Environmental Justice and the Sustainability Movement

Environmental Justice and the Sustainability Movement

Jun 23rd 2020

With the current groundswell of the Black Lives Matter movement in the aftermath of the tragic murder of George Floyd, I - like many - found myself deep in the work of activists, scholars and influencers advocating for systemic changes in our country.

This surfaced the Environmental Justice movement for me. Shame on me that this took so long. Now, here I am, learning from leaders who have established the foundation of this work.

I’ve written this blog post for those of you who, like me, are immersing yourselves in intersectional environmentalism and environmental justice for the first time. It is part summary of what I’ve read, part reflection on what I’ve learned and part action plan of where to go from here. 

I’d love to hear your thoughts, additions, and counterpoints. Please send any input to [email protected].

Some of the big themes I’ve taken away from my own reading, watching and reflecting are as follows.

You cannot disentangle climate change and environmental degradation from its human impacts, which disproportionately affect Black and brown people.

People of color, particularly those in low income communities, disproportionately face issues such as lead poisoning, poor air quality, poor water quality. These conditions have severe consequences for their physical health, mental health and brain development.

  • Children of color who live in urban areas are at the highest risk for lead poisoning which negatively affects brain development and leads to seizures and anemia. 11.2% of African American children and 4.0 percent of Mexican American children are poisoned by lead, compared to 2.3 percent of white children.
  • Low income communities of color face water contamination issues. Contaminated water can cause an abundance of health-related issues, particularly for young children, including blood disorders, cancer and waterborne diseases.In St. Joseph, Louisiana, which is 40% African American, water is tinted brown and yellow (while the state claims that it is safe to drink.
  • And, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black children are twice as likely to have asthma as white children. And Black children are 10 times more likely than white kids to die of asthma related complications - in no small part because nonwhite populations, especially blacks, face higher risk from particle pollution.

That the nation and the world has not made monumental and wide sweeping changes to environmental policy is partly a result of the systemic racism and inequality of our country.

Environmentalists (including myself) often talk about climate change through the lens of how we can limit greenhouse gas parts per million. Those who have resources typically avoid the immediate and day-to-day impact of climate change so while we are deeply aware of how urgent and dire climate and ecological issues are, our connection is often more intellectual than emotional.

We first need to become less blind to the fact that climate change is not just numbers or pollution in a distant ocean, but is an issue that is deeply hurting communities (largely poor communities of color) right now. We also need to confront and then reform our own biases, so we become as moved to action by these atrocities as we would be if they were happening to us.

Racism is getting in the way of environmentalism as it is holding back tremendous engagement, talent and leadership in this space.

Research has shown that Hispanics/Latinos (69%) and African Americans (57%) are more likely to be Alarmed or Concerned about global warming than are Whites (49%). Whites are also more likely to be Doubtful or Dismissive (27%) about climate change than are Hispanics/Latinos (11%) or African Americans (12%). Racism in the environmental movement means that this group of citizens that already cares (despite a pervasive assumption that they don't) about sustainability is not being engaged. The power of their actions and voices are often stifled from contributing fully to this work. 

And BIPOC environmental activists find themselves torn and distracted. Rather than being in a position to dedicate themselves 100% to issues of sustainability, they find themselves having to be at the forefront of racial justice as well. I’ve read a lot of articles and perspectives on this particular point. This one by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson was particularly clear in how this happens. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist and policy advisor, and the founder and CEO of the consultancy Ocean Collectiv.

According to Johnson, “Even at its most benign, racism is incredibly time consuming. Black people don’t want to be protesting for our basic rights to live and breathe. We don’t want to constantly justify our existence. Racism, injustice and police brutality are awful on their own, but are additionally pernicious because of the brain power and creative hours they steal from us.”

And this…”Toni Morrison said it best, in a 1975 speech: “The very serious function of racism … is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” As a marine biologist and policy nerd, building community around climate solutions is my life’s work. But I’m also a black person in the United States of America. I work on one existential crisis, but these days I can’t concentrate because of another.”

The current, mainstream dialog around environmentalism is fraught with privilege and racism and a sense of “otherness.”

