Our language in the environment and social impact space could use some work

When I live in rural Cambodia I live in a very odd bubble. Many, many years ago this bubble was highly active with members of the NGO sector. Plenty of international organizations stealing good workers from grassroots organizations but that’s another story! At one point we had such a major outbreak of disease that the World Health Organization came to camp out. I was attending meetings on childhood education making long bus journeys down to the capital when exciting things were happening. I finished up law exams at the British embassy during the BK Lake riots. There was a Swedish organization in town working on land rights that did a lot with one of the villages I worked in, and there was a street kids project I was a part of. In our own little world, everything was pumping.

I remember when I left Cambodia that first time and headed to Bangkok. It occurred to me that despite my buzzing little life, I had barely seen cement for months. I couldn’t stop staring at it. Endless months on dirt roads had caused my brain to forget. The pylons of the sky train whizzed me by and I couldn’t pull my eyes away. Suddenly millions of people were whirling past. Things become obvious to you in a different way when you’ve been inside a bubble.

Climbing out of that (rather changed) world again this year I’ve found myself at quite a few events recently in design, law and environment. It has, largely, been incredible to see communities coming together. I am however also ninety-nine percent sure that I can be found visibly shaking my head in the captured video of one event whilst everyone else is nodding… and whooping. Actually whooping. Life outside your bubble gives you different perspectives.

Whilst I have loved my experience at most of these – and have been particularly impressed at the setup, enthusiasm, expertise and volunteering at them all (also the cheeseboards; Cambodia does not do cheese) – I’ve had a few small cringe moments.

Some of these come from nearly a decade of playing in the international development sector. Some from having had a thousand discussions over the years and being constantly pushed and challenged. Most from listening to people who know much more than I, or who have the actual lived experience, pulling me into line. Taking on the emotional labor to educate me. Some of them come because I worked with a bias and anti-oppression consultant for one of our projects last year and I learned so much that needed altering in my everyday language (happy to provide a recommendation if you’d like it). This is something I recommend everyone do. Pay the people doing the labor to teach us all the other aspects of this; do not let this burden fall on others to do for free. All this to say, once you learn and embed this, it sticks out when you hear and see it.

This piece might make me sound like a bit of a douche – I hope it doesn’t. I’m not sure of the best way to position it; I’m constantly learning too. But, for what it’s worth, here are some things I think we can work on together when we talk in these spaces.

Saving the world

We’re not saving it. I learned this last year when we had a draft kids poster titled Help Save the World. Our incredible adviser pointed out this is yet another instance of the white savior complex and I have thought about it a lot since then. They were of course absolutely right. At every single event I’ve been to in the last couple of months, saving the world has been brought up; pretty much exclusively by white people. Including video clips of going to low economic countries and “saving” families (often from issues we caused). But we’re not actually saving the world. The world will keep going in some format until the sun swallows it up. We as humans might not though. And while we’re taking a whole lot of species down with us most humans don’t care too much as long as we survive as a race. We’re not saving the world. We’re protecting ourselves from ourselves. And largely at the moment, white people are protecting white people, from white people.

It’s not the third world. Or the first.

I hadn’t heard this term for a few years but I’m hearing it absolutely all over the place this year which is really jarring. When I started in international development it had already been phased out and replaced with developedand developingcountries. That made many of us extremely uncomfortable (it’s still a hierarchy, paints western development as the ideal goal, highlights the colonizer relationship and is a term plenty of people in these countries were not happy with) but it was a step away from the first and third world status that was more insulting, confusing and degrading. There aren’t mandated better words, or consistent definitions of these (story for another time), but these days we tend to use industrialized and non-industrialized countries, or high-economic countries and lower-economic or low-middle-income countries (LMIC) and the advancing economies in BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India & China).

The Global North and Global South is also popular and better though it comes with political strings and often needs to be explained to Australians & New Zealanders that they fall in the Global North, contrary to the geography, and that can be time consuming (or text limiting) if we’re not all on the same page. Within countries nowadays you can also have high-economic cities within a lower-economic country (such as Malaysia). As much as possible, it’s best to focus on country and continent or geographical zone names and then use the better terms for general situations. I’m constantly checking myself on the right words for this too, switching over from developing and have been rightly called out on it a few times this year.

