#BuildBackBetter: Why social and environmental charities must work together

By Liz Gadd 29 June 2020 5 minute read

At NPC, we want the sector to debate openly how we recover from the covid-19 disaster. We don’t need to go back to the way we used to work. Instead we should be asking big questions about equality, resilience and opportunity. As part of this, we mustn’t lose sight of the other crisis; our environment. Environmental and social charities and funders need to work together if we are to #BuildBackBetter

Charities are increasingly worried about the dangers of climate change on the people they serve. However, few charities understand how different environmental policies and green economic programmes could help communities to rebuild after Covid-19. That’s one of the reasons why we’re supporting the #BuildBackBetter statement.

For a socially equitable, green recovery to be successful, social charities, funders, and the communities they serve must join with environmental charities to shape the debate. We think there are three key areas for charities and funders to consider:

  • How environmental damage causes social issues.
  • The social impact of green economic packages and the voice of communities.
  • Our own direct and indirect contributions to climate change.


1. How environmental damage causes social issues

Environmental harm is intimately linked with social issues. On a global scale, unmitigated climate change will wreak worldwide devastation as sea levels rise, storms surge, floods rise, and droughts intensify.

The damage is already being done. The British Red Cross, Britain’s leading humanitarian crisis response charity, remarks in its 2030 strategy thaton our own doorstep in the UK, climate change is affecting more and more people and communities. We see families losing their homes and livelihoods, or suffering from dangerous health conditions, because of more extreme weather events like severe flooding or heatwaves.

But climate change is not the only environmental threat to people. Air pollution causes between 28,000-36,000 premature deaths a year in the UK. That’s almost as high as the UK death toll from coronavirus but inflicted repeatedly every year. There is strong evidence that our dirty air leads to heart disease, stroke, breathing problems and lung cancer, and that it disproportionally affects BAME communities. There are many similar examples, such as the impact of pesticides on human health and nature, the correlation between biodiversity loss and emerging zoonotic diseases like Covid-19, and the debate on transitioning to green industries and jobs.

It therefore makes no sense for environmental or social charities to attempt to tackle these issues alone. So it’s great that the Healthy Air Campaign, led by ClientEarth, is a collaboration between traditionally socially-focussed and environmentally-focussed charities on this issue, including the British Lung Foundation, British Heart Foundation, Asthma UK, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. More collaborations like this would increase our collective impact as we look to build back better and tackle the major systems change requirements we face. We need to  break down the silos of ‘social’ and ‘environmental’ charities and get people working together.


2. The social impact of green economic packages and the voice of communities

Though environmental concerns affect everyone, there’s no one solution and no homogenous view on how to tackle them, even within communities. Economic interventions, whether they are Levelling Up, Building Back Better, or a Green New Deal, always have winners and losers.

It is those struggling the most already who are likely to be most affected by post-Covid policy decisions about how we address inequalities, what industries governments prop up, what new jobs markets we create, and whether we grasp the opportunity to mitigate the worst impacts of the climate crisis already upon us. We want charities to build on the benefits of digital and remote working, which has leapt forward during lockdown, but we must be careful not to exacerbate the digital divide in the process.

Charities are well placed to represent and include the diverse needs and voices of all stakeholders. Whether charities are representing the natural world, communities of interest or geographical communities, collective engagement is critical for high quality debate and policy development as we build back better. As the interim findings from the UK’s Climate Assembly show, the country is supportive of a green recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, so we hope the government takes the opportunity to strengthen the long-overdue transition to a green economy. Global delays in taking decisive climate action make it increasingly likely that governments will be forced to make abrupt and disorderly decisions.

We must work together to make best use of existing expertise and ensure the voices of communities most affected are fully represented in the build back better debate, and in the positive work of advocates such as the Build Back Better Campaign and the Climate Coalition. Social charities should play a leading role in broadening and deepening the debate around the need for a ‘just transition’ to a post-carbon society as we seek a fair and just recovery from Covid-19.


3. Our own direct and indirect contributions to climate change

No matter what type or size of charity you are, we can all think about how environmental concerns play into our operations. It can be as simple as who your energy provider is, or as complex as considering the environmental impacts of investments your foundation holds. Some charities, such as Christian Aid and the British Red Cross have been reducing their own carbon footprint for years as they try to become greener. Sadly, such commitments remain rare across the wider sector.

The Covid-19 recovery is an opportunity for all of us, as well as for society more widely, to reimagine our future sustainability. It doesn’t matter whether we work on social issues, the environment, or both, we all need to be the change we want to see if we are to be true to our missions.


We are keen to hear from organisations looking to take part or support our work to help social charities engage with environmental issues. Funders may also wish to consider the Funder Commitment on Climate Change


Environmental and social charities and funders need to work together if we are to #BuildBackBetter. Click To Tweet


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