In sustainability and global social impact sectors (also referred to as global development), we constantly talk about participating in values-based work. We attempt to solve the biggest global challenges, which revolve around defending basic human rights and promoting equality. Our work is shaped by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Agenda, which seeks to “end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030.” We promote economic growth, health, education, and poverty reduction among the unrepresented and underprivileged. Yet many of our organizations are predominantly white from privileged backgrounds. The lack of diversity among staff members and leadership in the sustainability sector begs the question: How equipped are these teams to tackle such global issues if they do not reflect communities and individuals they aspire to serve?
The privileged sustainability industry
Recent studies have shown Out of 777 leaders surveyed in a 2018 Quantum Impact Report, only 16% identified as people of color. And according to The State of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in Sustainability survey, which included over 1,500 responses in the industry, only 27% of respondents felt that their leadership teams were diverse. 70% of White women agree that they likely will see someone like themselves in the profession, while Black (24%), South Asian (29%), and East Asian (37%) respondents were least likely to agree.
The survey concludes that the sustainability industry is a privileged space to work in: 77% come from middle- or upper-class households and most senior leadership positions are held by White men. Black, South Asian and respondents from working-class backgrounds are less likely to feel included within their organizations and report the least opportunity for career progression.
Evidence shows that the world’s biggest sustainability issues disproportionately affect women and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities. A 2016 study by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) and Energy Efficiency for All (EEFA), low-income, Black and Brown communities spend more on energy. If most of our work in the sector is defined by the ideas and leadership of white males, there is a risk of entering an insidious neo-colonialism characterized by a “White Savior” complex, which ironically counters the work we seek to carry out – to create more equitable societies. The lack of representation, inclusivity, and diversity in the sector is a conundrum — it highlights the failed systems our organizations operate within and the potential insincerity of our work. How can we remedy the legacies of colonization and the resulting exploitation of vulnerable communities when our organizations and companies fail to hire leaders and staff who can better represent and understand their needs?
How we should approach DEI
The benefits of diversity, equity, and inclusion (EDI) include increased innovation, better decision-making, and employee retention. There is already a clear business case for a more diverse workplace. According to a 2019 analysis by McKinsey, which included 15 countries and more than 1,000 large companies, those that actively implement diversity and inclusion initiatives within their core strategy are more profitable. Companies with high gender diversity on executive teams were 25% more likely to experience above-average profitability than those with little gender diversity. And those with high ethnic and cultural diversity outperformed their peers by 36%.
There is a need for systemic, “business-led” approaches to EDI. It’s not enough to simply say that diversity, inclusion and equity are company values. Companies and organizations not only need to actively implement EDI initiatives and programs but also ensure that employees sense equality of opportunity and inclusive leadership. Promoting and building more diverse and inclusive teams creates a safe space where employees can freely express their opinions and thoughts confidently without fear of reprisal. As an industry, sustainability practitioners need to recognize the various barriers to entry for BIPOC individuals and actively seek to reduce them.
For sustainability and global development practitioners in leadership positions, honest reflection and assessment are needed. Leaders must push beyond vague individual commitments and create strategic action plans with concrete steps. Leaders must ask themselves: Do the values of inclusion and openness that you emulate on external platforms reflect the culture and leadership internally? Do your employees genuinely feel and perceive this? How can your organization and company welcome diverse talents and ensure multiple perspectives are visible and heard?
The George Floyd killing and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic both provoked the demand for social justice and demonstrated the responsibility that companies and organizations must assume to promote social equity and shape social dialogue. Those in sustainability, who seek to fight for climate justice, gender equality, and economic empowerment, should feel even more of a responsibility. And part of that responsibility begins by ensuring a truly equitable and inclusive workforce.
About the author: Jamie Santiago is a consultant helping brands strategize and execute their impact and sustainability goals through project design, implementation and management, partnership building, communications, and technical research. She is based in Amsterdam and has worked with clients globally in the fashion, technology, agribusiness, and non-profit sectors. You can view her work atwww.jamiedayoan.com.