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The Future in Focus

Podcast: Our Planet, Our Plan - Equity should be an ideal, not an ideology

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26 OCTOBER 2023 - 34 MINUTES

LRQA recently launched Our Planet, Our Plan - an internal sustainability programme that outlines our ambitious Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) commitments over the next seven years, underpinned by time-bound performance metrics.

To accompany the programme, LRQA has also launched an eight-episode podcast series to explore each of the seven commitments within Our Planet, Our Plan. The third episode, ‘Equity should be an ideal, not an ideology’, sees Lani Hollander, LRQA’s Global Sustainability Partner, clarify the crucial difference between equity and equality and offer practical guidance on how organisations can achieve greater equity.

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LRQA: The Future in Focus

Hello everyone, to all our listeners across the globe welcome back to LRQA’s Future in Focus Podcast. My name is Holly Wild, I am the Global External Communications Manager for LRQA, and it is my pleasure to host this podcast today for you all in which we have a really good topic in store. But I’m not alone, I am joined by my colleague Lani Hollander, so hello Lani how are you doing?

Hi Holly, it’s nice to be here, I’m doing well thank you.

Great, now it’s your first time on this podcast so could I ask you to briefly introduce yourself to our listeners, what’s your role and where in the world are you speaking to us from today?

So, my role at LRQA is the Global Sustainability Partner. I work alongside our wonderful Head of Sustainability, Ben Western on our two-person sustainability team and I’m speaking to you from Southern France, Marseilles to be specific.

Wonderful, thank you, Lani. So, let’s get down to business, why have I invited you on the podcast today, so our listeners may already be aware that we have recently launched our very own internal sustainability strategy called Our Planet, Our Plan. A quick recap for those of you who haven’t heard of it before, Our Planet, Our Plan sets out LRQA’s environmental social and governance ambitions otherwise known as ESG, to deliver a positive impact for our clients, colleagues, suppliers, communities, and our planet.

The plan stretches over seven years and is organised into seven commitments that’s safety, community, environment, inclusivity, education, governance and equity. Through our Future in Focus podcast channel, we’ll be interviewing a technical expert for each of those pillars with equity being the topic for today.

Now we’re really lucky because not only is Lani an expert in this particular field, but she is actually one of the founding members of Our Planet, Our Plan itself, something that I’m sure feels so special going from a concept to inception and now delivery. But let me quieten down and let’s give Lani the chance to share her expertise which is why we’re all here.

Before recording today, I asked Lani to think of a bit of an introductory story or anecdote. I asked for something that’s really stuck with you or caught your attention recently Lani under the equity theme, so shall we get stuck in and what would you like to share with our listeners?

Well thank you very much for that Holly and I would just like to introduce myself again and say my name is Lani Hollander and for all of you listening who can’t see me or have yet to meet me, I’d like to tell you a little bit about myself and why this subject of equity has been so important to me and why I think it’s essential that this be a part of our ESG strategy of LRQA.

So first and foremost, I am a biracial fourth generation Japanese American which like most Japanese Americans means that my grandparents and great-grandparents were placed into internment camps during World War II. I was born and raised in Los Angeles California and grew up and came into adulthood in Southern and Central Florida, all of which are just wildly different places.

And before joining the sustainability team at LRQA, I spent over a decade in the non-profit sector, filled setting up in environmental film or arts festival in Florida, and then providing free advice, education to cyclists in Boston. This was mostly in English but sometimes it was in Spanish and occasionally in the best mandarin that I could muster.

And at 27 I took a one-way ticket to Thailand and spent several years working in the non-profit sector but this first started in a girl shelter that focused on education as a means of preventing human trafficking, and then later in a foundation that funded projects across Southeast Asia to uplist people out of poverty mostly focusing on people from hill tribes and other native populations.

I spent several years as a consultant to gain funding for non-profits focusing on those that served African immigrant and refugee populations seeking to integrate into new lives in California as well as retraining citizens in the Northeast who are formally incarcerated individuals seeking to find their footing outside of prison.

