The business case for climate justice

March 14, 2023

What’s behind environmental and climate justice and the role business plays.

The challenges surrounding climate change require all hands on deck, and the business community must play a leading role to ensure that climate change solutions are equitable and just. As corporations look to improve internal sustainable operations and reduce their environmental footprint, a good climate action plan must also consider how business decisions impact the well-being of external stakeholders globally.

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COP 26 in Glasgow recently highlighted the importance of climate justice. Successful businesses will need to implement new climate justice initiatives as governments and industry collectives place even more importance on accountability.

Read on to learn about the origins of the environmental justice movement, what climate justice is—beyond a sub-movement of environmental justice—and how and why businesses should incorporate climate justice principles into their climate action plans.

What is environmental justice?

Before talking about climate justice, we need to talk about environmental justice. Environmental justice is based on the fact that the harm to the environment gets distributed and experienced unequally. And, more specifically, the harmful effects of climate change disproportionately impact low-income communities of color.  

Civil rights and the environmental justice movement have a long intertwined history in the U.S., and while it’s difficult to pinpoint a single origin, many credit the 1980 state-led dumping of 6,000 truckloads of toxic soil in the predominantly Black town of Afton, North Carolina.

Since Afton, environmental injustice has continued in the U.S. Some notable examples: air pollution from Chicago’s Fisk and Crawford coal plants, which were in low-income Latino communities, resulted in their closure in 2012 due to pressure from community activists, and the infamous lead contamination of Flint, Michigan’s drinking water in 2014. Because low-income, minority, and indigenous communities are disproportionately affected by environmental issues, businesses with vital environmental programs need to support community and social justice issues, but more on that in a moment.

What is climate justice?

Climate justice, a subset of the environmental justice movement, is relevant now more than ever because we all experience the impact of climate change.

Climate justice reflects the disparity between those that create carbon emissions and those that feel the consequences of climate change. Developed countries—like the U.S.—benefit from a fossil fuel economy and can afford expensive climate change mitigation and adaptation measures. In contrast, developing countries often lack the financial or technological resources to just transition away from fossil fuels that produce greenhouse gas emissions or quickly adapt to climate change.  Climate justice advocacy focuses on issues that lead to climate change refugees. For example, rising sea levels threaten land elimination on island nations like the Maldives. In fact, current projections say the entire country could be underwater by 2100. And changing precipitation patterns negatively impact agriculture in countries like Guatemala, resulting in the displacement of entire communities and livelihoods.

Since the 1992 Rio Conference, developed countries have promised to reduce emissions faster and provide technological and financial assistance to developing countries. But as of 2021, developed countries, including the U.S., the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, have failed to meet their contributions to the $100 billion annual fund created at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) in Paris (also commonly referred to as The Paris Agreement), which promised to assist developing countries with climate change mitigation and adaptation. COP 26 in Glasgow, Scotland, saw developed countries making similar commitments that would provide technical (read, financial) assistance to developing nations. However, the commitments fall short of the “loss and damage” reparations these nations and economies stunted by the changing climate so desperately require to recover from past damage.

While government-led climate funds address the disparities of climate justice retroactively, business leaders have the opportunity to make proactive decisions to bridge the gap to uphold these basic human rights.

How businesses can impact climate justice

Why should businesses care about the plight of developing countries? As a good corporate citizen, ensuring that communities have equal protection from climate change and can grow sustainably is a matter of fairness, especially since these communities have little to no responsibility for the impacts of climate change they experience.

Common sense dictates that economies beset by natural disasters cannot function optimally. Should low-lying countries like the Maldives, Indonesia, and even parts of Florida, be devastated by rising sea levels, future business opportunities in these areas become nonexistent, and the regions could lose their labor force, customers, or operational partners. And since many companies rely on labor in developing countries, climate harm means business harm.

Given the economic and moral imperative to address climate justice issues, businesses need to advance climate justice principles in several ways:

  • First, measure your carbon emissions
  • Examine disparities that disproportionately affect vulnerable communities
  • Perform outreach in impacted communities and listen to concerns  
  • Develop an environmentally just climate action plan that:
    – Identifies and measures the environmental impact of your business operation, product, or service
    – Mitigates impacts
    – Supports affected communities  

Building relationships in communities impacted by the climate crisis enables businesses to stimulate economic growth. In turn, helping community members advocate for climate change ensures their labor force’s stability.

B Lab’s Climate Justice Playbook for Business is an excellent resource for businesses that want to integrate climate justice into their climate action plans. Additionally, Sustain.Life’s Full Sustainability Platform includes step-by-step guides around environmental justice to help you do things like counteract gentrification, identify and address disparities, and support green spaces.

The B Lab playbook illustrates how companies can evaluate their impact and includes real-world case studies of companies engaged in their communities. For example, retail clothing and outdoor equipment retailer Patagonia funds grassroots organizations that work with indigenous communities on environmental issues. And the cleaning product company Seventh Generation worked with minority community activists in New York to help pass the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) in 2020.

And on the other side of the spectrum are companies that actively rally against what climate justice stands for due to deep-seated business interests. Notably, Exxon Mobil has spent over $30 million on ads and lobbying efforts that question the scientific consensus on climate change. As a result, businesses must actively lobby for strong climate change legislation at local, state, and federal levels to counteract the lack of action.

Whether your business is far along on its sustainability journey, or just starting out, look across your entire value and supply chain to understand where you can lead by example. Always take steps to ensure your business practices are just and equitable for everyone involved. And do it like your business depends on it, because it does.

Editorial statement
At Sustain.Life, our goal is to provide the most up-to-date, objective, and research-based information to help readers make informed decisions. Written by practitioners and experts, articles are grounded in research and experience-based practices. All information has been fact-checked and reviewed by our team of sustainability professionals to ensure content is accurate and aligns with current industry standards. Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.
Jack McCabe
Jack McCabe is an experienced environmental professional with over eight years of experience.
Alyssa Rade
Alyssa Rade is the chief sustainability officer at Sustain.Life. She has over ten years of corporate sustainability experience and guides Sustain.Life’s platform features.
The takeaway

• Climate justice reflects the disparity between those that create carbon emissions and those that feel the consequences of climate change.

• Because many companies rely on labor in developing countries, climate harm means business harm.