

While people of color bear the brunt of a deteriorating environment in many ways, they also rarely have the money, power, or bandwidth to fight for sustainability. (This is due to historical inequality, which has manifested in gaps of wealth, education, professional networks, etc. It is also a far larger topic than this piece can address.) And even when minorities have had the interest and ability to fight for the environment, the environmental movement has not always been extremely welcoming. This Outside Magazine article points out how, “in many ways, racial exclusivity actually shaped the environmental mission,” as does this piece from The New Yorker. The latter also notes a 2014 study that found that “whites occupied 89 percent of leadership positions in environmental organizations,” showing there is still a distinct lack of diversity today.

Like everything else related to racial inequality, there is no simple solution to these issues. Certainly implementing diverse hiring practices will help, in that by better reflecting the communities most impacted by environmental damage, we can better serve them as well. We can also make it easier for minority-led businesses to be created and thrive—something I wrote about in a recent piece in Forbes

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I believe adopting circular economy principles will help as well. Aside from its environmental benefits, the circular economy promotes resource sharing that will make it easier (and cheaper) for people of all socioeconomic groups to obtain necessary items. For example, in our current situation, many businesses are not utilizing their computer equipment—the circular economy would more easily allow for computers to get to communities who do not have access to important technology, rather than gathering dust and slowly losing value in an office. This example is particularly relevant in the wake of the recent Global E-waste Monitor from the UN, which noted a record 53.6 million metric tons of electronic waste was generated worldwide in 2019.

As an even more current example, as [underserved] communities address the impacts following the Covid-19 outbreak, a circular economy would help with sourcing surplus medical equipment, resources, or testing reagents from nearby communities who have these items in excess. At Rheaply, we have already seen the circular economy facilitate the distribution of PPE in a time of crisis, but as we build the future there is so much more it can do to distribute crucial materials in an efficient, sustainable, and cost-effective manner. 

While the circular economy has been great at addressing economic and environmental impacts, however, it has generally remained silent on social and cultural impacts. Which brings me to the one first step we can all take right now: we must acknowledge the social component of sustainability, and we must continue to talk about it—both internally and externally. The ideal of a sustainable world only works through listening to all voices of our global community.

It’s impossible for a company to operate sustainably without first embracing the concepts of justice, fairness, and equality from within. Be a part of the conversation, and through this conversation we can be a part of the movement for lasting sustainable change. 


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