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Finance & Investment
Inequality:
The Sustainable Business Blind Spot

Climate change affects everyone but in vastly unequal ways. To address this and drive real, sustainable change, businesses must ensure their sustainability strategies do not exacerbate existing inequalities even further.

When it comes to genuine sustainable development, businesses still have a blind spot. Collectively, we’re failing to address the systemic risk posed by mounting levels of inequality. This is a humanitarian tragedy and a barrier to long-term, meaningful sustainable change.

Addressing inequality — a business imperative

According to calculations by Credit Suisse, 54 percent of the $127.5 trillion in new wealth created between 2012 and 2022 went to the world’s richest 1 percent. And only 0.7 percent went to the four billion people who make up half the global population, predominantly in the Global South.

As the reality and challenge grows starker and harder to ignore, businesses are waking up to the urgent and systemic risk of inequality. It erodes trust in our political and economic system, unravels the social fabric, fuels civil and political unrest and constrains economic growth. In May, a group of more than 30 major corporations convened under the Business Commission to Tackle Inequality (BCTI) to launch a flagship report asserting that growing inequality is bad for business. The report highlights how rising inequality contributes to:

  • an increasingly volatile business operating environment;

  • supply chain insecurity;

  • the erosion of productivity and innovation;

  • regulatory and compliance risks; and

  • reputation risk.

It’s no surprise, then, that corporate performance on inequality-related matters is increasingly recognised as an investor priority because it creates ‘systemic risk’ to their entire portfolio. In response to this, a new framework is being developed for financial disclosures for social and inequality-related risks. The aim is to develop a disclosure framework similar to the TCFD and TNFD frameworks for climate and nature.

Inequality and climate change: 2 sides of the same coin

Aside from the business and economic cost and the vast humanitarian consequences, inequality also undermines the world’s ability to address existential global threats such as climate change. As wealthy countries outsource industries and labor to developing nations, emissions are driven up — as these nations have usually not had their industries regulated through global climate policies or modernised to become more sustainable. Additionally, poverty in developing nations often forces communities to put more pressure on the environment — which can lead to unsustainable agricultural practices, deforestation and overexploitation of natural resources.

So, inequality worsens climate change — which simultaneously fuels inequality. For example, poorer countries lack the resources to recover from extreme weather events brought on by climate change. Similarly, access to resources such as clean water, food and adequate housing is reduced as the climate worsens — further exacerbating insecurity and inequality.

Sustainable solutions must incorporate all voices

It’s clear that not everyone will feel the impacts of climate change equally. Many communities will lose more than others, compounding deep-rooted societal and systemic inequalities. Despite this, it’s these very people who will feel the effects of climate change most acutely that are often left out of the conversation when it comes to business solutions. This dangerous discrepancy can limit perspectives on the climate issue and the success and relevance of proposed solutions. It’s crucial we address the needs of those worst affected by climate change and incorporate their voices and knowledge into decision-making.

Doing so will help futureproof organisational strategies, too. To date, businesses haven’t been particularly proactive at including the perspectives of those groups most likely to be negatively impacted by climate change into their conversations and strategies to address it. But they should be. Consideration of their challenges and insights is not only fair — it can also be the difference between success and failure when it comes to setting short- and long-term sustainability priorities.

Rethinking business impact and rightsholders

The introduction of double materiality is set to change this and is driving a monumental shift in the way businesses consider impacts and rightsholders. Double materiality requires organisations to engage with two types of stakeholder: users of information and affected stakeholders, or ‘rightsholders,’ who are or could be affected by the organisation’s activities. To support this shift, companies must assess the significance of an impact according to its severity and likelihood. This methodology draws on established human rights impact-assessment methodologies with an emphasis on the rightsholder.

This is good news from an inequality perspective. By considering the views of rightsholders, a company is much more likely to take on board the opinions of those who face greater levels of inequality.

The way forward

Climate change affects everyone but in vastly unequal ways. To address this and drive real, sustainable change, businesses must ensure their sustainability strategies do not exacerbate existing inequalities even further. This won’t happen overnight; but it starts with a greater understanding of who your rightsholders and affected stakeholders are and how your business’ contribution towards climate change could impact them.

Double materiality and the BCTI’s new framework for financial disclosures on social and inequality-related risks can help with this. Ultimately, both reflect a broader, positive shift towards addressing and disclosing business impacts on sustainability-related issues — not just the impact of those issues on the business. This holistic approach to impact is key to reducing inequalities and creating meaningful sustainable change.

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