The Intersection of Sustainability &
Social Justice in Business

With Leon Kaye of TriplePundit

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Did you know that sustainable businesses actually perform better than typical businesses? Time and time again, consumers show a preference for companies that are better for the world. 33% of people prefer sustainable brands, and we totally get it.

In the global ecosystem we live in today, sustainability is non-negotiable. Sustainable businesses see each focus of their triple bottom line—people, planet, and profits—as a priority, and they use their influence and creativity as a business to create a positive impact on the communities around them. 

Our recent guest on the Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation Podcast, Leon Kaye, is an editor and writer for online publication TriplePundit, which explores the intersection between environmental sustainability, social justice, and business. Leon shared valuable insight with us and even shed some light on surprisingly sustainable businesses.

What is a Sustainable Business? 

“All businesses care about is their own bottom line.” Underlying that common refrain is the understanding that “the bottom line” i.e. profit, is the only thing that matters to a company. Additionally, it’s understood that a myopic focus of profit comes at the expense of others’ wellbeing.

People planet profit graphicA sustainable business considers the triple bottom line: people, planet, and profits.

Each of these focuses are equally important for the sustainable business to not only do no harm, but to actively lead initiatives and products that bring benefits to all stakeholders, from local communities, people throughout the supply chain, and ultimately the customer. 

The perception that businesses simply can’t do well and do good is fading, and rightfully so! Small changes in business models can transform a company into a sustainable business.

Converting to renewable energy and offsetting greenhouse gas emissions are ideal, but sustainable practices like incentivizing green commuting, or removing single-use plastic from your business are good steps toward business sustainability, reducing overall environmental impact.

Why is Sustainability Important in Business?

Businesses have largely been excluded from the sustainability conversation, yet 71% of global carbon emissions come from just 100 companies. This significantly impacts the health and wellbeing of the planet and the people as these companies continue to pollute the air, water, and soil we all share.

As a way to encourage sustainability across sectors, the United Nations created 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to mend some of the world’s most pressing problems, giving every actor a role to play. From economic growth to clean energy, gender equality, clean water, education for all, sustainable cities, and responsible consumption, the goals have the potential to be met by 2030 if a combination of companies, individuals, and governments commit to their success. 

Good news is that the tools to make the world a more sustainable place already exist, and many companies are already putting them to work. The SDGs, for example, outline new market opportunities specifically for business success. 

In 2019, 28 companies with a combined wealth of over $1.3 trillion committed to net-zero emission by 2050. You might see some familiar faces, like Levi Strauss & Co, Hewlett Packard Enterprises, and Unilever. This is an enormous step for reducing the progression of climate change and it offers a unique opportunity to leverage financial profitability while nurturing the greater good. 

After all, climate change poses a threat to businesses too. Many businesses rely on natural resources like clean water, and clean air to source materials, few natural disasters to manufacture goods, and thriving communities to deliver their products. Regenerative organic farming is a sustainable agricultural practice that actually addresses risk management and increases operational efficiency and it’s planet-saving. 

According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), race is the number one indicator when toxic facilities are placed throughout the United States. Environmental injustices aren’t limited to exposure to pollution, they’re exemplified through food deserts and susceptibility to damage from weather events. In short, people of color are bearing the brunt of the effects of climate change, often at the hands of unsustainable businesses. 

social-justice-protest-graphicA new term has emerged that incorporates the social justice movement into corporate social responsibility and sustainability in business: Corporate Social Justice. Instead of pushing out a press release on workplace diversity in the wake of one of the largest social justice movements in recent history, how can companies reframe their work through the lens of marginalized people?

This is something to look for next time you look at investing in a new company or purchasing a new product. How are they actively combatting racism in the community, especially environmental racism?  

When all communities are involved in sustainability initiatives, economic impact is greater and grassroots solutions stick. Black environmentalists are building companies and organizations that address the triple bottom line with an emphasis on women, green spaces accessibility, and food security. 

Who Are Sustainable Businesses?

To make a positive impact, businesses don’t need to exclusively sell sustainable products or services. It’s important to note that while a sustainable business can also be a conscious business, not all of them are. However, there are tons of companies fighting climate change by integrating justice and sustainability programs throughout their work. 

