For a long time, the conversation around how to reduce the impacts of the climate crisis has been focused on the individual. In other words, the overwhelming message is that individuals can curb the effects of global warming simply by changing the choices that they make, whether that is choosing public transport over driving a car, switching to a plant-based diet, or by sorting their household waste into recyclable and non-recyclable buckets.  

But an individualistic perspective on how to tackle the climate crisis doesn’t work in a world where we are all as interconnected and interdependent as we are. The individual can’t make “sustainable” choices if the institutions around them don’t enable them to do so: we can’t rely on public transport if the infrastructure for it isn’t built up in every region of the country; we can’t consume “ethically sourced” produce if the supermarkets we buy from make their profits off inadequate compensation to farmers; and we can’t switch to renewable energy sources if the power grids in our local areas don’t supply it to us. 

Alongside local authorities, national governments and community organisations, people are increasingly looking to businesses to provide thought leadership and forward-thinking action when it comes to addressing the climate emergency. Businesses are thought of as cultural institutions, and through their business models, operations and communications, they have the ability to shape the dominant cultural narrative. Where governmental and international regulation are often lagging behind in addressing pressing social justice issues like the climate crisis, businesses can, in theory, innovate quickly and responsively. 

But it’s also important to recognise that some industries are responsible for the state that we find ourselves in today. Without undoing those extractive and exploitative business models first, we won’t make much progress. Take the fossil fuel industry, who represented the largest delegation at COP26. How do governments and the businesses themselves meaningfully enable a transition to renewable energy business models, while preserving the jobs of those who work in the industry? Or let’s consider the fast fashion industry, where the climate emergency and social justice intersect. Fast fashion is not only directly responsible for the severe mistreatment and unacceptable working conditions for garment producers, but run-offs from textile dyes are polluting local water sources, overwhelmingly in the Global South. Surely we can produce clothing in a way that is safe for both the planet and garment workers, who are largely women of colour and migrant women.

Sharlene COP pictures biodiversity social enterprise uk
A picture taken at COP26 in Glasgow

For larger enterprises, shifting to a more environmentally sustainable business model can be a long and clunky process. So they often fall into the trap of greenwashing, claiming to be doing more than they are to appease customers. But, consumers are cottoning on to lofty marketing claims, and regulation is catching up too: in the UK, the Green Claims Code will see businesses be penalised for incorrect or deliberately misleading environmental claims from 2022 onwards.

Instead, there is plenty of inspiration to take from small and micro businesses. Their size gives them the ability to experiment with new business models, and scale up and down, and build equitable supply chains from the ground up. Based in the US, Good Liquorworks produce vodka by gathering fruit waste from coffee farmers in Central and South America. In the UK, THE RE-PETE PROJECT makes unisex waterproof anoraks out of 29 waste plastic bottles, which even includes the cords, thread and toggles. And finally in Mexico, Casa de las Olas is a hotel powered entirely by solar energy, as well as having in-built rainwater collection systems that feed on-site vegetation. 

Despite representing a variety of industries, what all three of these businesses – and many others – have in common is that environmentalism is embedded into the core of their business models. Whether it is repurposing waste, building on renewable, self-sufficient energy sources, or partnering with local micro-enterprises, these businesses demonstrate that it is possible to run a business while respecting the bounds of nature, and the rights of people and workers. Environmentalism can no longer be left to the corporate social responsibility department, or the marketing and comms department alone. Nor should businesses wait for national governments and international agreements to regulate their actions. Profit maximisation and aggressive growth goals have to be replaced with impact-based measurements through a business’ supply chain. We can no longer accept business-as-usual – we have to strive for seismic shifts in the ways that entire industries operate.

Sharlene Gandhi is a reporter at Courier Media and will be joining David Lammy MP and Louisa Ziane from Toast Ale at Social Enterprise Futures 2021 for a session focused on the links between climate justice and social justice taking place on 22 November at 2pm. Get your tickets here.