Sustainable Development

Social justice, inclusion and sustainable development need a ‘Great Reset’. Here are 3 key steps we can take

Widespread environmental crises and global Black Lives Matters protests have sparked palpable restlessness for change. Image: Unsplash

David Sangokoya
Head of Civil Society Impact, World Economic Forum
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Systemic Racism

  • The magnitude and intersectionality of inequality was a key theme throughout The Sustainable Development Impact Summit 2020.
  • Widespread environmental crises and global Black Lives Matters protests have sparked palpable restlessness for change.
  • Bold steps must be taken to bring Black, indigenous, and minority communities in from the margins.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it crystal clear the extent to which social exclusion, systemic racism and discrimination are working against our collective health, and the health of our societies.

Last month, more than 3,800 leaders from government, business and civil society came together virtually for the fourth World Economic Forum Sustainable Development Impact Summit, under the theme Realizing a Great Reset for Sustainable Development. The magnitude and intersectionality of inequality—across race, ethnicity, gender and class—was a topic that echoed throughout the summit.

Sessions on social justice were of significant interest to business leaders navigating the ramifications of the pandemic and how to define their stakeholder responsibilities to social justice and sustainability.

Here are three key takeaways from #SDI20 on driving a Great Reset in social justice, inclusion and sustainable development impact:

1. Widespread environmental crises and global Black Lives Matters protests have sparked palpable restlessness for change. There is a need to accelerate both sustainability and social justice agendas – from both employees and consumers.

Moderated by Rebecca Blumenstein from the New York Times, the session Mobilizing New Power for Change focused on new forms of collective action being sparked by employees and consumers on social justice and sustainability: Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality, public awareness of the Brazilian rainforest fires, and consumer advocacy related to the Australian bushfires and deforestation in Kenya.

As CEO of Natura & Co Group - a Brazilian global cosmetics group including Avon, The Body Shop and other “activist” companies - Joao Paulo Ferreira emphasized how technology has amplified the power of public demand on companies, especially as COVID-19 unveiled disparate impacts in access to welfare and around climate change.

With reference to recent employee walkouts in the tech industry, Michelle Miller, CEO of, detailed several examples of how employees began reckoning with their access to power within these companies and how they can have “a say in what my labor goes into, and what my labor doesn’t go into,” related to corporate policies on social justice and the environment.


2. Companies, organizations and partnerships will need to take bold internal steps in bringing Black, indigenous, and minority communities in from the margins.

Building on new commitments to racial and social justice, companies and organizations will need to reckon with how to bring Black, indigenous and minority communities closer to the centre and build their power so that they are not permanently left behind. In the context of the workplace, Clarke Murphy, President and CEO of Russell Reynolds Associates Inc., underlined this in his concern about the acceleration of black executives in their careers: “Let’s not confuse changing the face of a boardroom with accelerating the career of hundreds of thousands of Black executives who are 25-45 to have better opportunities to run the boardroom.”

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In her introductory remarks in the Championing Social Justice session, Laura Weidman Powers, Head of Impact at Echoing Green, described how “several stakeholders working towards the Sustainable Development Goals are wrestling with the intersection of social justice and social impact and asking questions on how to activate the right levers internally, how to think about a social justice imperative as core business, and how to build inclusive partnerships with marginalized communities to raise their voices and experiences and build their power.”

In the session Rebuilding Multistakeholder Partnerships in the Great Reset, SDI Summit Co-Chair Peter Laugharn, CEO of Conrad H. Hilton Foundation, additionally stressed the need for multistakeholder partnerships to help bring in these communities from the margins of society, “radically expand[ing] networks to tackle global problems...when we reimagine partnership to work more efficiently and lead in collaboration with the people most affected, we will see much more traction.”


3. Championing justice and redressing the intersectionality of systemic inequalities should be priorities across all of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environmental Programme, emphasized how COVID-19 has stalled progress on climate change and inequality, laying bare “profound inequalities that exist among countries, within countries and across racial and other identities.”

Eddie Ndopu, the UN Secretary General’s Sustainable Development Goals Advocate, emphasized the lack of intersectionality in how decision-makers think about the SDGs and social progress, with stakeholders often failing to see that Black, indigenous and other minority populations now disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 are also “the same people bearing the brunt of climate change, the same people grappling with racial inequality and the same people that will be further plunged into extreme poverty as a result of the economic fallout of the pandemic.”

“The Sustainable Development Goals need to be setting the agenda, rather than catching up to the moment. What that requires is that we bridge the gap between social justice and the international development and humanitarian frameworks.”

Eddie Ndopu, UN Secretary General’s Sustainable Development Goals Advocate during the session A New Standard for Social Justice

Black, indigenous and other minority populations continue to face disproportionately negative impacts from climate change, healthcare crises, food systems and other threats on the horizon, threatening the collective futures of all. Addressing these systemic inequalities in our global sustainability efforts and response to COVID-19 will be essential for making any meaningful progress towards the SDGs.

Through its Platform for Global Public Goods, the Forum is accelerating communities of action and impact on social justice, sustainability and SDG impact.

Do you have a solution or idea to address social injustice and make the COVID-19 recovery more equal? The UpLink Social Justice Challenge is open for submissions until 11 October 2020. For more information, visit UpLink.

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