By Balraj Hothi
A few friends and I from systematically marginalized communities attended a high school in Winnipeg that often included us in promotional materials. As a Sikh, my smiling, turbaned head appeared on several pamphlets and brochures distributed during open houses. The image gave the impression of many systematically marginalized youth at this high school. However, this was not true as we represented a small portion of the student body. It was my first experience being used as a person to fill a quota.
Recently, while attending Together|Ensemble 2022, Canada’s national conference devoted to tracking progress on the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), I began to think about the similarities between quota filling in identity politics and corporate greenwashing.
As a university student planning on pursuing a career in corporate sustainability, I’m interested in how a corporation can remain profitable while also prioritizing the social and environmental aspects of its business.
At the conference, one speaker noted that while many public and private investors are interested in SDG-related investing, and the amount of potential capital is immense, many “green” or ESG (Environment, Social, and Governance) funds are not what they appear. For example, cigarette companies are rated well on some ESG scales. This is when greenwashing occurs and needs to be reduced and eventually eliminated, similar to eliminating the thought of filling a quota of systematically marginalized communities for organizations and events.
As a Sikh I’m aware of companies’ inclusivity initiatives and often reminded on job applications to self-identify as a visible minority. Yet, I believe corporations should not focus on simply having a certain number of individuals from systematically marginalized communities. By quota filling they are greenwashing their own social sustainability initiatives.
Instead, these companies should focus on practical diversity instead of representative diversity. Practical diversity focuses on how work fundamentally changes because a diverse candidate brings their experiences to shift how the work is done, while, in contrast, representative diversity is for the sake of saying you have diversity
My first experience with this distinction came in the summer of 2021 when I volunteered with an organization that focused on practical diversity. They focused on how each of us could use our own diverse experiences to help bring together the best ideas on how to make Winnipeg a more resilient and healthy city.
This contrasts with my experiences seeing diversity quotas often being filled for advertisements. Whenever I see a turbaned individual, I initially get excited seeing the representation, but then I conclude that this is often to create the illusion of diversity. There is a difference between inclusion and filling a quota, but it can be difficult for corporations that are so heavily focused on diversity to consider.
Being a part of the quota has been a recurring theme in my life and through my involvement in corporate sustainability I aim to shift the narrative from representative diversity to practical diversity. These corporations should focus on what everyone’s identity means for how they do their work and what their story and background bring to that position.
It’s important to avoid greenwashing—whether social or environmental—when implementing sustainability and diversity initiatives. As a Sikh, I believe in equality for all, and corporate sustainability helps bring together my religious teachings and my ideas of what can make the world a better place for future generations.
About the Author
Balraj Hothi is an undergraduate student at the University of Manitoba pursuing a degree in environmental studies with a focus area in sustainable development and a minor in management.