The Evolving Face of Sustainability

Maybe young people have more of a conscience these days, or maybe we’re collectively becoming more aware of our buying power. Either way, sustainability is taking a front (rather than a back) seat to profitability. Furthermore, people are drawing a line of connection between sustainability and social justice, since they seem to be recognizing the fact that we don’t have equal access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness if we don’t all have clean air to breathe and water to drink. Therefore, many companies are beginning to include commitments to sustainability and social justice in their CSR policies, as well.

Likewise, the social work field is beginning to see sustainability as a social justice issue, bringing attention to ecological considerations into the coursework that graduate students are required to take for academic programs in social work. For example, Case Western Reserve University’s graduate program page in social work argues the following:

If social work accepts that a person’s environment is a principle determinant for their quality of life, then it stands to reason that ecology must become part of their concern.  As social work continues to explore environmental issues, there is a growing recognition of the importance of the natural world as part of an overall wellness plan.

This is a given, now, but it wasn’t until about five years ago that the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) declared sustainability to be the social justice issue of the new century. This is in part related to the “person-in-environment” principle: although social work has always been concerned with this focus, social work, as a profession, has historically neglected the environment-in-person—which includes the natural world.

Because of this change in the priorities of millennials and many consumers in general these days, corporations are expanding their dedication to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), as well as their budgets, and there are suddenly a large number of careers developing and opening up related to this charge. They include positions such as “Mission-Driven Brand Manager,” a marketing career with the goal of publicizing the work of companies attempting to make a difference in the world—for example, Whole Foods. There are also careers to be had in what’s called “Environmental Social Governance Investing,” which involves helping people find socially and environmentally responsible investment opportunities: for example, stocks in companies with impressive CSR policies—rather than fossil fuel companies, say.

As an extension of the commitment to more evolved values, companies are trying to marketing that looks less like marketing and more like an endorsement of similar values. This phenomenon is called lifestyle content marketing, and it involves a focus on certain lifestyle interests—rather than focusing on products or direct sales, per se. One brand I often bring up is Patagonia, which taps into their customers’ motivation to support environmental causes and links to petitions and action-based sites that allow their site users to connect to a greater cause than themselves. Therefore, by supporting Patagonia, they’re also supporting environmental sustainability and helping to protect endangered landmarks and bodies of water like the Snake River.

The Guardian recently wrote about this connection between social work and sustainability, arguing that social work should incorporate environmental rights as part of its framework as “a global profession that seeks to transform social system to end oppression, marginalization, and disadvantage.” They define environmental rights as recognizing that “land, water and air [should] be given rights as if they were people, so they will not be exploited, but instead be able to thrive for generations to come.” Further, three other components—dignity rights, social and economic rights, and relationship rights—are named as integral to the framework of social work, as it should now be defined and understood.

Part of this revision to the definition of socially responsible values stems from the hyper-connected nature of our world, now. The Business for Social Responsibility group points out that this hyper-connectedness means companies can’t control and manage their reputations as easily as they used to, and “the public is asking companies tough questions.” Therefore, transparency and ethics are more important now than ever—especially as a business strategy.  That’s part of how CSR policies are evolving, as well—going back to an expansion of corporate CSR-related positions and the evolution of corporate policies related to sustainability. More and more, people demonstrate their support for issues by voting with their wallets. We are increasingly able to do so because many companies are becoming hip to the fact that consumers care about sustainability and social justice, both. As John Izzo argues, “Our ‘purchase’ voting can ripple to pressure on elected officials.”

I’ve written about the connection between the issues of social justice and sustainability, as access to clean air and water increasingly seems to be more of a privilege than a right—cases in point: Flint, Michigan, or the Dakota Access Pipeline. Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Zayed University also have pointed out this connection, arguing that “Human rights and social and environmental justice are intertwined, and social work, as a profession that collaborates across disciplines and within communities, is uniquely situated to provide leadership in the field of environmental studies.”

If this doesn’t speak to the potential power of corporations, I don’t know what does: recently, “Hundreds of American companies, including Mars, Nike, Levi Strauss, and Starbucks, have urged President-elect Donald J. Trump not to abandon the Paris climate deal, saying a failure by the United States to build a clean economy endangers American prosperity.” Because of the current laissez-faire attitude of the current Administration, corporations may be our most reliable, unlikely heroes in this doomsday environmental situation, making it feel especially significant to vote with our dollars, since that may be one of the only actions we can take that will make an actual difference—that is, until new politicians are voted into office, in another couple years.

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Here’s to the kind of lasting change that is worth supporting, regardless of who is in office. Perhaps corporations and individuals, along with foundations and not-for-profit organizations, are the ones who need to step up to the plate, in the absence of commonsense laws and regulations protecting public lands and environmental standards.

Can you think of examples of individuals or companies who have taken actions that benefit the environment as well as the public good? Share your experience in the comments section, below!

 

Image Source: Kyle MacKenzie

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