Diversity and inclusion in the workplace and Belgium’s initiatives on Sustainable Development

Brieuc Debontridder & Chipo Mbawu
The Shift

It is so fantastic to see all the achievements you have accomplished towards a sustainable economy and society. Could you elaborate on measuring your members’ results and monitoring their progress?

Brieuc: The Shift is a community of over 540 members, consisting of large and small enterprises and NGOs, public and academic institutions. The main objective is to work together towards a more sustainable society and economy. We’re working on topics including climate action, sustainable supply chains, diversity and inclusion in the workplace, and biodiversity.

We create an environment for all our members to meet, understand sustainability challenges, get inspired, and develop partnerships together. We don’t always know whether one of our events has led to a partnership, but it often does. We’re also making it concrete by inviting members to commit to specific targets, such as carbon reduction as part of the Belgian Alliance for Climate Action (BACA), a joint initiative with WWF Belgium. Another good example is the ‘Beyond Chocolate Initiative,’ which we launched a couple of years ago in collaboration with another organization. We have gathered all the actors involved in the cocoa sector in Belgium to define and commit to key objectives to end deforestation related to the cocoa we import and consume in Belgium and fight slavery and child labor. We always try to co-create projects with partners or members that drive results and work for the longer term.

Chipo: Our role is not to police or supervise our members. Most of them already have their ambitions spelt out to strive for sustainability and measure their progress. The Shift helps them access the correct information or partner with organizations to take action and accomplish their goals.

Consumers and investors worldwide are more aware of ESG standards every day. So how are you supporting your members to adapt to this new reality?

Chipo: At The Shift, we organize many events like webinars, workshops, and conferences, but we also bring together organizations at roundtables to discuss sustainability matters. We have a lineup of different activities to encourage our members to adopt ESG practices. For instance, we organize a series of workshops for SMEs to help them understand the Human Rights and Environmental Due Diligence process and implement it step by step to mitigate the risks in their supply chain.

Brieuc: We don’t specifically sensitize about ESG standards but rather take a bottom-up approach. We won’t say: “hey, we want you to get aligned with ESG standards,” but we will say, “do you want to work on diversity and inclusion?” or “do you want to work on biodiversity as your company has this impact on the environment?”

Speaking about the 5th SDG (gender equality), how conscious do you think your members are, and how is The Shift supporting through its services the progress on this goal?

Brieuc: I think the SDGs are known by all members. When they join The Shift, we ask them to commit to certain SDGs to focus on. So we work on SDG 5, gender equality, although I would say we work more broadly on diversity and inclusion overall. So not only focusing on diversity in terms of gender but also ethnic background, skin color, age, handicap, etc.

Chipo: As indicated by Brieuc, we are looking at gender equality and equality in all aspects. We want more access for migrants, people of color, and all aspects of inclusion. This is why we continually encourage our members to take action and be more inclusive.

Brieuc: In terms of gender, the representation is relatively equal in the “sustainability sector”, compared to the business world in general where it remains a serious challenge. There may even be a tendency for more women to be interested and involved in sustainability topics. At The Shift out of the 15 people, we are now, there are three men and twelve women. Another significant challenge in terms of diversity and inclusion concerns skin color and cultural or socio-economic background. More and more people in our community are conscious of it, but the challenge remains.

Chipo Mbawu-Project Officer at The Shift
Chipo Mbawu – Project Officer at The Shift

Part of the webinars or workshops for your members are focused on SDG 5. But nowadays, you cannot talk about inclusion towards women without also talking about inclusion towards ethnic minorities. Is that something you do for your members? Or how do you work with them regarding this aspect?

Chipo: Yes, we try to engage our members through different discussions on the inclusion of minorities in the workplace and inviting experts from various organizations to discuss these issues. We make an effort to sensitize our members on this to commit, take charge, and develop their solutions to address the minority inclusion challenge. If they are the ones who say: “we are going to change this and do that,” then they have increased ownership of their plans and motivation to make that change happen.

We see the inclusion of ethnic minorities as central to inclusion. This is also why The Shift itself is taking action in this regard. Adding African immigrants like myself to the team shows that we can preach about diversity & inclusion and act for it.

Have you evaluated within your strategy the possibility to expand your activities towards the MEA region?

Chipo: The Shift only works with members based in Belgium to connect them, help them commit, and act for change towards sustainable development. We, however, encourage our members to build partnerships for international cooperation as we believe in concerted efforts to achieve sustainable development. We want to see more collaborations between organizations and companies from the North and the South.

Brieuc: We don’t have the resources or the mandate to expand our activities to the MEA region or elsewhere globally, but we invite our members to do it. We organize workshops to guide them on reaching out to their suppliers in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere and talk and act about the human rights, environmental, and labor rights issues they are facing. Another example is the involvement of several of our members, mostly NGOs, in reforestation projects in the Sahel region. We are planning an event this Spring in order to share their work and encourage other members to support them.

As Chipo said, we want to contribute to good, sustainable and equal relationships between European, African, Asian actors, etc. We want to bring more voices from actors from the South into our activities. That’s very important because the diversity and inclusion challenge we face here also occurs at the international level. If we want to achieve sustainability globally, we have to work together.

Are you taking concrete actions to help change this narrative? For example, do you work with the EU, for instance, on the international partnerships aspect?

Brieuc: We work only with Belgian organizations and enterprises, but many have international activities or value chains. We share some information about what is happening at the EU level, given our close contacts with CSR Europe for example. Still, our priority is to focus on concrete actions that Belgian actors can take to be more sustainable and achieve the SDGs. Who knows, though, with the ambition from the EU for sustainability, there is a need and a will to work more at the European level, especially in regards to international supply chains.