To continue Cisco’s celebration of Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, we hosted the second part to Cisco’s annual sustainability speaker series for Cisco employees and contractors, called SustainX. This second part focused entirely on environmental justice.

To kick off the session, Dr. Danielle Spurlock, Asst. Professor at the University of North Carolina defined environmental justice (EJ) as a social movement focused on the fair distribution of environmental benefits and burdens. Dr. Spurlock said, “The unequal risk and exposure observed in the built environment is not an accident, nor is it at random. The unequal provision of environmental amenities is not at random. Both conditions are the direct and indirect result of decisions.”

Galvanizing the movement

Screenshot of speaker, Dr. Danielle Spurlock
Dr. Danielle Spurlock, Asst. Professor at the University of North Carolina, virtually speaking during SustainX Part II

Dr. Spurlock went on to explain the beginnings of the EJ movement and its deep roots in protest. Two environmental tragedies in the late 1970s were catalysts for national awareness:

  • The Love Canal disaster – Hundreds of families in Niagara Falls, NY experienced severe health consequences, including birth defects and cancer, that was later connected to toxic chemical dumping in a nearby canal.
  • Warren County toxic waste decision – Governmental delegates in North Carolina made the decision to locate a hazardous waste landfill in Warren County, NC, which also happened to be one of the state’s poorest counties with mostly Black inhabitants. This location was chosen despite lacking the proper regulations and safety measures to protect groundwater from contamination.

The nonviolent protests and controversy surrounding these events galvanized the EJ movement, raising the nation’s awareness of disproportionate environmental hazards for low-income communities and communities of color.

Poverty and discrimination

Dr. Christopher Timmins, Professor at Duke University, explained that the EJ movement’s leaders continued to advocate for justice. This dogged pursuit of fairness lead to the creation of the Office of Environmental Justice in 1992, created within the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

But despite this success almost three decades ago, environmental injustices continue to occur to this day. In Flint, MI, an unelected official was appointed to cut costs within the poor and mostly Black city to reduce the city’s deficit. And in 2013, that official switched the city’s water supply to the local Flint River. And for 18 months, residents’ complaints of poor water quality and health issues were systematically ignored – until community leaders, with support from doctors, scientists, and journalists exposed extremely high levels of contamination in the water with lead, bacteria, and other dangerous chemicals. But this news came too late for a number of Flint children, who were poisoned by the water they drank.

Dr. Timmins went on to explain that environmental injustice is a result of poverty and income inequality. Discrimination, such as redlining and modern-day discrimination in real estate and rental markets, can steer individuals into polluted conditions. Regulations and penalties aren’t always equally enforced, and pollution often gets placed in the poorest, least represented areas.

Factory farming

Dr. Kay Jowers from Duke University, discussed the surge of industrialized pork farming in eastern North Carolina over the last twenty years. As a result, the hog waste produced by the farms is so noxious that it reduced the overall resale value of surrounding land and homes, many of which were built before the farms became industrialized. Since most Americans’ wealth is in their home equity, hog farm waste has effectively hampered surrounding homeowners’ ability to grow their wealth and protect their health. Efforts to help protect these residents have largely failed.

Social injustice and the environment

Screenshot of speaker, Trey Boynton
Trey Boynton, Cisco’s Global Lead for Inclusion & Collaboration Strategy & Alignment, speaking during SustainX Part II

Trey Boynton, Cisco’s Global Lead for Inclusion & Collaboration Strategy & Alignment, shifted our focus internally. She explained the work her group is doing to ensure Cisco has an inclusive culture. Our employees feel welcomed, valued, respected, accepted, and heard, and are enabled by our technology to fully participate in the business. Trey walked us through Cisco’s ongoing commitment to social justice beliefs and how we, as a company, are taking steps to combat racism. Similar to environmental justice, social justice is about ensuring everyone is valued, empowered, and heard.

Trey shared that curiosity, proximity, and empathy are critical elements of action on social and environmental justice: curiosity about inequality and inequity in the world and the ability to get close to, or proximate, to it in real life. These two elements drive empathy, which leads us to feel the marginalization and the disenfranchisement of communities. Curiosity, proximity, and empathy combined lead to action.

Trey challenged us to look at environmental injustices through the lens of systems of inequity that are interlocking and include individual, institutional and societal levels. To advance environmental justice, we need to understand how these systems uphold progress – via our individual unconscious biases and assumptions that we may have, to examining current policies and or organizational infrastructures that support environmental inequities, to the large cultural or societal messaging that can determine a point of view or what is valued. In addition, taking time to recognize how our own identities and culture, like race, ethnicity, citizenship, gender, socio-economic status amongst others, influence how we perceive and experience systems of inequity is an important component to advancing environmental justice.

How Cisco is taking action in our value chain

Mike Coubrough, SVP of Global Manufacturing & Logistics at Cisco, shared how Cisco is taking action to drive a more just and sustainable future for the workers and communities in our value chain, and for us all collectively on this planet. This includes:

  • How we design our products and packaging and manage the lifecycle of those products to reduce resource consumption and keep our products in use longer, reducing waste and the need for new manufacturing
  • How we work to reduce the negative impacts of raw materials sourcing
  • How we work with our suppliers to improve environmental stewardship and reduce risks associated with pollution and chemical use
  • And how we engage with local communities and non-governmental organizations on these issues

Mike highlighted that our impacts start with the design choices we make. The design of our products and packaging have direct impacts on the raw materials we source, the manufacturing and logistics impacts, and waste – which, in turn, can positively (or negatively) impact environmental justice in the communities we touch all along the way. As a technology company, we also have an important opportunity to use our technology to enable others to drive environmental benefits that amplify the impact we can all have together on environmental justice issues.

Through all this work, we are advancing a more environmentally sustainable and socially just world.

SustainX 2020 Part II was packed with useful and jaw-dropping information on environmental justice. After the event, many employees asked, “What can we do?” Our answer: We can learn more about environmental justice. We can get proximate. We can change the way we think. And then we can change the way we act.


Pauline Vogl

Environmental Sustainability Manager

Corporate Affairs