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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

Whose business is social justice?

1 September 2023 - In the context of global warming, social justice calls for a rethink on how 'business as usual' breaches the boundaries of Earth's systems that preserve life and wellbeing and what that means for the most marginalised.

Why should business be concerned with social justice? Are social and environmental justice related? What has this got to do with sustainability and climate change? Often, these big questions appear too overwhelming as we navigate our daily lives. Instead, we find meaning and purpose in the routine tasks of our professional lives – delivering a great presentation, meeting quarterly targets, and keeping investors and shareholders happy, because these tasks visibly contribute to well-defined goals with achievable and measurable outcomes. On the contrary, big existential questions inspire deep reflection but are often too messy or complicated to solve, and any solutions are seemingly too idealistic or impractical to operationalise. As a result, they are often excluded from everyday business decisions and relegated as more appropriate for social small talk or academic discussion. Experts also suggest that our rush towards quick fixes and certainty, which is characteristic of current ways of doing business,  needs to be replaced by a willingness to listen and be disturbed, to observe without judgment, and to slow down and look carefully for better outcomes to kindle this ‘higher order’ thinking that is needed to confront the complexity and ambiguity of environmental and social justice solutions.

There is also a personal side to our ongoing, albeit often subconscious, engagement with these challenging questions which shows up in our everyday beliefs and choices. For instance, we continue to be disturbed by the extreme inequality we hear about and often see around us; most of us will try to impart the right values to our children so they grow up to be ethical-minded and responsible individuals; many of us volunteer for causes we believe in or lend money to charity; we also try to make sustainable choices in our bid to combat climate change. This cognitive dissonance between our professional and personal responses to issues of social and environmental justice merits further exploration.

The blind spot probably lies in the absence of conversation between these two selves – the professional and the personal. More importantly, it requires us to engage a third self of us as individuals embedded in a wider interdependent community of human and non-human lives. The Economist, Kate Raworth, known for her popular doughnut economics model, illustrates this with a simple yet profoundly meaningful representation where business is embedded in and encompassed by society rather than the other way around. This reimagining allows us to realign our priorities and deconstruct habituated patterns of thinking which routinise our professional choices that tend to run counter to our personal beliefs and our recognition of business’s negative impact on environmental and social justice.

These were our motivations as we designed the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership’s most recent online 8-week course, Business and Social Justice – a force for social change, which aims to surface the deep interconnectedness between business and social justice. Moving away from abstraction, the course breaks down aspects of social justice along six key dimensions of recognition, distribution, freedom, and capabilities which are in turn impacted by space and time.

The feedback from participants has been an overwhelmingly positive indication that such an approach equips students with the knowledge, tools, confidence, and articulative capabilities needed for them to drive change in their professional contexts. Highlighting the relevance of the course, not just for those driving diversity and inclusion, sustainability and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives, but also for professionals working in leadership, manufacturing, marketing and finance, participants have commented on the eye, mind and heart-opening learning facilitated by the course enriched by the co-creation of knowledge in experimental and non-judgemental ways as they work with peers from diverse cultural, geographical and professional contexts.

Another conscious intervention in the design of this course is the integrated approach to social and environmental challenges. A recent article on Safe and Just Earth System boundaries published in Nature emphasises the inseparable link between earth systems and human well-being. Focusing on intergenerational, intragenerational, and inter-species justice, the paper argues for a radical rethink and a global transformation to ensure wellbeing and to keep global warming within the limits of safe human endurance. As Johan Rockstrom, lead author of the paper reminds us, 1.5 degrees is a physical limit and not a political target.

The Business and Social Justice course pursues a similar learning pathway compiling insights drawn from diverse scholarship and a selection of global experts to give participants the opportunity to confront the underlying historical roots of social injustice and their undeniable connections to modern business practices. In considering aspects such as identity, the course also seeks to illuminate the connections between social recognition and its impact on environmental justice through inter- and intragenerational justice. The course also considers the lived experience of people determined by constructed social categories such as race, gender, ethnicity, class, age and ability, their intellectual and cultural experience of the world and what it represents to them as critical aspects that determine what social justice is and means in all its plurality.

As powerful agents of change, whether businesses act on this potential depends on individuals working in business, holding positions of relative power, and making everyday decisions that while ensuring business success also have real-life implications for human and non-human life, particularly the most marginalised.

Moving on from asking if and how business is implicated in social and environmental justice, participants will leave with a personal action plan on how they can be at the core of this transformation to a fair and just world. 

Find out more about CISL's Business and Social Justice: A Force for Social Change online course 

About the author

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.


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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