And so now again I’m the Global Sustainability Partner at LRQA sharing this responsibility alongside our Head of Sustainability and an incredible leadership team that’s tasked with implementing and holding ourselves accountable to Our Planet, Our Plan. And what all of this means I suppose is that when it comes to these interconnecting ideas of equity, of equality, of just and unjust systems and the reality where we land in between all of that I have a thought or two.

Lani that’s such a moving opening, I can’t get over the experience that you’ve had as well, thank you so much for sharing. Now I’d like to start with a few questions and let’s start right at the beginning getting to grips with the term equity.

So how do we even define equity especially compared to equality there’s often a lot of confusion and debate around those terms. In fact, US Senator Bernie Sanders was actually asked recently on live television about the difference between the two and his inability to answer is a particularly high profile example of the level of misunderstanding out there. Perhaps I could begin by asking you to define the difference?

Yes, it’s interesting and what a political gaff that was especially from such a high ranking and senior political figure in the United States one who was also running for president a couple of years ago.

So, when you think about equity there’s two other phrases that come to mind. So, the first is equality and the second is justice, and if you type in equality and equity because they’re the ones that are most commonly confused with each other, immediately you’re going to come up with the different permutations of the same image. And it’s three people standing in front of a softball field but there’s a fence in front of them and these three people are three different heights representing the different environments that we grow up, the different resources that we have, you know the person who is going to be better off who is represented who is a bit taller they’re able to see over the fence and actually view the game that’s taking place. Whereas someone who is represented by being shorter might not have access to the same resources and is living in a far more inequitable world. So, if you have this image in front of you, you know these three people trying to see over the fence to a game, but you know only the two people, the tallest person and the medium being able to do that whereas the shortest person cannot. And you give them all the same things, you give them all a cardboard box to stand on and your achieving equality there because everyone’s getting access to the same thing. But is that really the right approach?

So in the end what happens is that the person who is tallest didn’t even need that box to stand on, they could already see the game, they could already make the most of their education and get a job, they already had access to the resources and support that they needed to go out and lead happy fulfilling lives for themselves, their families, their communities what have you. Whereas maybe what that box did for the middle person is now they’re able to see over the fence, a fantastic view, you’ve accomplished what you needed to do in that situation. But the person who needed support the most to you know in this metaphor to kind of see over the fence, to see what was on the other side they’re still unable to do that and what it means is that when you give everyone the same thing first of all it creates, it’s a really just crazy, inequitable I think you can say provision of resources. Some people don’t need it, some people that’s exactly what they needed, but for many it's not what they needed and it's just not enough.

But in an equitable situation and an equitable society people are met where they are, they get exactly what they need to succeed so if they’re doing just fine they’re then can just continue with that, but if they need more to be successful whether that’s in education or in housing, or in work and beyond then they’re able to get access to the resources so that they can be successive just as anyone else and then that’s going to vary based on so many other factors.

So, I know I took a while to explain the difference there but that’s essentially where the difference lies between equality and equity, it’s the difference between giving the same thing which often hits the mark and giving people what they need and meeting them where they are. And when you do that, that’s when you create an equitable world where everyone really does start at the same line.

And then finally just because I brought it up earlier there’s this idea of justice and if we go back to that picture of everyone trying to look over the fence at the baseball field, justice is the idea that we’re removing all barriers of oppression, there is no fence, everyone can enjoy and watch the game. But you know I think that it's important to work towards both of those standards, both of those goals, but equity is really what we want to focus on for us at LRQA.

Thank you, Lani, that mental image or metaphor is genuinely so useful. So, we’ve explored what equity is, but could you tell us about why equity is so important, why should people be shifting their focus to equity?

