Businesses have a duty of care when it comes to the climate crisis, according to teenage climate activist Ayakha Melithafa, who delivered the keynote address on the final day of the Trialogue Business in Society Conference, which took place on 22, 23, and 24 June.

Aside from working to reduce their carbon footprints, they should make every effort to educate all their stakeholders on the climate crisis and provide opportunities for work in the green economy. Above all, they should provide resources and support to young people, who bear the brunt of climate change.

“Youth are disproportionately affected, along with people of color and poorer communities,” she told conference delegates. “During the drought in Cape Town, children were unable to go to school or were sent home early from classes, because there was no water. This is affecting our everyday lives and we are expected to just be resilient and ‘stick it out.”

For Melithafa, whose mother is a small-scale farmer, the climate crisis is not an abstraction but a terrifying lived reality. “I saw first-hand how the drought was affecting farmers who rely on rain to grow crops and feed cattle. When you see your cows dying, you see money going down the drain,” she explained.

“I initially experienced climate anxiety and depression. I thought, ‘What is the point of even trying to make a change?’ It seemed that nobody cared. But one thing that gave me hope was going online and seeing I could join initiatives where other people were actively trying to make a difference. I identified people with the same drive as me.”

Melithafa urged companies to raise awareness of the crisis, saying that information about the environment and climate should be incorporated at all levels of education. However, she said that those companies that were not yet part of the just transition to a low-carbon economy should be encouraged rather than blamed. “We have to speak the language of hope before we speak the language of critique,” she said. She added that although South Africa’s environmental policies are “great on paper”, we fall behind when it comes to implementation.

The nexus between social and environmental sustainability

Melithafa’s keynote address was followed by a similarly themed Tri Talk (a TED-style talk) delivered by fellow activist Kumi Naidoo. Naidoo – the former executive director of Greenpeace International and founding chair at the pan-African movement Africans Rising – delivered a stark warning about how little time we have left to solve the climate crisis, which amounts to “climate apartheid” as people in poorer countries are disproportionately affected although rich countries are more responsible for environmental damage.

“In addressing the unequal burden of climate change, companies must go further than the current corporate social responsibility model,” he said. “Ultimately, corporate social responsibility is whatever companies want it to be, and often what is most convenient, and that needs to change.” He drew attention to “greenwashing”, where companies mislead consumers about how much they are doing to protect the environment and said we need to see a genuine recognition by the private sector of the urgency of the problems we are faced with, not just through rhetoric, but through meaningful and transformative action rather than “incremental tinkering”.

Naidoo said that system innovation, redesign and transformation are needed to set us on a different trajectory and ultimately prevent the extinction of our species.

“Companies, if they want to take this issue seriously, must learn to hear the hard truths about how the current economic system is hurting the planet, the climate and people, and must be willing to make serious changes to their supply chain and operations if they want to be part of the solution,” he said.

“The private sector’s influence over our governments must start to reflect the urgency of the time we are living in. We cannot expect to avoid this catastrophe with the collusion of government and business in a growth-at-all costs economic model. The private sector must use its influence to reflect what the people around the world are saying.”

The final day of the conference, themed “The nexus between social and environmental sustainability”, was presented with Absa.

This article was published on Joburg Post