While sustainability has been around since the beginning of time, the recent accelerating increase in climate change has emphasized going back to the roots of sustainable living. Since the Industrial Revolution, the world has lost sight of our environmental roots over the years.
The modern sustainability movement began around the late 1960s. Since, it has been extremely whitewashed. Today, the climate change movement is largely influenced by geographical segregation, as people of color have been widely left out of the movement. Despite their years of activism, many sustainability influencers and activists of color do not receive the same recognition as white influencers.
All of this leads to the question: How has environmental racism shaped our society?
The current climate crisis demands both individuals and corporations to become sustainable. Yet, it is important to acknowledge the flaws within the sustainability movement to become more inclusive and aware of the people behind it.
How the Modern Concept of Sustainability Became Popular
While to many sustainability is a newer concept, many cultures and countries have practiced sustenance for centuries. The well-being of the planet has become a more prominent topic since the Industrial era due to its evident effects on pollution and climate. But that is not where the sustainable movement began.
During his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt, known to be the first president to advocate for environmental conservation, passed the Antiquities Act of 1906. The Act established 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, 18 national monuments, 5 national parks, and 4 national game preserves in the United States. The act is still in place today, protecting precious and biodiverse-rich lands under federal law.
A few decades after, in the 1960s, activism regarding climate change concerns began to grow. In 1969, the United States National Environmental Policy Act declared a national policy “to create and maintain conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations.”
Today, universal awareness of the worsening conditions of climate change continues. In 2015, the United Nations created the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals represent a universal call to action to find a balance between social, economic, and environmental sustainability to better the future of the people and planet.
Since then, government and non-profit organizations have encouraged ecological living and practices to stabilize the accelerating climate crisis. Sustainable activism has been more prominent in recent years as the environmental crisis has skyrocketed.
Environmental Racism: How The Sustainability Movement Has Been Whitewashed
Indigenous groups of North America have fought for the conservation of natural resources prior to the Industrial era. Many Indigenous groups practiced sustainability and conservation way before it was a necessity to prevent climate change.
According to the Fox Run Environmental Education Center, Indigenous groups were the first activists of the region, as they “used nature to support nature” and natural farming techniques.
As Intersectional Environmentalism discusses in the project “Dismantle Systems of Oppression in the Environmental Movement,” before the colonization of the United States, people lived in harmony with the planet. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case. During the colonization era, there was a strong division between land occupancy and population, which disturbed the ecosystem.
The Intersectional History of Environmentalism discusses how colonization caused the “exploitation of land, labor, and the planet to generate profit.” The narrator explains how those who were able to speak out against nature destruction were mainly white activists. While white voices were heard, other groups were erased from history – silenced and disregarded.
Systematic Environmental Injustice Today
The Industrial and Agricultural era created another concept of environmental injustice. Hand laborers, who were often minorities, lived in polluted cities, while predominantly white community members took over the clean suburbs. The practices of systematic environmental racism are still prevalent today.
The Grist illustrates the topic of the whitewashed sustainable movement through an article about Van Jones, the founder of Green For All. While the green movement portrays a clear lack of diversity within organizational and influencer positions, bigger organizations, which are led mainly by white activists, are taking away from smaller environmental groups.
Small non-profits often work directly with those most vulnerable to climate effects. The first to experience climate challenges are often those living in lower-income areas, which are, once again, predominantly minorities.
Examples of such include the construction of pipelines through lower-income or minority communities that disrupt the land and people’s way of life. The lack of access to clean water, such as in Flint, Michigan, whose water sources have been contaminated with lead since 2014. The construction of polluting factories and landfills in predominantly lower-income or minority areas, such as the ones in the south side region of Chicago, a predominantly African American community, exhibits clear examples of environmental racism.
In The Intersectional History of Environmentalism video, Robert Bullard, considered the ‘Father of Environmental Justice,’ states that between the years of 1930 to 1978, all 5 of Houston’s landfills, 3 of the 4 private landfills, and 6 out of 8 of the city’s incinerators were placed in black communities. The lack of diversity and inclusion of the conservation movement has allowed such injustices to negatively impact the health of minority communities and the planet.
The lack of diversity and inclusion incorporated in the modern sustainability movement has led to environmental racism. Minority groups are largely marginalized into areas of higher environmental pollution and hazards.
The whitewashed movement is erasing the true history of how sustainability has come to be. Not offering credit to the communities that deserve it while continuously implementing unjust systems is affecting both the health of individuals and the planet.