Well, I think if you want to answer that question then the answer seems to lie in the intrinsic nature of equity. Do you want to live in a world where people can reach their full potential, where people have access to valued resources, services and positions in society, like food, as in employment, education, community and family. I think that these are high level things that we need to think about when we think about whether or not we’re creating equity and if you care about these things, if you think that this is important, if you answer that question yes, is this the kind of world that you want to live in, then you can see why equity is so important because that’s exactly what we’re talking about here.

You can also look at it from a financial perspective and give some more concrete examples. So, the healthcare system and this is going to come from the American perspective because as an American it’s the lens that I often turn to. But when you look at health inequities which is just one of the starkest examples of inequities that we have in the US, you can often look at inequitable health outcomes for black Americans. So, heart disease affects 30 million Americans, but black Americans are significantly more likely about 30% more likely than white Americans to die from heart disease and this isn’t something that’s random, it's not necessarily just from biological factors. It’s because black Americans experience higher stress, they live in areas where they’re unable to get access to nutritious life sustaining food, they can’t access medical care because it’s not geographically available or financially attainable and might have a distrust of the medical system due to past grievances.

Because of this we have this outcome where a certain disadvantaged group experiences worst life outcomes and why is this important from a financial perspective, well think of the economic burden that this places amongst hundreds of thousands of families. But then also think about the economic burden that then creates on the government perhaps on non-profit organisations that serve these populations as well as on the private sector. And so, it's not just a burden that comes to these individual groups of people themselves as an individual unit or their family or their community, that’s bad in and of itself, but actually the cost of this is impacted on the entire system especially on a healthcare system and on the nation as a whole.

So equity is so important because it's pure existence has a number of externalities outside of what we just see on a micro scale and this example of healthcare in equity is not limited of course to just healthcare everything that I said previously whether its employment or education, or housing, or things that go much more beyond the topic of this conversation, inequity shows up in all these areas and affects us really on a day to day scale whether we’re conscious of it. And because of this it’s an incredibly important thing in our society, especially on a global level.

Thanks, Lani, yes that’s the impression I’m getting that this topic is so multifaceted, so much more so than I had realised, so thank you for just showing us even just a snapshot of what that looks like. So, let’s go a step further, let’s explore equity transparently here and look at all the different angles and let’s look at some of the objections or the criticisms to equity. So, one of the primary objections to equity is that it is perceived by some as a political ideology perpetuated by left leaning politicians and activist groups. So, what do you think is driving that criticism?

It’s an unfortunate state that we’re in, and I think that the best way is to take a look and reverse that question and say if equity is a situation where we’re all getting access to the same resources and that we’re all able to succeed and kind of play at a level playing field, then what does inequity look like if we want to see where this criticism is coming from.

And just to provide a couple of other concrete examples in addition to what I shared earlier. You know inequity is a low-income neighbourhood whose residents become sick from a local waste treatment facility and there aren’t the means to move away or the knowhow to organise to make change. Inequity is a migrant woman in a first world country whose partner is in the hospital, and they can’t pay the bills and they don’t know where to find help and these are not fantastical ideas that I’m coming up with, these are real world problems Holly that we’re living through right now.

And to come back to your point about why the notion of equity has become political, I think unfortunately so I think that it’s because if you look at those who would agree one the above statements that these are, these are problems that are affecting us on a day to day level and that we have a responsibility both as privileged people, those who have the means to do something about it or to not be affected by these problems, and as now privileged people to take action and you sort through the commonalities or find that those who would like to act on the above do tend to fall on the progressive side of the political spectrum.

This may not have been the case two decades ago but with the way that politics has shifted certainly in the United States and other countries as well it’s not so much a hands across the aisle issue, not anymore in this case. And the truth is that again pointing to the United States under the Biden administration, on his first day in office for example he signed an executive order to advance racial equity and support for underserved communities to the federal government by developing an equity action plan every year. But if you look at four years in the office under the Trump administration, I don’t think that they did anything to this degree.

