Walking the Talk
US Public Agrees:
Companies Cannot Adequately Address Climate Issues Without Including Racial Justice

New survey of US adults and C-suite about the role of business in addressing environmental justice shows disconnect for the latter on the link between the environment and racial equity.

While more than 85 percent of US adults believe that environmental justice is critical, only one-third of them are satisfied with current actions taken by companies and C-suite leaders to advance change, and they expect them to do more.

Today, Interpublic Group PR agency Golin and its social impact + inclusion practice release Justice for All — a national survey of perceptions regarding responsibility of environmental justice in the United States. The survey found that most US adults surveyed believe environmental justice is “very important,” and they don’t believe corporations have taken enough action to address the issue. Golin says the study represents a first of its kind for business leaders, communications strategists and social impact/social justice experts to help close the say-do gap on one of the most critical environmental and social issues of our time.

For years, data have proven the disproportionate impact of climate change and pollution on low-income and BIPOC communities. Black Americans are 75 percent more likely than white people to live in areas near commercial facilities that produce noise, odor, traffic or emissions that directly affect that community. It’s also more likely that people of color live near toxic refineries or chemical plants — where they experience higher levels of exposure to toxins that result in higher rates of heart disease, cancer and asthma.

Golin’s study found a belief gap in who should be responsible for addressing environmental justice inside of corporations. The data showed that nearly half of consumers believe that a company’s CEO is responsible for making environmental justice a priority. But one-third of executives reported that they think it’s the responsibility of environmental, social and governance (ESG) and sustainability departments to handle environmental justice — followed closely by public affairs/government relations departments.

“Despite significant scientific study on the issue, there is a lack of awareness of this issue and even less conversation among global corporates and C-suite leaders on the role business needs to play in charting solutions,” said Laura Sutphen, managing director of social impact + inclusion at Golin. “To date, Corporate America’s commitment to environmental justice has been missing. We set out to understand how much consumers knew about environmental justice, what Americans expected from corporates, and the role C-suite leaders believed their brand has a role to play in addressing the issue. When we guide C-suite leaders to marry their diversity commitments with their sustainability goals, we will see impact at scale that benefits communities of color and the planet.”

According to the study, nearly nine out of 10 executives agree environmental justice is important for corporations to address; but 49 percent don’t think it would lead to tangible outcomes for minorities or low-income communities. This discrepancy in data shows an unawareness or oversight of the people hurt by poor air quality, poor water quality, weak infrastructure or lack of access to food.

When asked in the survey why they don’t believe climate change and social justice are linked, commentary from C-suite executives included:

“Because the environment is independent of racial injustice.”

“Because skin color does not link with environmental situations. Lack of traditional family structure and lack of active fathers are the main culprit. These do not have a skin color.”

“Because it shouldn’t be a race issue, and this literally makes no sense. Everything is not about race.”

“All races have low-income people in them.”

The survey also showed that 82 percent of consumers surveyed believe statements are not enough from brands and that 83 percent think corporate leaders have a responsibility to address environmental injustice.

“Environmental justice is about responsibility for addressing a systemic problem that the average American doesn’t realize exists,” Sutphen said. “At Golin, our intersectional team combines social and planet impact with inclusive communications expertise to ensure that business leaders understand how all three are interconnected and impact the communities where they do business. If we want to help organizations meet their goals, we need to agree that we can’t address climate change without tackling environmental justice.”

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