top of page

Performative Progress Isn't Real Progress

Green: Money and Sustainability Working Together Part 9 of 10: Sustainability Equity & Justice

tl;dr: Just because you say it's a priority doesn't mean the work is done

I do some part-time work fundraising for Amnesty International. We call it community outreach or grassroots campaigning, but that's just fancy talk for going door-to-door asking for donations. The current priority campaign in the US for Amnesty International is reducing gun violence. It's an amazing and critical cause, and getting buy-in from residents in the areas that we are trying to serve is what makes this tough job so rewarding. There is a certain demographic of residents that are very resistant to becoming members of AI and providing financial donations. You might have a mental image of what kinds of households these are, and I promise you that they are the exact opposite of what you are picturing. The residents I am referring to who seldom become members and donate are the ones that have the Black Lives Matter signs on their lawns or some other form of progressive signage. What we have been seeing from the people that live in these homes is a pretty strong rejection of being engaged in the cause. In many ways, it's as if putting a sign up is sufficient work and they are now officially one of the "good ones" and their work is done. It's classic virtue signalling, and also one of the reasons why we've gone from last year's statistic of someone in this country dying every 15 minutes due to gun violence to this year's every 12 minutes. I guess all those signs aren't working as well as they thought. Oh well! They did their part and the real problem is all those other terrible people who haven't put a sign in their yards!

Houses that put signs up or Ukrainian flags aren't the only places where performative support or virtue signalling exists. Sustainability Equity & Justice are buzzwords that are appearing on many municipal websites and in publications. Enormous political and societal pressure is being put on all organizations both public and private, ranging from entire departments of the Federal government down to small businesses to announce their support for this issue. Particularly on the corporate side, droves of businesses are making efforts to highlight that they are diligently working on both sustainability AND racial equity and justice and so they must be crushing it working on Sustainability Equity & Justice. Look at the largest company in the US, Apple, promoting this oh-so-subtly on their homepage:

Do you see the images involving humans on the phone screens? I can promise you considerable thought went into making sure that what those screens showed communicated that Apple is a cutting-edge company when it comes to anything involving equity and justice. Can you imagine if any images of child labourers working in Asian factories made the cut? I guarantee you they didn't even think about it. But, hey, Apple is fighting the good fight with nice diverse images on the screens. Sigh.

When you think about all these hollow gestures when it comes to Sustainability Equity & Justice, considering it's now Earth Week, you will be seeing even more examples of everyone propping up these facades of support, work, and progress. All of this smoke and mirrors allows them to feel better because they are crushing the messaging. It becomes difficult to criticize their lack of progress because they just end up pointing to the same smoke and mirrors as "proof" that the criticism is unwarranted. It just ends up being this tragic cycle of patting our backs for essentially doing as little as possible.

Someone actually figured out a good way to criticise, so let's talk about it. The Environmental Justice Center at the University of Maryland's School of Public Health issued a scorecard grading nine state agencies on their practices and policies in the field of Sustainability Equity & Justice. You might be getting ahead of me if you are thinking that this report card wasn't going to put them on the dean's list. You would be absolutely correct. The results are less than spectacular. Only the Department of the Environment (whew) and the Department of Natural Resources received grades as high as a B. The rest all received scores of Ds and Fs. The Departments of Agriculture, Housing & Community Development, and the Maryland Energy Administration had the "distinction" of scoring straight Fs. Not one single A was earned by any of the nine departments in any category.

Municipalities need to do more than just pay lip service to the principles of sustainability, equity, and justice. It is not enough to simply state that these values are important; they must be reflected in actual policy decisions and actions. Unfortunately, that is the hardest part, and it is what results in actual change. To make things worse, this is also what isn't being funded to any level that could lead to success.

Where can local governments begin? Well, municipalities can start by incorporating sustainability, equity, and justice considerations into their planning processes. This can include developing comprehensive plans that prioritize sustainability goals such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, conserving natural resources, and protecting vulnerable communities from environmental harm.

In addition, municipalities can implement policies that promote equity and justice in their communities. This can include zoning regulations that encourage mixed-income housing and commercial development, funding for public transportation to ensure access for low-income communities, and initiatives to address food insecurity and improve access to healthy food.

Municipalities can also engage in community outreach and collaboration to ensure that their policies and initiatives are responsive to the needs and concerns of all members of their communities, particularly those who are historically marginalized and underrepresented.

Ultimately, it is important for municipalities to not only talk about the importance of Sustainability Equity & Justice but also to actively prioritize and integrate these values into their decision-making processes and actions. Local governments should not rely predominantly on nonprofits to do the heavy lifting when it comes to Sustainability Equity & Justice work. While nonprofits play a critical role in advancing these issues, they often have limited resources and capacity to fully address the challenges that communities face. Far too many nonprofits struggle with just staying afloat. Thankfully, most municipalities don't have to deal with this issue on a quarterly or annual basis.

Local governments have a unique responsibility to ensure that the needs of their constituents are met. This requires meaningful engagement with a broad range of community members and organizations, not just non-profits, to better understand the issues at hand and develop effective strategies for addressing them. All too often, municipalities create results that are neither desired by the impacted communities nor even meaningfully beneficial. This is a perfect recipe for failure, and when the inevitable happens, local governments then claim that making an effort is a colossal waste of money.

Local governments must prioritize policies and programs that advance Sustainability Equity & Justice goals, and work with as many stakeholders as possible to create, implement, and evaluate these more inclusive and specific initiatives. This requires an ongoing commitment to building strong relationships and partnerships, and a willingness to be responsive and accountable to community needs and concerns.

The buzzwords of diversity, equity and inclusion provide a road map to having the right people at the table. True inclusion is asking the people who are impacted about their needs and taking real action to address them. Ultimately, by working together, local governments can achieve meaningful progress on Sustainability Equity & Justice goals, and ensure that all members of their communities have access to a healthy, vibrant, and sustainable future. While there isn't a catchy sign to let everyone know this is happening, the signs of progress will be all around you.

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page