Week 3 of Social Enterprise Futures is all about the climate emergency – the scale of the challenge it poses and the role of social enterprises in addressing it. There was no better way to kick off the week than today’s session looking at the links between environmental justice and social justice with David Lammy MP and journalist Sharlene Gandhi.
The discussion, hosted by Louisa Ziane the Co-founder of Toast Ale, covered how the origins of the climate emergency can be rooted in colonial expansion, the intersections between race and class, the disproportionate impact of the climate crisis on the most vulnerable and the role of business in both tackling and exacerbating the problem.
Climate justice is racial justice
“We’re currently in an extractive economy, built on exploitation which is fundamentally at the root of our climate crisis and it’s those black and brown people that are suffering the most…” – David Lammy
David Lammy opened the session by addressing the recent COP-26 Summit in Glasgow and how he left the conference exasperated by the system but hugely inspired by the people who travelled up to Scotland to campaign for climate justice. He said that “delayism has become the new denialism” – with commitments being watered down and promises unmet from previous COP sessions.
He quoted the Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Amor Mottley, who at COP-26 said that: “For those who have eyes to see, for those who have ears to listen and for those who have a heart to feel, 1.5 is what we need to survive” stating that a 2 degree rise in temperatures would be a “death sentence”
Quoting the leader of a nation pivotal to Britain’s involvement in the slave trade was a powerful way to introduce the connections between slavery, empire and the climate emergency. He said that the story of our climate crisis started 400 years ago when black and brown people were taken away into slavery and their lands turned into colonies. The extractive, profit-driven economic model which resulted from this bringing us to the situation we now find ourselves in.
The uneven power dynamics at COP which saw rich countries delay and the countries in the Global South facing the prospects of climate chaos can be seen as a continuation of the racist, extractive relationship of Empire and conquest.
The racialised impacts of climate crisis are felt not just in the imbalance of power between Global North and Global South but also in how a changing climate has a greater effect on poorer and marginalised groups in the UK. Class and race interact to create a situation where heatwaves cause 2,500 excess deaths, 4 million people live in fuel poverty and where Ella Kissi-Debrah, a young black girl from London, became the first person in the world to have air pollution recognised as an official cause of death. If you’re Black there’s also remarkably a 20% higher chance that of experiencing fuel poverty.
Lammy’s main point was that we cannot disconnect climate, racial and social justice. Instead of adding complexity however he was keen to stress that overlapping problems can have overlapping solutions – the insulating of homes, the tackling of fuel poverty and reducing emissions can lead to a more socially, racially and environmentally just world.
“Action has to challenge the inaction” and in this we all have a part to play – as businesses, as countries and as individuals.
The role of business – moving beyond greenwashing
“businesses are systematically exploiting and underpaying people of colour for profit maximisation” – Sharlene Gandhi
Our second speaker, Sharlene Gandhi is a journalist working on the intersection of business and environmental sustainability, writing for Courier Media and a variety of other outlets. She focused on the role of business beginning by saying that “business interests are one of the primary reasons we’ve found ourselves in a climate emergency today’ adding that businesses are “systematically exploiting and underpaying people of colour for profit maximisation”.
The endless pursuit of profit on a planet with finite resources is at the heart of the climate crisis and, like other speakers at Futures, she argued that we need to move away from this and look at entirely new ways of doing business – we need to be “brave enough as a business community to look at alternative ways of working”.
She believes that social enterprises are vital to this systemic re-thinking because they are driven by an entirely different motivation. She cited examples such as SEUK member, Birdsong who are turning the fashion industry on its head through its model of paying living wages to garment workers and being fully transparent about why items cost what they do. This is in stark contrast with the wider fashion industry which devalues workers in the Global South, paying poverty wages and selling items cheap to consumers.
Sharlene mentioned the sheer scale and prominence of corporate greenwashing, made even more present post COP, where the most extractive businesses are using schemes such as tree-planting to detract from their planet destroying activities. She said that environmentalism “can’t be restricted to marketing or CSR” instead it needs to be “core to the operations of all businesses”.
David Lammy added to this stating that “social enterprise at its best is about systems change” – with the systems that underpin the economy needing fundamental change, social enterprise offers a blueprint for a new way of doing things.
Centring the voices of those on the frontline
Sharlene was also at COP and whilst she agreed that there were undoubted successes, social and racial inequalities were not “remotely on the agenda” with a relentless focus on emissions and technical solutions (a point echoed by David Lammy)
What both speakers argued for was that the voices of racialised communities both in the UK and around the world has to be centred with the people most impacted by climate change having their lived experiences acknowledged, their voices heard and their demands acted on.
When thinking about corporate greenwashing, state inaction and the pursuit of endless profit Sharlene reminded us of the words of Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate at COP-26 – “ money will be useless on a dead planet”