So when you look at it this way you can see how it has become a call to action for some and those people and I say it tends to be far more on the progressive side for those who are taking up action and on the other side you have this other response that responding to these issues, to these inequities that exist, it’s a woke issue that needs to die. Well, that tends to fall unfortunately on the other side of the political spectrum, and I think that that’s why it’s become, it’s become something that’s a bit politically charged unfortunately.

And I’m also conscious that in answering this question that we are boxing ourselves in further and further into this political idea and perhaps it's not the right frame to look at this through and by answering why one political ideology maybe more inclined to highlight the issue and seek to undo historic inequity, do we not continue to perpetuate this problem with it being considered a political fight to begin with.

And when I think about it this way, I think about a fantastic book called ‘what white people can do next’ which was written by Emma Dabiri, and it focuses on moving from allyship to coalition and this is in the sense that an ally tries to help not as someone who is impacted by a problem but as someone who sees the suffering of others and wants to help. So whether this you know seeing victims from a tragedy so that could be the recent wildfires that took place in Hawaii, that could be in rights being taken away from LGBTQ communities, or the moving backness in women’s rights, any of these would be examples. When you participate in that as someone who doesn’t necessarily belong to that community but wants to help, that tends to allyship.

But when you look at it from a collation mindset you realise that all of these problems aren’t just something that’s outside of you it's actually very close to you and it's not just poisoning one person its fully killing us all, and I think that that’s a really powerful way to look at how we can address inequities that exist. There's also this ubiquitously known poem by John Donne ‘no man is an island’ I think we’ve all heard of that expression, and you know in the end he says that no man is an island entirely in and of itself we’re all a piece of something larger and every persons, every man's death diminishes ourselves because we are involved in mankind. And I think that when it comes to equity we have to think about it from this perspective, it can’t be something that’s political, we can’t let it become politically charged because if we do we risk letting the chance to take action slip away and that I think that equity should be viewed not just as an ideal but as a standard and a basic human right.

Thanks for walking us through that and really breaking it down. You’ve just touched on this, but I want to explore it a little further. How do we depoliticise the concept of equity, do you believe it can be embraced by all no matter their political leaning?

That is a good question and it’s a hard one to tease out. I think that if we’re going to succeed on a micro, macro, or a global level of addressing the inequities that go back well into a couple of generations and continue to impact us today then we have to decouple it, it has to become something that’s non-political. Otherwise, the conscious intentional goal to address inequity and act in an equitable way risks becoming such a polarising subject, such a subject that we are seeing thoroughly entrenched in, but we will not only not make progress, but we risk losing all of the ground that we’ve gained and go in the wrong direction.

So, to give a concrete example on that and not to just rest on big picture ideas which I think are very important but to zoom into something concrete that’s happening, in the state of Florida which is where I’m from this risk of going backwards is already taking shape. So, for example in (00:20:03 unclear) books that have previously been available have now been removed or covered up under a law restricting that addresses for example race and diversity. So, this is an area that we’ve lost ground in unfortunately in removing literature that was previously available purely on the basis that it furthers some sort of intra-knowledge, and not only does it create an unequal distribution of resources but it's also going to have impacts far beyond just the idea of removing literature from a library. So, it's unfortunate that we’re already seeing in some areas a move back from what we had previously had available or previously accomplished so to speak.

And when I think about issues like this that are happening it reminds me of when I was a student at Boston University working on my masters in international relations and environmental policy, there is this amazing course that I took on the foreign policy of India and we read this remarkable paper that asked the question at what point do we cross the Rubicon whereby an issue especially in geopolitics is no longer tenable and can never be resolved. So, for example, when did Kashmir become indivisible, when did a two-state solution in Israel begin to fade, or when could Northern Ireland no longer remain with Ireland.

And I believe that the issue of equity while it might stand on a different part of the playing field that the principle is the same that on a global level there is certainly room for a universal push towards equity. We see progress towards this still every day as well on a national level such as in the United States even though we are in a precarious position perhaps already facing this Rubicon I believe that we can still see a lot of positive outcomes in the coming years.

