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DIVERSITY IN SUSTAINABLE BUSINESSES 

What makes a business truly sustainable? Other factors should be considered besides financial and environmental concerns. Here’s where diversity comes into play.

Words By Ilaria De March

14/07/2021

This time of the year is known as the pride month: all over the world, people parade to celebrate their pride of being diverse. For this reason, our Sustainability Wednesday will be dedicated to the theme of diversity in sustainable businesses.

What do we mean when we talk about diversity? What role does it play in sustainability? Do sustainable businesses pay more attention to diversity and inclusion? When we talk about diversity, we can refer to quite heterogeneous subjects: women, LGBTQI+ subjects, people coming from minority groups and people with disabilities. 

What is it that keeps together such a mixed group? Their insecurities, as they make them stand out from a presupposed “normal” majority.

Nonetheless, it is precisely the existence of these insecurities, of different types and levels, that makes these subjects worth listening to and supporting.

The ability to include everyone is one of the elements that characterizes sustainability in businesses, even if this aspect is often less considered than others.

In fact, businesses can be sustainable along three axes: economic, environmental and social.

Firstly, economic sustainability is what allows an enterprise to last over time and to offer its services and products in a constant and stable manner. Secondly, environmental sustainability refers to the monitoring, the evaluation and the consequent limitation of the negative impact that a business has on its surrounding environment.

Lastly, social sustainability is defined as the ability of an enterprise to interact with its stakeholders in a constructive way, without leaving anyone behind. Therefore, a business is socially sustainable when the policies for its employees, its clients and its suppliers are set in an equitable, transparent and inclusive manner.

 Businesses today have to face, thankfully, an increasing control and pressure of clients that hardly tolerate unethical behavior. On the wave of this growing attention to companies’ ethics, some parameters have been developed over time, in order to evaluate companies’ social sustainability and monitor their inclusivity. Let’s take for instance the indicators developed by Iris+ (https://iris.thegiin.org/), the generally accepted principle for measuring, managing and optimizing impact.

In Iris+ category “Diversity and Inclusion”, one can find indicators that are useful to measure the inclusivity promoted by businesses. How many women are on the board of directors? How many people coming from minority groups work in managerial positions? Are their earnings different from those of non-vulnerable categories?

Or again, does this company have anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies? Does it promote fair recruiting? These are all examples of questions that Iris+ parameters are intended to answer. 

However, the level of inclusivity should not be measured only on the productivity side. In fact, it is important to check how a company deals with diversity and inclusion on the consumption side too. Well designed parameters also calculate how 

many diverse subjects a company serves with its products and services. In the context of fashion, we could think of genderless collections or check whether a company produces clothes that can be worn by bodies that are different from a presupposed “normality”.

While agreeing about the necessity of inclusivity in the “consumption side”, we should be cautious of the problems that may emerge from it. In fact, some companies, aware of consumers’ sensitivity on the subject, end up practicing pink washing and rainbow washing. We talk of pink and rainbow washing when businesses, interested in conveying a positive image of themselves, promote a type of inclusion that is only formal and not substantial.

What we should ask then, is: what does this company do to fight against discrimination beside turning its brand colorful during the pride month? 

Sustainability cannot be understood if we separate the environmental concern from the social, and a business cannot be defined as truly sustainable if it does not act in the interest of its employees too. For this reason, truly sustainable businesses genuinely pay more attention to diversity and inclusion: by forgetting the third axis of sustainability, a company not only fails its mission, but jeopardises its identity in the first place.

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