What is Environmental Justice, Exactly?

Environmental justice advocates for the fair treatment of all people, regardless of race, background, or socioeconomic status in environmental laws or policies. So whereas sustainability (for example) focuses on meeting the needs of present and future generations (and is usually focused on the impact of government and private entities on the environment), Environmental justice looks more toward society-wide metrics and who is being impacted by these business practices and policies. Climate justice is a form of environmental justice, advocating for the fair treatment of all people and creation of non discriminatory policies regarding climate change.

Why is it important?

Businesses now have the opportunity to address the climate crisis in a way that improves environments and economies to be more sustainable for everyone. Environmental and climate justice is rooted (especially here in the USA) in issues that stem from inequality, racism, the exploitation of bodies, and white supremacist capitalism. All strong words. But the truth. 

“Racism is inexorably linked to climate change”, says Penn State meteorologist Gregory Jenkins, “because it dictates who benefits from activities that produce planet-warming gases and who suffers most from the consequences.”

For example:  A landmark 2007 study by academic Dr Robert Bullard – the “father of environmental justice” – found “race to be more important than socioeconomic status in predicting the location of America’s commercial hazardous waste facilities. He proved that African American children were five times more likely to have lead poisoning from proximity to waste than Caucasian children, while even black Americans making $50-60,000 a year were more likely to live in polluted areas than their white counterparts making $10,000. In the UK meanwhile, a government report found that black British children are exposed to up to 30% more air pollution than white children.

Climate change itself is not selective or racist of course, but it is a by-product of systemic, industrialized racism on a colonial scale. From extreme weather to rising sea levels, the effects of climate change often have disproportionate effects on historically marginalized or underserved communities. Minority group neighborhoods (populated primarily by people of color and members of low socioeconomic groups) are also burdened with a disproportionate number of hazards, including toxic waste facilities, garbage dumps, and other sources of environmental pollution and foul odors that lower the quality of life. All too often, environmental racism occurs because communities lack the resources to raise awareness or fight a costly legal battles – resources which are available to wealthier white communities, who are better able to divert airport expansions, power stations or landfills elsewhere in a process known as NIMBYism – standing for “not in my backyard”.

Communities of color are disproportionately burdened with these types of health hazards through policies and practices that force them to live in proximity to sources of toxic waste such as sewage works, mines, landfills, power stations, major roads and emitters of airborne particulate matter. As a result, these communities suffer greater rates of health problems attendant on hazardous pollutants. Research has found that neighborhoods once shaped by discriminatory housing policies known as “redlining” have more pavement, fewer trees and higher average temperatures — a combination that can lead to deadly heat illness – especially in confined inner city and densely populated urban areas.

But it’s not just an urban issue. Studies show that coastal communities in the South, where African Americans are a significant fraction of the population, are also at the greatest risk from sea level rise. According to a study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, more than 30 percent of black New Orleans residents didn’t own cars when Hurricane Katrina hit — making it almost impossible for them to evacuate. After the storm, the city’s black population fell because many residents couldn’t afford to return.

Consider this: We’ve lost 20 million hectares of forests every year since 2011; more than 8 billion kilograms of plastic end up in the oceans annually; air and water pollution has reached critical levels in many major cities; there are around 265 million working children (almost 17% of the worldwide children population); about 1.7 billion adults remain unbanked, and $111 billion was invested in fossil fuels in 2019. And 20% of the oxygen we breathe comes from the amazon rainforest. Between 2015 and 2020, the rate of global deforestation was estimated at 10 million hectares per year.  In 2020, the Brazilian Amazon Deforestation Monitoring Program estimated deforestation of 11,088 km2. This represents an increase of 47% and 9.5% compared to 2018 and 2019, respectively.

So who’s responsible?

Largely government and business. Just 100 of all the hundreds of thousands of companies in the world have been responsible for 71% of the global GHG emissions that cause global warming since 1998, according to The Carbon Majors Database, a report recently published by the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), throwing light on the role companies and investors play in tackling climate change. Over half of the world’s industrial emissions can be traced back to just 25 state companies and entities! In fact, if companies continue to extract fossil fuels and drive deforestation at the rate they have been doing over the past 28 years, it is estimated that the global average temperature will rise by up to 4°C, which will result in the possible extinction of a multitude of species and seriously threaten world food production.

“ A lot of new folks in Gen Z, a lot of millennials, want to be supporting companies that are transparent. They want to support companies that have a stance against social injustice and environmental injustice. So it’s not only something that is good for moral’s sake. It’s good business practice as well.”

So What Can You Do?

We would encourage all businesses to get grounded and address the climate crisis through education, collaboration with their local community and supply chains and also through brand marketing and activation. Brand influence and commercial demand is a powerful, universal tool to raise awareness and change buying behavior. We ourselves, as shoppers and consumers, are also complicit – based on the brands and products that we buy and for the most part our ignorance or indifference to how they are sourced, made and what happens to them when they are no longer in use. 

The bottom line: People, Planet, Profit. In that order. When business is centered around serving people, who are intrinsically connected with and impacted by their environment, rather than serving themselves and making profit, it gives us all a more sustainable future to look forward to.