Being a sustainability leader in business used to mean leading the pack by reducing pollution and waste, conserving resources, and purchasing responsibly. While these leaders added one more P – planet, to the old-fashioned business single bottom line P – profit, a triple bottom line business also needs to consider a third P – people!

Although the concept of the Triple Bottom Line (People, Planet, and Profit) has been gaining traction in the field of corporate social responsibility, equity has only recently become a focus. At Environmental Innovations we propose switching from the Triple P to the Triple E: Economy, Environment, and Equity, to bring attention to the critical work we all need to do to bring fair and just opportunities to everyone in our communities while improving our business impact on the broader economy and environment. 

When discussing program implementation with our clients, equity is a cornerstone. Any efforts to protect the environment are undermined if equity isn’t part of the solution. The Triple E can be developed together in a well-considered sustainability plan and adapted for unforeseen circumstances that affect day-to-day operations such as the Covid-19 pandemic.

Traditional Sustainability Plans Can Lead Away from Equity Goals

Traditional sustainability policies focus squarely on environmental outcomes and have made positive environmental impacts that would not be possible without them. However, by ignoring social equity, policies can actually increase inequities in a few ways without helping the environment at all:

Providing services, resources, and rebates that are not distributed to all populations. An example of this would be an energy efficiency rebate that was only utilized by white-owned businesses in affluent neighborhoods. The program did not make a significant effort to provide this resource to businesses owned by persons of color in under-served areas. An inequity was created and worse, the program could be deemed racist.

Favoring products and services from early adopters and innovators without careful procurement. Those with the resources to innovate take risks, leading to a field crowded by more privileged entrepreneurs. By favoring innovative technologies and products in a sustainability plan without considering equity, a business can unknowingly be leaving the majority of minority-owned and under-resourced businesses off their vendor list.

Creating marketing and branding signals that are alienating or even disrespectful to minority groups while trying to be “green”.  A classic example was the 1970 campaign to reduce litter showing an “Indian” (an Italian actor playing a Native American) tearing up at scenes of rampant littering. Such caricatures continue today to unintentionally undermine corporate efforts to include real minority representation in their branding strategies. 

Rewarding staff for practices that are more achievable for more affluent, privileged staff. Some sustainability plans will reward staff for biking to work or driving electric vehicles, both of which are difficult for staff with fewer resources, health or childcare needs, or who live further away from their jobs.

Creating products and services without input from minority and under-resourced communities. Just as your business considers sustainability in its product development and marketing strategy, involving diverse stakeholders in everything from product design and market research to marketing and distribution will help protect your business from common mistakes that lead away from equity without actually improving the economy or environment. This is especially important for mission-driven organizations to consider: how will you serve the wider community if your mission, strategy, and tactics are all developed without direction from the broader community? Sometimes, you may need to level the playing field by offering more services at a lower cost to ensure equity.

Mitigation Strategies to Turn the Ship Toward Equity and
Continue Driving Environmental and Economic Outcomes

The most essential step to developing a Triple E sustainability plan is to integrate a “Triple E” bottom line approach into your sustainability plan and proactively communicate it to the rest of your team. Involving your staff in this planning phase will both educate staff on Triple E and will create buy-in which leads to better outcomes.

Employee (and if feasible, customer) education. Since traditional sustainability is typically thought of as purely environmental issues, there needs to be an ongoing reframing of the term to include broader social, public health issues. As the entire environmental movement is reckoning with a racist past, businesses can help develop more awareness in their community. Assigning reading such as articles like this one may help broaden perspectives and create buy-in for the Triple E. 

Analyze your own staff demographics and what targeted solutions are needed to make sure employees can thrive while your business improves environmental goals. 

Implement an alternative transportation policy. One of the most important staff policies a business can have is an alternative transportation policy that reduces greenhouse gas emissions caused by commuting and adapt it to the needs of its staff, especially any that are under-resourced. Start with a commuting survey and determine the feasibility of alternatives ranging from rewards for public transit use and carpooling to biking and, if feasible, workforce housing near or on company property. 

Purchase from minority-owned, local businesses. Sustainability requires reducing transportation and purchasing sustainable products. Make an effort to purchase from minority-owned businesses located in your community.

Contract services from businesses owned by minorities and demonstrate strong worker protection and equity standards. You can find minority and woman-owned businesses that are certified as such by the federal government at this link. You can also search worker-owned coops here

Take advantage of available resources. Whether your business is pursuing B Corp certification or not, you can use their free resources including antiracist business practice guidelines and increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion as part of an ethical business model.

Map and survey your customers. Do your services only benefit white people in affluent communities? Level the playing field. Devise a plan to actively serve and benefit persons of color in underserved regions. This is an investment. As those customers benefit, they will eventually become a source of profit.

That’s Nice, but What Can I Do Today?

In addition to these deep and broad strategies, there are some simple tactics that any business can employ right away while simultaneously working on the foundational equity issues. Consider these simple strategies to move the needle on your business’s role in driving equity in our society today:

Use a cleaning service that is committed to protecting their workers. If you use a cleaning service, use one that is not only using nontoxic cleaners but also committed to protecting their workers — often people of color — from safety issues common to the trade including sexual harassment and other labor laws. The Property Service Workers Protection Act is a law that requires all janitorial employers to: Register with the Labor Commissioner’s Office beginning July 1, 2018. Provide employees sexual harassment prevention training once every two years beginning January 1, 2019.

Ensure staff working from home have access to basic work necessities. We all know it’s important to have the correct workstation for each employee in a traditional office environment, but it’s just as important that your employees have everything they need while working from home. Having an appropriate ergonomic setup, equipment, internet connectivity, and other telecommuting support gives remote workers the tools they need to continue to be top performers on your team. 

Have a COVID-19 policy in place. This will ensure that your team stays safe and healthy. Include clear social distancing guidelines, protective equipment, and paid sick and family care leave.  

Protect employee health by using nontoxic cleaners. This is an equity issue because people of color and especially women of color are most often coming in contact with these chemicals, which leads to poor health outcomes for this group.

Contact us for a no-fee consult to gain more information
on how to integrate equity into your sustainability plan!