Environmental organisations, including Green Alliance, are now taking serious steps to grapple with addressing equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in their work and organisational practices. The case for change is pressing as the environmental sector has been identified as one of the least diverse in the UK. For many who have worked in this area a long time, this seems like a step into the unknown and has led to some wondering about whether EDI is just a nice to have and not something integral to organisational success. After all, environmental organisations have done ok without it haven’t they, so why should it now be such a central consideration now?
Have we been doing ok? What we are working on is existential. It’s about the ‘environment’ but that’s inevitably about humanity, how we will live and what our societies will look like in future. It affects all of us. To become more effective in light of the climate crisis, the environmental sector can’t work in a silo, only seeing ‘the environment’ without engaging with people.
The climate crisis disproportionately affects marginalised communities
The ‘western’ environmental movement, often credited with being created following Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring and other campaigns in the 1960s, was born out of a desire to preserve pristine nature and minimise humans’ negative impact on it. While a credible sentiment and highly influential, this framing ignores the many indigenous groups immersed in the land, who have lived in harmony with nature for centuries and are the planet’s foremost conservationists. The framing of the modern environment movement has contributed to its profile as being dominated by those from white, more affluent backgrounds, excluding others.
This has alienated large sections of society particularly those from working class and ethnic minority backgrounds. In the UK, access to nature and the impact of environmental harm is divided along class and race lines. For example, people from Black, Asian or minority ethnic communities are 30 per cent less likely to have access to local green spaces, they are more exposed to illegal levels of air pollution and more likely to live next to polluting waste incinerators. Those from disadvantaged backgrounds can often face greater challenges in finding work or progressing careers in the environmental sector due to the lower than average pay, precarious contracts, high barriers to entry and often an emphasis on volunteering as a foothold into jobs.
Despite some early missteps, the more recent climate movement has put greater emphasis on linking the environmental and climate crises to people’s lives, particularly for the most marginalised. Through this, inequities at the root of the climate crisis, for instance its effects being mostly borne by those who have contributed the least to cause it, are being brought to light.
Acknowledging that they have not done enough to recognise the links between systemic racism and climate change, in 2022 Greenpeace UK released a report, with the Runnymede Trust, highlighting these links and how it plans to make this a focus of its work, alongside supporting smaller organisations already engaging on the issues. This report stands out as an example of how the environmental sector can and should evolve to achieve its aims and outcomes for all more effectively.
Progress starts with diversifying the environment sector’s workforce
Focusing only on reaching positive environmental outcomes by pushing for better regulation or protections, while necessary, hasn’t been enough. As all the evidence shows, eg on the state of rivers or on emissions reductions, we are still way off track from where need to be. If we are to succeed in transforming Britain and the world to net zero carbon emissions and restoring vital nature in the timescales required, we need everyone on our side, understanding why it’s important and beneficial for them. That means a genuinely inclusive approach, focused on fairness and diversity at its heart.
EDI is a fairly hard acronym to engage with, but what it means in practice is diversifying our workforce and leadership, extending beyond our usual circles to listen those most affected and making the links between environmental crises and other societal crises clear.
In this regard, significant steps are being taken to address the sector’s diversity problem. For example, Forum for the Future has focused its updated strategy on achieving a ‘just and generative world’. RSPB’s recent EDI commitment laid out: “we save nature through people: all people.” Wildlife and Countryside link is pushing the whole sector to do more by publishing a route map on how to bring more people of colour into the sector and make it more inclusive. At Green Alliance, we recently approved our new EDI strategy, a collaborative exercise involving everyone in the organisation top to bottom, and we have just started a project, supported by the Garfield Weston Foundation, looking at the best ways to incorporate underrepresented voices across our policy work. We will be sharing this knowledge with our colleagues in other organisations.
One thing we absolutely know is that EDI can’t sit at the margins of what we do. It’s not a ‘nice to have’, to be sidelined when the going gets tough. For us to achieve our aims to reverse environmental harm and engage political leaders in backing ambitious solutions, we also have to be right at the centre of debates around fairness, inclusion and diversity as these are inextricably linked with what ultimately happens to our environment.