Richard Branson is not a social impact hero

Nearly every social enterprise or impact event has brought up Richard Branson. Please let’s use brighter, more deserving examples. Richard Branson is not some kind of Earth hero. He runs an expanding aviation firm. He spends huge amounts of money to head into space, not using his influence to create actual change. He’s an ocean elder with a huge plastic problem. There’s a reason Branson doesn’t want governments more involved. It’s the tired trope of philanthropists who believe they are more effective which allows them to perpetuate the idea that they know best for the world, whilst profiting as much as they can. Branson is one of the best marketers and greenwashers out there. He’s phenomenal at it and he is an ideal example for marketing and influence; not for social enterprise. Bill Gates is arguably significantly better but also no hero. Billionaire philanthropists deserve a whole book unto themselves (Winners Take Allmakes a great start) but we can do better than elevate those who cause significant harm on one side, only to use (or pretend to use) some of those profits for good. There are so many people doing the hard work, ethically, with limited resources we can raise up instead. Try Vandana Shiva. Or Wangari Mathai’s Green Belt Movement. Or Sylvia Earle and Mission Blue. Or Jane Goodall.

And if you want to use a massive company founders, try Yvon Chouinardof Patagonia, or the founders of Ben & Jerry’s. All three are actually committed to doing the right things socially and environmentally. It’s not easy, it’s extremely rare for large corporations, but it exists.

On that note, elevate brands that are going above and beyond

Not the Thankyou company. It is not a social good to be selling plastic bottled water to millions of people who have perfectly good access to clean drinking water. For those that don’t have this access, we should be demanding and helping to create the infrastructure for it, and offering that water free for survival. Where I work in Cambodia there is no running water at all. We rely on huge plastic tubs to get us through and most people in the community rely on cheap single-use bottles that they can just barely afford each day. It’s also worth noting here that water wars are well underway and that climate change tends to exacerbate droughts (a la Zimbabwe and Cambodia this year). Bottled water takes more water to make than it provides for drinking and is often hugely detrimental to these places where it extracts from, whilst tying them to it (the Netflix series Rotten has just released a good piece on this).

I’ve also watched Unilever being raised as an example to follow in the circular economy. No, they are not. They are one of the biggest users of palm oil, destroying lands of local people and creating a system which can’t be recovered. They’ve helped to wipe out plant and animal species like the orangutan and Sumatran rhino. They use incredible amounts of plastic. They literally ship water around the world as many of their products are made up largely of this. Swapping to some more refillable bottles doesn’t make them a lead. Acknowledging they now have a plastics problem, in 2019, doesn’t make them innovative, transparent or a leader. The same goes for H&M. Without changing the business model it doesn’t matter how much you greenwash the rest away. There are small companies doing much better work with thousands fewer resources, doing it without profit, with ethical labor, and doing it so, so much tougher.

Just the other day I even saw a major mining company being celebrated as a circular economy leader. No. Absolutely not. No way.

The hardest working people and brands are mostly the ones you haven’t heard of. Doing it with the least resources and doing it better. Doing it without massive PR and communication departments and budgets. Let’s celebrate those brands instead. Let’s put more effort into the organizations we raise into our consciousnesses. Let’s call attention to the incredible companies who won’t succeed unless we support them more; with our words, our promotion, our press, our money and our sharing.


Not one event I’ve been to has provided a setting of being comfortable with pronouns. Perhaps as speakers we can simply start with our own so that others may feel comfortable using theirs if they choose to in conversation (potentially adding these to the slide that introduces our name). It also introduces this to people who may never been exposed to this. It can be as simple as taking to the stage or panel on your first question with a “Hi, I’m Lis, she/her”and continuing on.

Gendered insults

I heard a woman tell a story the other week complete with “and then I cried like a girl”. We are all born into the same patriarchal society. I’ve done it. Most women have done it. We need to eliminate these gendered phrases from our vocabulary. It always shocks me watching endless reruns of Friends how many things I pick up in there now that I didn’t pick up at all when it originally aired. We only see this by learning. Let’s kindly and privately note these and ensure we’re not perpetuating sexist stereotypes and insults; it harms all of us.