REI Co-op is a great example of a sustainable and conscious business. In addition to carefully sourcing materials for their outdoor recreation equipment, they’re committing to making the outdoors accessible to all. As Leon mentioned, a critique of the environmental movement is that it started purely to preserve land for the use of white people. 

Companies like REI and Patagonia are challenging that critique by giving back to the community, leading fair-trade initiatives, and investing in the outdoors for all. In 2019 alone, REI donated almost $8.1 million to nonprofit organizations working to preserve trails, develop urban green spaces, and engage with minority communities outdoors.  

You might not think of Costco when you hear “corporate sustainability”, but Leon shared how their sustainability strategy is actually a phenomenal example of how sustainable business practices can be implemented. While Costco is the opposite of your local mom and pop zero-waste bulk food store, they actually have a surprising number of sustainability initiatives in place to address the triple bottom line. 

In addition to being members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, Costco is actively partnering with suppliers who share their commitment to chemical reduction in agriculture and pollinator preservation. Costco also treats its workers very fairly, with benefits outweighing what many corporate workers have.

TriplePundit: Reporting on the Business of Doing Better

Reporting on the triple bottom line, TriplePundit is an online publication that shares stories on the intersection of social justice, sustainability, and business. Ultimately, TriplePundit shares with the world that businesses can be a force for good and enact positive social change. Each piece is written for an audience from corporate executives to concerned citizens. 

At its core, TriplePundit exists to show other publications why they should be reporting on these issues. Although reporting on renewable energy, extreme weather, and transparent supply chains isn’t so novel anymore, TriplePundit pulls on unique perspectives to shed new light on environmental issues, how they touch each corner of the world, and how business leaders can (and do) respond.

Leon Kaye, Executive Editor of TriplePundit

Leon Kaye Triple Pundit FeatureThe 2008 financial crisis redirected Leon’s path and brought him into the world of environmental journalism. Since 2010, Leon has been writing on business and sustainability for Triple Pundit. He’s contributed an astounding 2,500 pieces in the last decade, many of which focus on how businesses are enhancing their sustainability practices. 

When Leon first broke into this field, sustainability in business was an outlier. What used to be on the fringe of the sustainability movement is now front and center.

Leon believes that especially as we’re seeing the effects of climate change right before our eyes through historic weather events, we don’t have the luxury of waiting around for big businesses to make changes any longer. Individuals have to take action as a regulatory pressure for corporate accountability.

“We should call companies out when they’re doing something wrong. But also, if you want them to change, you have to engage them.”

Digging Deeper: What To Look For in Sustainable Companies

Leon shed some light on exactly what we should look for when aiming to support a sustainable business. 

  • Economic Transparency: Where are these companies getting their money? A company may seem like they have great sustainability initiatives, but actually be accepting money from suspect sources. What do we mean? Oatly, the popular oat milk brand, relies on environmentally-minded consumers to purchase their vegan products. However, they just accepted $200 million in funding from a controversial group that has ties to the deforestation of the Amazon. 
  • Actions Speak Louder Than Words: If a company says they don’t support supply chains that exploit workers but still manufacture in facilities with known human rights violations, the company is putting profit ahead of people. 
  • What’s The Waste?: Packaging can be a great way to gauge a company’s environmental commitment on the spot. But, beware of greenwashing. If the packaging says “biodegradable”, that doesn’t really mean much. Since plastic pollution is a global issue, look for specific recycling or composting instructions, information about the company’s values, the raw materials used to make the product, and its full life cycle. 
  • Read Up: When in doubt, do some research! Check out our list of socially responsible companies and learn about how businesses are enacting change on TriplePundit. Find unique solutions to lower your own carbon footprint when shopping and practice energy efficiency.

Closing: Supporting Sustainable & Socially Just Businesses 

Seeking out and supporting businesses that use their influence to serve the common good is the best way to take an action role in how mankind is responding to the world’s most pressing issues. If you can take even one small step today towards conscious consumerism, our collective impact can leave the planet better than when we found it—each dollar vote let’s business know where you stand. 

If you’re in the midst of developing sustainability efforts for your own business or looking for ways to address environmental issues in a for-profit entity, remember that sustainable businesses have a competitive advantage as a business strategy.

Through targeted, impactful responses to climate change and social inequality, businesses can be the leaders in change for a healthier planet for all, and make responsible business the norm for the good of us and all future generations!

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