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14 Dec 2021

As environmental impact gets more attention, are we forgetting social impact?

Lakshmi Gunaratnasingam

From climate change protests to the condemning IPCC report to all the build-up pre and post COP26 in Glasgow, there’s been much buzz around environmental action. Climate figures varying from activist Greta Thunberg to the Extinction Rebellion movement have become widely recognised names with online movements like #MeatFreeMondays and #FridaysforFuture gaining significant traction. In the world of finance, business titans have committed to combating climate change with Jeff Bezos pledging $10bn through his Bezos Earth Fund and Microsoft announcing their $1bn Climate & Nature Fund. All this environmental awareness from government to business to consumer attitude towards climate action is very positive. However, in the midst of all this, are we forgetting about fighting social injustices?

By definition, sustainability is not just environmental- ism. Embedded in most definitions of sustainability we also find concerns for social equity and economic development. In the UK, pressing social issues currently include, but are not limited to: inequality, unemployment, housing crisis, mental health related issues and drug abuse. These issues, much like climate change, require changes in deeply rooted habits and institutions and so finding a solution is never easy. In our article How social value and the environment are intrinsically linked, we explored the high water demand of clothes making in India, a country already plagued by a lack of access to safe water, and how this affects the workers and the people living in neighbouring regions. Would governments be more receptive to bolder changes if they saw that positive environmental and social reform are actually linked and the benefits have an effect on the economy as well? Amidst all the public attention to climate change, is there a way to utilise this coverage to also highlight why social issues need to be constantly covered?

Inequality

According to a recent report from the Office for National Statistics, the UK has experienced a widening in the gender pay gap as of April 2021, when the difference in average hourly earnings reached 15.4 percent, compared to the 14.9 percent recorded the previous year. And the problem does not only apply to gender; race inequality is another important issue and it shows by the rates of unemployment faced by Black groups, which are more than double of those of the White majority. 

The first step to take to address inequality is to understand why it is still happening. In 1989  Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coined the term “Intersectionality” as a way to better understand inequality and discrimination. The term describes how, in order to truly understand the identity of an individual, it is crucial to take into account all the factors of advantage or disadvantage that might apply to that individual. Those factors include:  gender, caste, sex, race, class, sexuality, religion, disability, physical appearance, and height. The concept is based on the idea that people with different social identities will experience the world in different ways, and understanding and taking into account those different experiences is​​ crucial to ensure equality. Crenshaw also wrote that discrimination remains because of the “stubborn endurance of the structures of white dominance” and therefore equality will never be achieved unless we change the structure of society to its very core.

As we recover from the pandemic, this seems to be the perfect time not only to build back better but also to “build back fairer” and finally leave behind the old, out-dated structure of society. Public Health England has developed a programme of work on the role and opportunities for Public Health in building inclusive and sustainable economies. The project finally led to the production of a new resource: Inclusive and Sustainable Economies: Leaving No-one Behind, a new framework that aims to support place-based action to reduce health inequalities and build back better.

Unemployment

Changes in industry, outsourcing jobs, the pandemic and BREXIT have changed the workforce in the UK significantly. Unemployment can cause mental health issues, alienation, increased reliance on substances, poverty and therefore potentially lead to poorer, crime ridden communities. It is important to highlight that there is a skills shortage that needs to be addressed. Innovations in sustainability provide the potential for immense job creation. 

The Green Jobs Taskforce launched last November as part of the Prime Minister's Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, brought together diverse members from the economy to publish key findings and recommendations for government and industry to create more green jobs. Green jobs “directly contribute to – or indirectly support – the achievement of the UK’s net zero emissions target and other environmental goals” in sectors from power to decarbonisation projects. The Local Government Association estimates that the UK is capable of creating around 700,000 new green jobs by 2030 if local councils are given greater support and tools to collaborate with local organisations. 

The report cites the example of the new nuclear plant Hinkley Point C which will be built over 20 years to provide over 6 million Somerset homes with low-carbon electricity. Since construction began in 2016, over 11,000 jobs have been created with 750 apprentices trained and a further 71,000 jobs expected to be created to support this project. The success of this example lies in bringing employment and development to young adults/anyone looking to change industries.