Do as the therapists do

Use ‘we’ more often! My mum taught me this one as a child and it’s really good, inclusive language. On these topics it’s particularly important as people with privilege. We’re as much a part of the problem as what we’re trying to solve. We’re also part of a larger system that’s a problem. Even if we may do one or two things better here or there than the average person, we’re not – and never will be – perfect. It’s not they and us; it’s we. This is a constant practice for me and I’m forever picking myself up for it.

Let’s check our bias – and our privilege

The one thing that makes me consistently more uncomfortable than nearly any other is how much our conversations are stained with privilege. Veganism is rarely intersectional and excludes multiple communities across the world. The circular economy is not a new concept. Many Indigenous peoples practiced it for tens of thousands of years. Plastic can’t simply be removed without first considering the impacts of poverty and inequity and how it must be used in order to survive (and the impact of the development and landfill of plastics from high-income nations in those least equipped to deal with it). Climate change shouldn’t be discussed without providing the story of industrialization and the economic system responsible for this. Renewables need to be talked about in relation to growth and green colonialism. Environmentalism is difficult to talk about without addressing the underlying racism, sexism, and the voices of people of color who have practiced sustainability long before us. Let’s keep placing things into context and checking for our privileged perspectives.

Diverse speakers & panels

On that note, if you’re speaking on a panel or at an event, or organizing this, let’s ensure the voices of people of color, womxn and people with a disability are featured. I’ve really noticed an uptick in women on panels to make up half more often which has been incredible to witness (it’s also totally fine to have an all womxn lineup at a non-women specific event – we had all men throughout history and didn’t blink an eye!), but there’s still a significant lack of people of color. I also don’t believe I have been to an event that has featured a neurodivergent speaker yet (without the event being about this specifically).

Allow for critique and meaningful conversations

I spoke to one panelist after an event, very briefly posing a very general question of interest and nearly got my head bitten off. The defensiveness was extremely surprising. A few weeks later I accidentally put my foot in it talking about climate change and glass buildings from a just released report I had read to a person who had struck up a conservation; only for him to turn out being one of the lead architects of the glass building I was standing in. Oops. He had listened and put forth his (much more expert) thoughts. He acknowledged some of the data sets and kindly outlined where I went wrong. He was happy to be challenged on points and comfortable providing broader context. He explained the science and I learned a whole lot. That’s how we should have conversations. Especially at these kinds of events where ideally we’re all sharing knowledge and understanding, and might have different experiences in the field.

Think about broader audience needs

This one has been done really well but it’s worth noting just in case you’re creating a new event. Without decent budgets – which many of us and these events run without – this is so difficult. I am totally appreciative of how hard this is but where we can, let’s try the things that are achievable. The climate strikes had a sign language interpreter for all the speeches. A recent workshop at a university provided a large screen at each table that replicated the presenters screen allowing many of us with poorer sight to read the very small print. This may be physically impossible, time constrained or financially difficult but perhaps we can put a notice on all our events and offerings that we’ll work with you to organize for this as much as possible so nobody selectively excludes themselves for accessibility reasons.

Explain our words or use different ones

I absolutely do not speak Khmer with any fluency whatsoever (it’s the hardest language I’ve attempted to learn) but I do language lessons and have a translator at workshops. I can barely hold down half a normal sentence but can say a bit more about deforestation and climate change. What you do learn quickly is that Khmer lacks a lot of words. There isn’t one for misogyny for example; you have to explain what that is. When I’m talking about climate change I use a lot of simpler – and older – words that can be easier translated. That makes it inclusive, useful, and keeps the conversation flowing.

When I go to academic events I often feel like I need to reach for Google. I don’t mind this necessarily; most people at these events have far more knowledge than I do, English is my second language and I enjoy learning new words, but it does mean I miss context or deeper meaning and it definitely makes me feel like an outsider to the story. It doesn’t make it easily accessible and I think we’re doing this in the communities we want to reach out to. I know it can be hard for scientists or those in academia and it’s everyday tongue, but we could all practise understanding our audiences are at different levels of understanding and speak multiple languages. We can explain concepts more than assuming everyone knows what they are (quite a few acronyms come up that receive a blank stare from me) and ensure that how we talk about the environment (or any pursuit in this vein) doesn’t require high education or a degree in English.

