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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

Is the polycrisis a call for urgent action on Social Injustice image

26 January 2023 - In this blog, Priya Rajasekar and Elspeth Donovan, convenors of the 8-week open online course on Business and Social Justice, argue that the ‘polycrisis’ which has emerged as a buzzword at the recently concluded World Economic Forum at Davos could be addressed effectively through collaborative business leadership and action on social justice. The authors call for a critical and collaborative engagement with the systemic and institutional legacies of social injustice that have permeated business thinking and action as a way to lead the transformation out of this crisis.

The polycrisis, as Adam Tooze has phrased this Gordian knot of environmental, health-led, economic, social, and political problems is polarising opinion on what lies ahead. Things could get worse if the rich and powerful once again cash in on the opportunity that such a crisis or a permacrisis presents, as the Oxfam Inequality report highlights. On the bright side, optimists may have also picked up on the theme, ‘cooperation in a fragmented world’ for Davos 2023 and the operative idea appears to be the interconnectedness of everything. This excites us as convenors of the online course on Business and Social Justice that seeks to promote a conversation on recognising this relationality as we collaboratively work towards a just and fairer world.

At a recent CISL webinar, Professor Thuli Madonsela reminded audiences that over a hundred years ago, in the wake of the Spanish Flu pandemic and global economic meltdown, business played an instrumental role in the setting up of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), as part of the treaty of Versailles in 1919, recognising that ‘there cannot be universal and lasting peace without social justice’. While what motivated the move merits critique, the compelling message is a reminder that a century later, we may be at the cusp of another opportunity for a radical reimagination and reset by business and other powerful agents such as government and financial institutions. Be it rising economic and geopolitical tensions or the highlights of the Global Risk report which points to the cost-of-living crisis in the UK in the short-term and environmental crises in the long term, the deeply interconnected issues of environmental and social justice need to be addressed on a global scale. As the urgency to progress from foot-dragging and purpose-washing looms, it is no longer a question of whether business should be concerned with social justice, but a question of how far and how fast business needs to go to address it.

Inequality, an aspect of distribution, increases as material wealth gravitates towards the wealthiest. This is happening whilst hunger, poverty and dire consequences of extreme weather events impact the most vulnerable of human and other life forms. In addition, the deeply interconnected challenges of environmental and social injustice and their differentiated impacts along race, gender, age and ability, aspects of recognition, show up in business operations. This reflects the legacy of extractive and exploitative economic models that has characterised human lives and lifestyles over the past centuries. If George Floyd was a tragic and deplorable public spectacle of racism’s societal and institutional presence, reports of ongoing incidents of garment worker exploitation across their supply chains at some of the biggest fashion brands and the scourge of modern slavery in the Cobalt mining industry in Congo are but two examples of the pervasiveness of business valuing human lives unequally. The intersection of these dimensions shows up when we fail to recognise the human rights and dignity of minoritised communities and in so doing exacerbate inequality through the unequal distribution of costs and benefits, including the triggering of mass climate migration. In identifying collaborative ways to work together, harnessing Indigenous knowledge and wisdom could help combat unbridled consumption that accentuates unsustainable natural resource exploitation and climate impact. As the IPCC has highlighted, a recognition of the abiding awareness of Indigenous cultures of planetary timescales and a respect for all life expressed as a notion of ‘stewardship’ of the earth could inform an inclusive and just transition to more sustainable lifestyles.

As the impacts of breaching the limits to growth, for long borne by vulnerable groups, is increasingly felt in economically wealthier parts of the world as unbearable heat, floods and forest fires, the call for action on climate change is growing louder. With doubts cast on the adequacy of current approaches and technology, we need, foremost, to hear from and learn from those for whom the impact of climate colonialism and vulnerability has been a steadily escalating challenge. A  narrative shifting towards stakeholder capitalism, an emphasis on collaboration and calls for greater business attention to societal and geopolitical issues gives hope.

The Business and Social Justice online course seeks to initiate a conversation on the structural nature of social injustice moving beyond equity, diversity and inclusivity to interrogate more foundational challenges and systemic inequalities. Through deep reflection and critical thinking, the course navigates core tensions in current business operations against its role in society. The course nurtures the value of networking and co-creation to harness key opportunities for business to drive the transformation required. Introducing voices not often heard in boardrooms, philosophies, models and approaches that challenge the status quo, the course inspires a timely, inclusive and collective leadership response to this polycrisis.

Find out more about the Business and Social Justice: A Force for Social Change course 


Dr Priya Rajasekar

Course Co-Convenor, University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership


Priya has had a career of 25 years, working in business, journalism and academia in Ireland, India and the United Kingdom. Priya’s interdisciplinary research expertise straddles cultural studies, politics, environmental and social justice – themes that she has also covered as a journalist and columnist. She is a programme manager at the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) and Co-Convenor of the Business and Social Justice: A Force for Social Change online short course. 

Elspeth Donovan

Course Co-Convenor, CISL Fellow, University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership


Elspeth worked for CISL from 2008 to 2021 and was responsible for designing and delivering the institute’s education work in South Africa. In addition to customised work with various organisations, she directed the CISL Sustainability Practitioner Programme and the Business and Sustainability Programme in the country. She was a tutor on CISL’s Postgraduate Certificate in Sustainable Business and is currently a tutor on the Anglo-American Game Changers Sustainability Leadership Programme, the BNP Paribas Positive Impact Programme and a head tutor on CISL’s online programme, Business and Sustainability Management. Elspeth was also a director of the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business Associate in Management and MBA programmes, and has 25 years’ experience in designing and delivering leadership development education. Elspeth’s passion is preparing current and future leaders for a very different future through curated learning experiences.


The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent an official position of CISL, the University of Cambridge, or any of its individual business partners or clients.


Zoe Kalus, Head of Media  

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