This is a sticking point I’ve often vaguely felt as a South Asian on the outside of the mainstream culture of sustainability today. But I’d never articulated this sentiment clearly and thoughtfully to myself as what I’ve read recently. This great piece by Aja Barbar, Let's Keep Our Movements Intersectional, highlights the fact that by and large, the face of the sustainability movement today is white, relatively wealthy and able bodied. It reminds us that expanding the movement to not only include diverse voices but actually move those voices to the forefront would make strides in both the environment and racial justice.

From Barbar -- “Why do we look at the zero-waste lifestyle from the perspective of the person who has the shiny new food storage containers and bought new tote bags for bagging their groceries … instead of the ethnic senior citizen who has used the same plastic butter container to store their leftovers for years and still uses a backpack from the 90s?...Why does #sustainablestyle on Instagram pull up a plethora of white faces instead of a diverse group of folks, simply wearing hand-me-downs or used clothing because those are the options they have?”

Another example of this trend, manifested differently, is the habit of environmentalists focused on biodiversity to overemphasize wildlife in poor, brown countries. Yes, we should work with the Indian people to save the tiger. But three of the world's six most endangered felines as listed by Scientific American are largely found in majority white countries but get very little air time. As Adam Ramsay (of the UK) states, “We insist that Indians live alongside large carnivores, but are we not hypocrites if we don't also demand that people in the UK (which, after all, has a lower population density than India) live alongside our own native carnivores – wolves and bears?...The princes are right to campaign against elephant poachers, but what of the Highland landowners, not so far from their Balmoral, who poison endangered Hen Harriers so that Britain's upper classes don't have competition for the grouse they want to shoot?”

We need to do better. What can we do?

I’m still working on this one, and I know it will be a long, but incredibly rewarding and hopefully impactful journey. From the passionate voices I’ve learned from, here are a few important steps that an environmentalist and eco-minded business can take.

Work hard - read, reflect, self assess, adjust, dialog - to become anti-racist.

"Anti-racism is the active process of identifying and eliminating racism by changing systems, organizational structures, policies and practices and attitudes, so that power is redistributed and shared equitably." - NAC International Perspectives: Women Global Solidarity

Proactively make your online and in-person communities, marketing images, social media feeds and conversations a space where Black and brown activists want to engage and participate. How? First, by reading works and articles by BIPOC environmentalists and staying engaged with sustainable businesses run by people of color. Follow these influencers to maintain a steady inflow of these perspectives into what you read and see each day. Then actively think about ways you can and should add to or change - your website, your content, your posts, etc.

Intentionally bring the human impact of climate change into your decisions, dialog, content and frameworks.

Become deeply aware of the human impact, and the faces, that are impacted by climate change.

Avoid the temptation of framing environmentalism only in broad sweeping generalist strokes, or boiling it all down to numbers and long-term profits. Talk about the human impact - with your team, in your content, with your customers, with your suppliers.

Understand how your product’s environmental impacts affect people and communities and then set goals and priorities to minimize these negative consequences.

I found this quote by Adam Ramsay to be particularly compelling in reminding us not to water down our statements around climate change in a way that “softens their impact” on those who hold the most power to make change: “There is a habit in too much of the environmental movement, I fear, of talking about politics in a way which avoids questions of power, which fails to actively stand in solidarity with the marginalised.”

Evaluate your organization’s culture and employee base - Is it diverse and representative? Is it inclusive? Does it attract diverse talent? Is your leadership and communication style conducive to achieving your diversity goals?

As a small business owner and mother of three, I know firsthand that the day to day is full of fires to put out, leaving what seems like scant time to handle anything beyond what is right in front of you. But we already know that making time for things like strategic planning and coaching and developing your people are essential to running a successful venture.

Building a culture that is inclusive, anti-racist and can attract diverse talent is the same. This culture and the team it will create can lift your organization in so many direct and indirect ways.

Anti-racism and inclusion are not easy topics and navigating them successfully takes knowledge, skill and training. I’m still learning about the tools, resources and outside support and agencies that can help me here and I’d love input you have about what has worked well for their organization. Organizations and articles I’ve found really helpful include:, and,

Articles and References

I devoured dozens of articles and several books about environmental justice and intersectional environmentalism these past two weeks. Here are several I have found myself coming back to often and sharing with others frequently: