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October 01, 2003

Environmental Justice is Good Business

by Robert L. Harris

Several studies suggest that companies with strong environmental records tend to have better financial performances than those with poor records, which often lead to expensive litigation and negative publicity. Integrating environmental justice principles into business operations, along with environmental protection programs, is therefore becoming a business imperative.

A few years ago, communities generally were satisfied when companies simply complied with environmental regulation. Today, mere compliance will not protect against environmental justice allegations, which usually are based on the disparate or discriminatory impacts of business operations on certain people or communities.
Some corporations still maintain that litigation, rather than dialogue and collaboration with communities and other stakeholders, is the preferred strategy to fend off environmental justice challenges. Exerting corporate power may win legal cases, but big-business tactics often lose in the court of public opinion and negatively impact a company's reputation and bottom line.

To decrease the likelihood of environmental justice allegations, one major corporation, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), based in San Francisco, initiated a separate environmental justice policy that commits the company to accomplish the following goals:

  • Work diligently to address all environmental justice issues;
  • Incorporate environmental justice considerations in purchasing existing facilities and in planning and developing new facilities;
  • Work with stakeholders to ensure that future development around facilities is compatible with existing and planned facility uses;
  • Maintain open and responsive communications with all stakeholders; and
  • Communicate and reinforce environmental justice values within the corporation.

Although this policy is no guarantee against environmental justice challenges, it has the potential to reduce the likelihood of charges. Unlike PG&E's environmental protection policies, its environmental justice policy commits the company to work with the affected community so that environmental justice concerns are factored into daily operations and planning and decision making. This averts the common mistake of ignoring such concerns until they result in a costly battle with the community. Yet a policy without a firm commitment to its implementation is meaningless. To ensure the application of PG&E's environmental justice policy and its integration into daily operations, the company developed a detailed manual on its environmental justice procedure.

Sound business practices guide corporations toward efforts that decrease rather than increase their costs. Integrating environmental justice principles into daily operations and permitting processes will lead to more equitable decisions, eliminate delays, and enhance profit statements.

As published in Human Rights, Fall 2003, Vol. 30, No. 4, p.22.

Robert L. Harris

Robert L. Harris is vice president of Environmental Affairs at Pacific Gas and Electric Company.