Supporting advances in green innovation and green business opens up a huge number of jobs. It’s important to ensure these are created with a social conscience  - giving opportunities to not only the existing skilled workforce but training up those less advantaged to reduce the skills gap and give all members of society the opportunity to lead us towards a sustainable future. 

The Housing Crisis

Since the 1980s, the number of publicly funded, large-scale construction projects has fallen. Compounded with the fact that rising housing prices have overtaken wages, this has resulted in what many dub ‘The Housing Crisis.’ 

An environmental and social solution to this issue is to build more modular homes. Modular homes include elements (‘modules’) that are constructed off-site but then assembled altogether on location. These buildings adhere to local building codes and are built according to specific measurements (and using more sustainable materials like FSC certified timber, low VOC and recycled materials) thereby significantly reducing waste. 

Indeed, modularity can reduce waste by 52%. The more technologically advanced, self-sufficient modular homes feature more green architecture elements such as advanced rainwater collection systems and renewables generation, which also leads to more cost-effective energy bills. Self-sufficient modular homes can reduce a household’s energy consumption by up to a staggering 72%. These homes are faster and easier to build, contribute to less carbon emissions and are a possible solution to get more homes on the market (the government’s goal is 300,000 new homes annually). 

Ikea’s modular buildings, ‘the flat pack house’, have been approved by Worthing Council for 162 new homes and a further 500 if successful. Though prices have not been confirmed, Ikea’s site states “We have scrutinised our costs and trimmed them to the bone. But we never compromise on quality.” Investments by Legal & General; partnership between leading Japanese home builders Sekisui House and Homes England and transformations done by firms like ESG focussed Urban Splash  are all encouraging ventures in tackling this issue which ultimately benefits people and environment.

Mental health & the environment

There’s a lot of evidence that links a bad environment (air pollution, hazardous chemicals, congested areas) with poorer health outcomes, specifically poorer mental health outcomes. A recent study in Psychiatry Research found that children become 3-4x more likely to have depression at 18 if exposed to dirtier air at age 12 giving the old adage of fresh air alleviating stress more meaning. How many of us have found some stress relief in simply opening windows to fresh air or having a short walk outdoors? Prioritising environmental health directly contributes to our health. 

And not only mental health but physical health too: research carried out on young campers with moderate to severe asthma has shown how they were 40% percent more likely to have acute asthma episodes on high pollution summer days compared to days with average pollution levels. Whilst pollution is known to aggravate Asthma, it is also a likely contender in causing childhood Asthma alongside other factors such as genetics, infections and chemicals.

This is why when this October London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) was expanded from central London up to (but not including) the North Circular and South Circular roads, Dr Samantha Walker, Director of Research and Policy at Asthma UK, stated: “Toxic air is a major threat to the nation’s health, so we welcome the ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) in London, which could pave the way to safer air for people with asthma.”.

Conclusion

These are a few instances where a positive environmental change could also positively affect a social issue. Creative problem solving to link together different industries and engage different organisation types is the way forward in taking a more holistic and sustainable approach to solving these issues.

So, are we prioritising environmental over social change? Neither the Ten Point Plan nor the UK's Sustainable Development Management Plan 2020-2025 prioritise social goals in their own right. Whilst there will be many social benefits as a result of the environmental targets in place, we can all help action faster change by ensuring we include distinct social targets within our strategies as well as the environmental ones (even if they have a knock on social effect).

We can also look to partner with social enterprises within our value chains. An example of this is the The Global Impact Sourcing Coalition (GISC), a collaboration between leading companies that have committed to Impact Sourcing - a business practice where companies prioritise suppliers that intentionally hire and provide career development opportunities to people who otherwise have limited prospects for formal employment.. 

At Reset Connect we are playing our part by building a diversified community platform to encourage open discussion and networking to support each others’ sustainability objectives. Moreover, we are running a live exhibition next year to help businesses find sustainable solutions and funding to action them. If you have a sustainable product or service you want to showcase to the UK's largest sustainability ecosystem and ESG investment gathering get in touch today. 

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