The future of business sustainability

Diversity in environmentalism: past, present and future

Oct 11, 2018
We are excited to kick off the Erb Institute’s Future of Sustainability blog series, which we hope will help inspire environmentalism in people who may have previously felt excluded. To increase the visibility of diverse approaches to sustainability in business, readers are encouraged to submit their writings.

Diversity in environmentalism: past, present and future

A 2017 case written by Andy Hoffman defines diversity in the business world as a “bridge between organizational life and the reality of people’s lives.” Is it possible for firms to tout environmental sustainability if they lack true diversity in their workforce? The short answer is: no. The reality is that people who are most affected by climate change tend to represent cultures and ethnicities that are largely underrepresented in business as a whole. Environmental organizations have had difficulty hiring and retaining diverse employees, particularly at senior levels, and this lack of diversity has been critical. To better understand the system propagating this pattern, we need to look at the history of the United States’ mainstream conservation movement.

A brief history of the conservation movement

Conservation in the U.S. has a racialized, gendered and sexualized history that has systematically excluded certain groups of environmentalists—the effects of which are still felt today. In fact, according to Queer ecologies: Sex, nature, politics, desire, several prominent figures credited with launching the conservation movement were also eminent eugenicists. Early environmental policies and practices were laden with discriminatory ideologies.

For instance, land-use policies have systematically forced minority and low income communities to live closer to hazardous polluting facilities. Such communities rarely have the resources or clout necessary to resist discriminatory policies. Similarly, early environmental leaders created spaces—physical and ideological—that excluded people based on gender and sexuality.


The effects of these early policies still exist in the public and private sectors. Most U.S. environmental nonprofit leaders continue to be white men. A study of 16 Fortune 500 companies showed that white men accounted for 72 percent of corporate leadership.

Organizations are recognizing the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and its contribution to more innovative and productive teams. However, for some industries, a DEI strategy is inherently more difficult to establish without leading to greenwashing—where action may not catch up to aspiration. Consider the outdoor retail industry. For organizations like REI, The North Face, and Patagonia, environmental stewardship is central to the corporate mission and creates brand equity. But how do outdoor retail companies reconcile the discriminatory history of environmentalism with their missions to bring environmentally sustainable gear to consumers? Furthermore, can they tackle environmental and social sustainability challenges authentically, given what appears to be an exceedingly homogenous workforce?

A study of 16 Fortune 500 companies showed that white men accounted for 


of corporate leadership

It is encouraging that environmental sustainability increasingly goes hand in hand with social sustainability, but unless DEI is addressed systemically in sustainability discussions, we risk ending up exactly where we started.

The path forward

On campus, U-M has taken steps to incorporate DEI into curriculum at the School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS). Similarly, the DEI Committee at the Ross School of Business has established working groups around inclusive leadership, data and insights, entering and exiting communities, and more. However, the biggest opportunity to excite and encourage students about careers in environmental positions is to develop critical pedagogy that accounts for race, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic background, gender, ability, sexual orientation and more. In the public and private sectors, diverse leaders need to be hired and retained. We believe that systemic change starts with seeing people who share your background, culture or values in a position of power or influence.

Is there space for young environmentalists who do not look, act or work like environmental leaders of the past? We would posit that these are actually the people you want leading the way. Environmental issues are urgent, and critical interrogation is more imperative than ever. The people most uniquely positioned to carry out such work are those whose stories and perspectives have been ignored and erased throughout the history of the U.S. environmental movement.

The Erb Institute will be publishing a series of blogs over the coming months that examines DEI in the fields of environmentalism, sustainability and business.
If you’d like to contribute to the conversation, we invite you to submit your writing here.