Environmental intersectionality is a relatively new, and often unknown, concept in the business world, but it is one that is only likely to grow in importance.
It was first coined by Black climate activist Leah Thomas when the Black Lives Matter Movement was at its height following the murder of George Floyd. Thomas, who has since set up her own non-profit organisation, Intersection Environmentalist, to share the stories of climate activists and environmental justice advocates, defines the term like this:
Intersectional environmentalism is an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet. It identifies the ways in which injustices happening to marginalized communities and the Earth are interconnected. It brings injustices done to the most vulnerable communities, and the Earth, to the forefront and does not minimize or silence social inequity. Intersectional environmentalism advocates for justice for people and the planet.
In other words, when exploring and tackling environmental justice challenges, taking an intersectional approach should always be a key component. Such an approach involves understanding that people are often disadvantaged and prejudiced against based on many simultaneously overlapping facets of their identity, including gender, race and sexual orientation, rather than just one.
In an environmental context, this means that environmental degradation and destruction inevitably harm some societal groups more than others. But it also points to the importance of taking the overlapping identities and experiences of people in marginalized communities into consideration when dealing with environmental issues. The danger otherwise is that even well-intentioned activities can end up disadvantaging such communities still further or generate a raft of negative unintended consequences.
Focusing on inter-generational justice
One organization that is attempting to embed this notion of intersectional environmentalism into its operations is Virgin Media O2. After launching its ESG (environmental, social and governance) strategy in the shape of the Better Connections Plan last May, the mass media and telecommunications company brought in Dana Haidan as Chief Sustainability Officer seven months later to deliver it.
Haidan, who had previously worked in similar roles at both Visa Europe and Vodafone, decided to begin unravelling the huge subject of intersectionality by focusing initially on intergenerational justice. She explains:
We looked at everything we were doing with our sustainability strategy through the lens of how to include future generations in its execution and communication. So we chose to focus, and zoom in, on inter-generational justice and unpack the layers on that basis.
For instance, to ensure effective governance of the company’s Better Connection Plan, it has set up three steering committees. Each has its own targets and goals and is headed by a senior executive.
But for the last six months, they have also included two members of the firm’s graduate scheme, who are “very visible in holding us to account”, says Haidan. The steering committees deal with:
- This focuses on the supplier’s Net Zero Action Plan and its promise under The Climate Pledge that its operations will generate net zero carbon emissions by the end of 2040. The Science Based Target Initiative’s Corporate Net-Zero Standard is being employed to help it get there. But Virgin Media O2 is also the first telco to be awarded the Advancing Level of the Carbon Trust’s Route to Net Zero Standard certification for cutting its carbon footprint.
- Another important component is enabling a circular economy and reducing e-waste. Here, for example, the provider has set itself the goal of helping customers undertake 10 million so-called circular actions, such as sustainably recycling devices or sending back old kit, by 2025.
Work here looks at the impact of digital inclusion and poverty, with the aim of reducing it. For instance, the company has set itself the goal of providing one million digitally excluded people with either affordable or free connectivity and services by the end of 2025. It is also enabling employees to assign five paid days a year to volunteering work, with the ambition of supporting one million people in communities across the UK by the end of 2025.
Diversity, equity and inclusion
This covers not only internal DEI targets and activities, including publishing ethnicity pay gap reports, but also how DEI issues are communicated externally and what societal change the supplier would like to see here.
Another way in which it is harnessing and listening to young people’s voices, meanwhile, is via its Youth Advisory Council. This consists of seven climate activists, only one of which is employed by the firm, but who are “very diverse in terms of gender, race etc”, says Haidan. As a result, it is able to “embrace intersectionality and inclusivity in a very active way, which keeps us focused on the general justice issue”, Haidan explains. She continues:
A big part of any sustainability strategy is ensuring it’s grounded with credible and ambitious goals. So we need external voices to act as advisors and critical friends, and they tell us whether our plans are ambitious enough and hold us to account. We meet monthly to review progress and there are no holds barred. We’ve engaged people who are externally very vocal, which helps ensure our climate action is grounded.
As to why she opted for intergenerational issues as the intersectional lens of choice, Haidan says there were two bases:
The external youth movement around climate action has been very visible and loud for the last few years, with Greta [Thunberg] putting a face to it. Also the last COP climate change meeting was the first one that had a youth arena, which acknowledged that young people are done with staying quiet because they understand they’ll be the ones that inherit these issues if we don’t do something. So that was a big reason.
The second motivation related to internal issues of staff recruitment, development and retention. Haidan explains:
A couple of people hired onto the graduate scheme told me a few months ago that they Googled what we were doing in this area before they accepted our job offer. It’s at the centre of young people’s priorities when choosing who to work for, as you can see with the ‘conscious quitting’ trend. So we’re seeing the benefit from a retention point of view but also in terms of the talent we want to attract. We also recognise that many of the challenges our business faces will be addressed by future cohorts of new leaders on our steering committees, so we want to ensure we’re taking them into account as we develop and execute our plans.
Peeling back the intersectional layers
As for the challenges faced in adopting an intersectional-based approach to sustainability, Haidan believes a key one is simply the complexity that the term hides. As she points out:
It’s about how you peel back the layers one at a time. So with our Better Connection Plan, we don’t see intersectionality as a destination. It’s an ongoing process as we implement it. We’ve only had the Plan in place for a year, so we haven’t decided on the next lens yet. But I can’t say we’ve completed everything we need to do in terms of embedding young people into all our activities yet. It takes time.
Haidan also believes that it is vital to take a system-level view of sustainability these days:
With intersectional system-level thinking, it’s about understanding that the climate crisis, for example, isn’t a weather problem. It’s connected to many natural ecosystem and social challenges, such as inequality. In the past, the E and S and G of ESG were tackled separately, but those days are behind us now and they’re never coming back.
So looking at things from a systems view, and continuing to do so, is the greatest challenge. We do it through our ESG disclosures as we report on everything we do and use those targets to stay grounded and keep track of our own performance. We also ensure that all the groups impacted by our business operations and sustainability plans are part of the decision-making process. The importance of that is the biggest lesson of all.
In a world in which everything is connected, using concepts, such as intersectionality and systems thinking, to help organisations understand the consequences, both intended and unintended, of their actions makes a lot of sense. So while it may be early days for adopting such approaches, interest in them is inevitably starting to grow.