And for me personally I can’t from my little corner of this world you know predict what the future holds but I know in which direction I believe my colleagues at LRQA would like to push to be active and not passive participants in these areas. And for me in moments like this it's important to come back to the words of Martin Luther King Junior who said, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. And so when you ask me the question is it possible for something that’s unfortunately become controversial like equity to become non-political I think that it has to be and I think that it will be, we’ll just unfortunately face in many corners of the world more traction than we previously had 20 years ago because of the direction that things have gone in.

Thanks Lani again for painting such a vivid and truly global picture for us there. So, we’ve spoken a lot about the current social economic and political context globally, but I’d also like to give our listeners some practical guidance if we can. Where would an organisation need to begin if they were to make progress in creating greater equity?

Well, I think that’s where you can you know get started with my friend the materiality assessment but actually, I think that on a concrete level every company no matter how large or small has a role and can make an impact in advancing equity both inside and outside and so I will share what we did at LRQA.

We first started with what can we do as a company to create a workplace where everyone wants to work that’s really what we strive to in everything that we do and especially what does that mean when it comes to equity. And so we thought okay well once we start developing our people inside the company what are the resources, what are the materials, what are the options that we can provide to people so that everyone can succeed and become the best that they want to be no matter where they are, no matter what position they’re in, no matter what their career trajectory is.

And so we kind of started by taking a look at what was happening inside the company so this could be from a financial perspective in closing the gender pay gap and also being transparent about our gender pay bends, this was also in professional development options ensuring that people had equal access, the best access to educational resources as well as providing additional resources to people who might have difficulty advancing their careers so people from minority groups and women and other you could say vulnerable individuals within the company or I should say underrepresented groups of people within the company. And I think that is all well and good and I think if we take these steps and a couple of others then we will be able to achieve equity within the company.

But actually, the next big thing in developing the equity commitment within Our Planet, Our Plan took place when we looked beyond that. What if there’s something that’s happening that is decreasing people's ability to even get their foot in the door, to even have that first interview, to have the confidence to submit that application or even see that we’re hiring for a position in the first place. And so, this was really interesting because then it created a conversation about how we can not just attract the best people but put ourselves out there so that we can again meet people where they are before we even, before their foot is even in the door so to speak. And so that created this idea of creating equity through I’m thinking of the best word now, but in ensuring that we’re putting ourselves in the best way so that people can even know that we as a company are here and creating equity in the hiring process not just in recruitment which might be too late because only certain people are going to see what we’re doing but in, in attraction I think is the best way.

And so then we started to develop well what can we do to attract people in an equitable way, where can we put ourselves where maybe we weren’t being seen before, how can we communicate in a way that will remove barriers from people to, who might convince themselves out of applying, what can we do to upscale people so that they’ll have the confidence and skillsets to be fantastic verifiers, this is very LRQA focused but it’s what we did as a company to be excellent verifiers, to be excellent auditors and to really to be top class advisers. I would say join this company but it's really more than just that.

So, these are the pieces, these are the inter-components that went into developing our own equity strategy starting at attraction and certainly well into you know recruitment and development, to create equity from our little piece of the world you know with our little I want to say small, but you know small but mighty company. And so that’s that and what this translates into and my advice for any sustainability or DEI practitioner at a company is to ask yourself where can we start and then not just ask yourself where can we start but then to take the next step and zoom out from there one or two steps earlier from that starting point. Because that’s really where you need to start if you want to meet people where they are and meet people when it comes to the group that you’re trying to reach. Because it really does come back to what are the resources, what are the tools, what is it that people need so we can all have a level playing field and we offer the best opportunities to succeed. And I think that as a company that’s really what it comes down to.

And I would just continue by thinking about each group of your stakeholders and what equity would look like for each of them. So, for us, we broke things down into these two main camps of other traction and then recruitment and then development once an individual was within the company and we took it from there, yo9u know what we started from inside and then we looked outside.