The Amazon is not the lungs of our Earth

They’re not.Really. It seems because the Amazon fires were so large in the conscious of our minds recently that they’re taking up some space during speeches and panels. There’s nothing deliberately bad about saying the Amazon are our lungs and we all grew up with this notion; it’s just factually incorrect. Nearly 70 percent of our oxygen comes from phytoplankton (and other marine plants) in the ocean. Scientists at Project Drawdownsay the Amazon produces about 6 percent of the planet’s oxygen. That’s still a lot but that’s not net contribution. The Amazon also requires oxygen itself. The net contribution to the oxygen we breathe is minimal. Instead of thinking of it like a lung, some scientists suggest thinking of it like an air conditioner. It pulls carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and cools the planet. It’s also much more concerning in terms of biodiversity; a conversation that often gets missed in the climate change discussion.

A final word on social enterprises & social impact

The entire premise of a social enterprise makes me a bit uncomfortable (even though I use this name too and it helps for immediate understanding). I think it does some others too. So too does social impact. We all have an impact. Whether it’s as an individual or as a company. It can be negative, sometimes neutral, more rarely good. And as any business – whether that’s a listed company, a partnership, a B-corp, a not-for-profit we should be striving to give back as much as possible rather than hoarding money and creating wealth for shareholders. It’s a shame we are at a point where we now have names for the few – and in our modern world it really is only the few – organizations that consider the impact they have and a way to cycle economics.

Bonus points

  1. He/she is still regularly referred to whether written or verbally. It’s always the male first and it’s exclusive to other genders. It’s such an easy one to replace with they.
  2. Our bias advisor pointed out that when we give humans names in examples we pretty much only use common Anglo-Saxon names. I think I regularly simply referred to Suzie and Tom. They pointed this out in my writing and it’s become so obvious to me now (such a doh moment and particularly frustrating that I fell into this as I have an unusual full name most outside Europe can’t pronounce). I’m now much more conscious of using a diverse ranges of names from varying cultures. It’s a little thing that has surprising impact. Everyone needs to see themselves in stories more.
  3. When we write and speak, most of us tend to still use gendered roles in stereotypes. He for the doctor and scientist, she for the nurse and receptionist. I’ve now read a few instances where these have been swapped and it shocks my brain every time (which says a lot). Triple bonus points for being conscious of switching these up a lot more!
  4. I say “you guys” and“those guys”a lot. A LOT. It’s particularly obvious when I’m actually referring to a group that happens to be all womxn. I’m still working on this. I’m not hip enough to pull off “peeps”. I’m trying to circumvent it by using team (or an appropriate group name in a work situation like department, studio or agency), or actual names instead but there’s plenty of instances I trip up on myself (or have forgotten names!). I do it near daily. I really, really need to work on this more. Please pick me up if you hear it from me (and feel welcome to suggest something better – I’m currently reverting more to y’all). 

That’s a wrap!

To be clear, the events, workshops and presentations have been largely exceptional. I am extremely impressed. I have much more to learn and inevitably I will continue to learn better ways of saying and doing things, and I will make more mistakes that I will (hopefully) be pulled up on. Along with reading, it’s the only way I know to learn these things.

Thank you little pockets of communities all over the world for spending so much time, money and energy on creating exceptional events. It’s so easy for us all to simply turn up; you do the hard work. And thank you to everyone who teaches me to consistently get better at this.

Our language in the environment and social impact space could use some work - Bias, privilege - Nowhere & Everywhere - Lis Dingjan Events
Our language in the environment and social impact space could use some work - Bias, privilege - Nowhere & Everywhere - Lis Dingjan Events
Our language in the environment and social impact space could use some work - Bias, privilege - Nowhere & Everywhere - Lis Dingjan Events

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Developed by Lis Dingjan

Lis is the founder of Nowhere & Everywhere. With a background in law, international development & service design, she is a passionate advocate of human rights, climate justice, eating from the ground, exploring deeper, giving back a little more than you take and designing better systems. Lis spends a significant portion of time in the field in rural Cambodia.