Some of the Many Early Environmentalists Not Recognized Enough for Their Incredible Activism
Often, environmentalists of color are not talked about enough, and their activism to the planet goes unnoticed. You may have heard the names of John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Robert Marshall, and Mardy Murie. All share a common factor of being white. Yet, they are only a few of the early environmentalists.
Chief Seattle (1786-1866), who the city of Seattle is named after, was an incredible environmental activist who continues to inspire people today. His famous speech of 1854 regarding environmental racism was later translated and read at the First National Earth Day in 1970. After 167 years, his inspirational speech continues to motivate individuals to protect and conserve the land we live on.
George Washington Carver (1864-1943), was a scientist and inventor during the 19th century. Born into slavery, he later becomes one of the most prominent black scientists of his time. He invented the crop rotation among several other inventions centered around peanuts, sweet potatoes, and soybeans. His promotion of natural farming techniques advocated for the conservation of land.
Grace Thorpe (1921-2008) was a women’s army corps officer during World War II, an environmentalist and social activist. She became an advocate of the anti-nuclear movement while raising awareness for the environmental injustice Native Americans faced due to nuclear waste disposal within their communities.
MaVynee Oshun Betsch (1935-2005), also known as The Beach Lady, lived a remarkable life and spent most of her time fighting to conserve American beaches and their habitat. Her remarkable work was inspired by her passion for providing African Americans with a paradise of safety and comfort during the Jim Crow era.
Among the early environmentalists and hundreds of sustainable leaders today, they are building organizations and raising awareness to conserve our planet to reach a better tomorrow.
The Marketing of the Modern Sustainable Movement and the Gentrification of Sustainable Products
Marketing has a powerful influence on the gentrification of the sustainability movement. Companies advertise eco-friendly products such as reusable grocery bags as totes, reusable containers, and zero-waste packaging that were once seen as inexpensive. Today, those same products are marketed as sustainable fashion and, therefore, excessively overpriced.
Companies should encourage the use of eco-friendly products and manufacture waste-less packaging. However, their inflated prices cater only to higher-income individuals. The gentrification of green products takes away from those experiencing the first-hand effects of climate change. While everyone should practice sustainability, lower-income families that have been using eco-friendly practices such as the repurposing of products are now facing excessive prices.
In her Medium article “The Gentrification of Sustainability: How White People Took Over A(nother) Movement That Doesn’t Belong To Us,” Ruby Powers illustrates the gentrification of environmentally friendly products in stores. She provides the example of zero-waste packing stores, which sell things such as $79 razors, $20 cotton rounds, and $85 zero-waste menstrual kits. These are all sustainable products that would not attain such high values at other stores.
It is expected for some eco-friendly products to cost more than non-sustainable items. But it is unethical to overcharge prices that only cater to a specific group when the purpose of becoming sustainable is for everyone to get on board with sustainability.
Fair Trade is an example of an organization advocating to lower the exploitation of workers and businesses in other countries whose products are imported. The movement ensures that workers are compensated adequately for their labor. Among these products are sustainable items imported from around the world. Although some Fair Trade products are pricier than others, it ensures ethical trade from small sustainable businesses worldwide.
How to End Environmental Racism and Create a More Inclusive Sustainability Movement
Senior Ignatian Lecturer at Loyola University Chicago Stacy Neier Beran states that marketing can be a powerful tool to combat the whitewashing of the sustainable movement.
Dr. Beran affirms that “The sweet spot to expand this movement sits at the crossover amongst inclusive design, Fair Trade, and bold packaging. When we design sustainable products centered on inclusion, marketers can “solve for one, extend to many” who have been excluded or mismatched with consumption choices.”
Dr. Beran believes consumers should look to support products with the Fair Trade logo on them. “Fair Trade principles explicitly represent the desired inclusion. For example, by prioritizing opportunities for disadvantaged producers. By labeling Fair Trade principles on product packaging, marketers tap into society’s need to see companies’ commitments to do better.”
It is important for companies to market ethical and sustainable products by focusing on the value to the consumer and the planet. Companies must value inclusion and activism when marketing their products.
Consumers must look out for labels, prices, and the company’s values to ensure they are supporting ethical and sustainable businesses. To achieve a healthier future, everyone is required to take part in the sustainable movement. While many have for generations, there are no longer excuses for governments, organizations, and industries to profit off the wellbeing of our planet and people.
To end the gentrification of the sustainable movement requires social actions. To encourage change and an environmentally friendly future for both people and the planet, individuals must take action. By educating themselves, advocating, petitioning, voting in elections, and through their consumption, people can help end environmental racism.