I could also say that this is hard, you are working alongside systems, structures, biases, and practices that have existed well before your time, long before your company grew a conscious and created your position or whatever it might be. But also, to close that out, know that you are not alone, you can find allies, you can build coalitions.

At LRQA we built a leadership team so each of our commitments all seven of them as a lead, but also has a leadership team, people who are experts, people who focus on this topic within the company and people who really care about advancing each of our commitments including equity. So, we need to keep it centralised within one team like in sustainability or within you know one person but that we spread it out outside the company so that ownership and the desire to drive towards this positive change of creating a more equitable place can be shared throughout the company.

Also, I would say that it's not then about just creating a wider group of key stakeholders but taking it companywide so what we’re doing in our own company is that beginning in 2024 each one of our people at LRQA and that’s you know thousands of people that we’re talking about all over the planet will be able to pick a key performance indicator that we’re using to measure progress towards each of our commitments and then put that into their annual evaluation.

So if one of our KPIs is to take a look at what we’re doing to equitably attract people to this company, they can contribute to that and so whether you know working to this commitment in HR or whether it's someone like myself who is working in sustainability, it's not that we’re just alone and that we’re silent but it’s something that’s being shared across the company with people who really care about this and are really passionate and that’s a way to really well embed it in the culture and I think also share ownership to move in the same direction.

Also, we’re not the first people to think about this and we’re not the first you know organisation to want to work towards these goals, there is of course the sustainable development goals that were developed by the UN and there’s also the United Nations Global Compact which I think every company should become a participant of. Not only are you making a commitment to work towards the sustainable development goals but in becoming a member of UN Global Compact you’re also getting access to hundreds of free resources and also very I would say reasonably priced accelerator programmes that are focused on for example advancing equity. And actually, we have several colleagues who are going through a gender equality programme right now and it’s just been fantastic. You can also network, there’s no shortage of sustainability or DEI practitioners who want to share their learnings or grow what they are doing, and you can tap into that, we have the technology now through LinkedIn.

And the final piece that I’ll add to that is that you can find me on here LRQA, you can find me on the website, you can find me on LinkedIn. I’m happy to have a conversation, I’m happy to talk about what we’re doing about what we’re doing, about where we’re falling short and share what best practices look like.

Some fantastic ideas and principles there thank you Lani and I have one final brief question for you if that’s okay. So, I would like to take just a complete step back here and simplify it all down the best that we can.

What would you say should be the ultimate end goal of an equity programme?

I’ll keep this last one short and sweet and I want to say that the end goal should be the fado optimal situation that everyone is better off, and no one is worse off, but I don’t think that that quite gets it and is incorrect in some cases.

So, I would say that whatever you set yourself to in advancing equity for your company or your organisation, it should be that what you’re working towards is very clearly stated and the metrics that you’re measuring yourselves against are stated even clearer. Because your end goal is going to be defined by whether or not you’re achieving them and the progress that you make towards those is going to be held accountable to by where you land in those KPIs ultimately. And that if you do this, you set your goal, you have it time-bound and you have it measured by so many metrics to see where you’re landing, then you’re going to achieve that goal by advancing equity for whatever it might mean for you and for your company.

And so really simply, what should the end goal of an equity programme be is, it’s a more fair world where people have access to what they need to succeed and be the best that they can possibly be.

That’s a wonderful summary. Thank you so much, Lani, you’ve spoken with such knowledge and clarity on the topic of equity really breaking down the issues and making it accessible for all of our listeners, so sincere thanks for that.

I’m sure you’ve inspired many today across the globe, I know I hadn’t taken the time to really look under the hood and question what we actually meant by equality originally you know whether there was a better more considered approach out there within equity, so thank you once again for your time.

Thank you very much, Holly, I appreciate it.

And finally, just a reminder to our listeners that you can learn more about Our Planet, Our Plan on the LRQA website and see our digital dashboard which tracks our progress against all seven pillars.

You’ve been listening to the LRQA Future in Focus podcast, thanks so much for giving us your time and we hope to see you soon.