We are a company that is invested in the health of people and the planet. Throughout the history of the United States, Indigenous, Black, and LatinX communities have faced injustices that can still be seen affecting their success and well-being today. Lack of access to things like clean water and nutritious food are only a fraction of the struggles they face. Now the effects of our changing climate only make matters worse, as access to such necessities are becoming even more limited. Although our changing climate will affect every person on Earth in some way, it is these marginalized communities that will be impacted the most.
To understand how climate change is related to racism, you must be familiar with intersectionality. It is the framework for understanding how various social and political identities work together to create unique experiences of discrimination or privilege. Kimberly Krenshaw, an American Lawyer and Civil Rights Advocate, coined the term and defined it as “the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups” (1). Therefore, an individual can be impacted by various kinds of discrimination that combine to form a singular experience.
Intersectional environmentalism is a term that was recently defined by environmentalist Leah Thomas in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. It was a way for her to shed light on the environmental impacts of climate change on marginalized communities in the United States. In an interview on the WSL Pure Podcast, Thomas defined intersectional environmentalism as “a type of environmentalism that advocates for both people and the planet. One that does not silence or minimize the way that race and culture can impact who experiences environmental injustice”(2). This definition would allow for the amplification of the voices of people of color who have been affected by the changing climate.
Black, LatinX, and Indigenous communities have experienced environmental racism from our country’s beginning. These instances of discrimination affect the health and well-being of individuals within these communities every day. The changes brought about by climate change will only exacerbate the problems which already exist.
Access to clean air and water should be available for every person living in our country. However, that is not always the case for many BIPOC communities. Since the 1900s, the Housing Act of 1937 created low-income housing areas that became predominantly occupied by communities of color. Today, racial disparities live on in these areas. In fact, it is marginalized communities that live in some of the most polluted regions of the United States (3). Living in areas with polluted air can lead to health issues such as lung disease, asthma, and cancer. Black people are more than three times as likely to die from air pollution-related illnesses than white people (4). The distribution of drinking water is no different.
One in three people already do not have access to clean drinking water worldwide, but this number is even lower for Indigenous, Black, and Hispanic communities (5). With Race being the most significant indicator for access to clean, drinkable water – Black and Hispanic homes are more than twice as likely to lack full indoor plumbing to access clean water. And Black children are three times more likely than white children to have elevated levels of lead in their blood. What’s more, Native Americans are about 19 times as likely as white individuals to have access to clean, drinkable water (6).
Access to fresh and nutritious food is another place we can observe environmental racism in the US. Areas with little access to affordable healthy food are known as “food deserts,” and they are disproportionately inhabited by minority communities (8). For people living in these communities, organic and non-GMO foods and even fresh fruits and vegetables can be incredibly hard, if not impossible, to come by.
People living in these areas tend to have a diet consisting of highly processed packaged or fast-food – putting them at an increased risk of developing disease. Climate change is only making matters worse by impacting our food systems. It is altering food availability, production, quality, and utilization (9). The rise in extreme weather is causing a reduction in total food production across the US. Weather changes and rising CO2 levels are also contributing to nutrient depletion in our crops. A decrease in the availability of fresh, nutritious food will mean even more outstanding food insecurity rates in the future for marginalized communities if changes are not made within our food systems.
One of the most noticeable components of our changing climate is the increase in extreme weather conditions. In the last year alone, we have experienced raging wildfires, heat waves, and a record-setting number of hurricanes. According to the EPA, these instances will only increase with the changing climate (7). Extreme weather threatens individuals within our communities by disrupting our food and water supply, increasing the spread of disease, and causing property damage, increasing the cases of homelessness in our country. Black, LatinX, and Indigenous individuals are even more vulnerable to these threats. These communities are 20% more likely to be living in low-income housing, which puts them at greater risk of property damage and injury from extreme weather (8).
With issues as deeply rooted in our society as environmental racism, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed and wonder how we can begin to make things right. As we look to political leaders, we are beginning to see a shift in attention and resources being brought to these marginalized communities. Following the US general election, President Joe Biden declared January 27, 2021, Climate Day – on this day, he signed several executive orders to protect people and the planet. One of these orders is meant to “secure environmental justice and spur economic opportunity” for underserved communities across the US (10). This will serve as a part of the White House’s climate agenda. However, it was co-written by national environmental and environmental justice organizations to ensure that the changes being made best serve communities that are the most vulnerable to environmental injustices.
Many companies and organizations are also working hard to support these marginalized communities as the climate continues to change. Our partners at 501CTHREE is a non-profit reimagined for the next generation and is engaged in work focused on environmental justice and has a track record through the Water Box and Food & Water Box projects across the US. The 501CTHREE Food & Water Justice projects focus on low-income communities and communities of color that disproportionately experience contaminated tap water and food deserts. (11).
Leah Thomas (see above) has become a leader in the intersectional environmentalism movement. Her team works to help educate businesses on reframing their approach to sustainability through a lens of diversity and inclusion (12). They also work to amplify the silenced voices of environmentalists who have faced discrimination.
As a sustainable brand, we are dedicated to helping heal this Earth, including protecting every person who inhabits it. We understand that one cannot be an environmentalist without fighting against environmental racism. As stated by Sherri Mitchell, an Indigenous Rights Lawyer, “environmental justice is really about harmonized relationships … the ability to honor the right that all other living beings have to exist in their natural environment as much as we do in ours.” We will continue to amplify the voices of those who have been silenced and work to bring environmental justice to our communities however we can.