What is environmental justice and why does it matter?

The environmental justice movement improves the lives of BIPOC frontline communities while benefiting the environment. Learn how it solves environmental racism. 

Environmental justice is one of the most important environmental movements, because it centers on the experience of frontline communities. These are the communities most directly impacted by environmental pollution, toxic industrial waste, and climate change. 

Decades of research has found that frontline communities mostly have low income and/or black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) residents. Environmental justice actions are often community-led, linked to the civil rights movement, or based on indigenous cultural and ancestral ties to the land. We, at Goodfair, consider diversity and inclusion important for solving environmental problems. 

What is environmental justice? 

Environmental justice is a movement which combines social justice and equitable environmental safety, cleanliness, and wellbeing. It addresses the problem of environmental racism.  

In the US, the areas with industrial sites, the most contaminated water, and the worst air quality, are places where low income, black, brown, and indigenous communities of color live. On the other hand, predominantly white, affluent neighborhoods have the most tree cover, the least toxins in the surroundings, and the best water quality. This unequal distribution of environmental benefits and harms is called environmental racism, and it doesn’t happen by coincidence. 

City and industrial site planning policies in past and present have segregated communities through redlining and then building industrial sites near redlined or indigenous communities. City and regional planners designed cities to be segregated, and knowingly placed activities causing health risks near the most vulnerable low income communities. The communities disadvantaged by this process are not often included in the planning decision-making process either. 

This leads to a wide range of health consequences for the people of these communities: 

  • nutritional deficiencies, 
  • lead poisoning, 
  • asthma, 
  • chronic disease, 
  • immune deficiencies
  • shorter life expectancy

In addition, the communities facing environmental racism usually do not receive economic benefits or compensation from the industries causing the environmental pollution. 

Now, as climate change worsens the risks of extreme weather and storms, the impacts of environmental racism are also intensifying. As climate impacts are becoming more frequent and intense, communities lack resources to cope with 

  • sea level rise 
  • flooding
  • water shut-offs
  • power outages 
  • rebuilding 
  • displacement

This means the people who have contributed least to climate change face some of its worst impacts. The environmental justice movement began to address these disparities. 

How did the environmental justice movement start? 

Some of the first protests against pollution directly targeting BIPOC communities took place in the 1960s. After that people started to research the systemic ties between racism and environmental harm. 

First study to cite environmental racism

One of the first researchers to examine this problem was Richard Bullard, an African American sociologist from Houston, Texas. According to National Geographic, “He found that 14 of the city’s 17 industrial waste sites—accounting for over 80 percent of the city’s waste tonnage—were situated in Black neighborhoods, though only 25 percent of Houston’s population were Black.” His study was the first to document the systemic link between environmental hazards and race. He received the John Muir award from the Sierra Club in 2013 for his findings. 

Today, environmental racism in Houston continues. The Harrisburg/Manchester Neighborhood, with a 98% hispanic population, stands near the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) facilities where oil refineries, chemical plants, sewage treatment facilities, and hazardous waste sites release 484,000 pounds of toxic chemicals each year. 

First major environmental justice protest 

In 1982, the state of North Carolina planned to move PCBs from soils along its roads to a Warren County landfill. Warren County was one of just several counties with a black majority population in the state. PCBs are a man made chemical banned in 1979, are the byproduct of manufacturing “microscope oils, electrical insulators, capacitors, and electric appliances such as television sets or refrigerators” (NOAA).   

Protesters organized to block the trucks from entering the landfill. Even though the protesters did not win the battle, the issue received national attention and raised awareness of environmental racism. This protest received widespread attention, but other similar protests had occurred earlier. 

Examples of environmental racism

When you look at the data, you can find environmental racism in nearly every community in the US. Here are some of the most well-documented examples. 

  • Cancer alley, Louisiana: People living on this 85-mile stretch of land where oil refineries and petrochemical facilities operate in Louisiana are 50 times more likely to get cancer than the average American. Multiple crises including hurricanes and coronavirus compound the problems its residents face. St. Johns the Baptist Parish in cancer alley has the highest death rate from COVID-19 per capita in the entire country. 
  • The Bronx, New York City: Air pollution, a leading cause of death worldwide, has caused 20% of the children in the diverse population of the Bronx to have asthma, and related hospitalizations are 5 times higher than the national average. Air pollution problems also affect the health of BIPOC people in the neighborhoods close to industrial areas in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and other major cities around the country. 
  • Uranium mining on Navajo Nation: Roughly 173,000 Navajo people are still at risk from the negative health impacts of radioactive particles contaminating the water and arable land near Cold-War era uranium mines built on Navajo ancestral land and reservations. The worst impacts are felt near the Uranium mines of the Four Corners area: Tse Tah, Red Valley and Cove, Ariz., and Monument Valley.  
  • Tree inequality nationwide: 92 percent of low-income neighborhoods and 67 percent of POC neighborhoods (including higher income neighborhoods) have less tree cover than wealthier, white neighborhoods in their area. This causes an average of 3 degrees F temperature difference, so low-income and POC neighborhoods are more vulnerable during heatwaves. 

  • Examples of environmental justice activism

    Stop Line 3 - Currently, an indigenous-led movement is underway to stop Enbridge Energy’s Line 3, a project that would transport toxic tar sands across hundreds of fresh water bodies and wetlands at the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Minnesota to Superior, Wisconsin. The pipeline would cross treaty territory of the Anishinaabe peoples. Enbridge is a Canadian company responsible for the largest US oil spill. 

    Protect cancer alley residents - Recently, community organizer Sharon Lavigne led successful protests against Wanhua, a Chinese plastic manufacturer, from opening a facility in her St. James community located within Louisiana’s cancer alley. She received the prestigious 2021 Goldman Environmental Prize for her activism.


    Climate justice movement - The Climate Justice Alliance centers frontline BIPOC communities in its activism which advocates for a just transition.  Uprose, a BIPOC-led activist organization based in Brooklyn centers its work on community-led campaigns to support frontline communities of the climate crisis. 


    What policies address environmental racism?


    Biden’s recent Executive Order set a “Justice40” goal, so that “40 percent of the overall benefits of relevant federal investments to disadvantaged communities and tracks performance toward that goal through the establishment of an Environmental Justice Scorecard.” Here are details on a $50 million spending package recently passed for environmental justice through the American Rescue Plan. 


    The Green New Deal proposed by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and drafted by Rhiana Gunn-Wright placed climate justice at the center of a widely publicized proposal to invest in transitioning to a low carbon economy. The proposed plan addressed environmental racism by ensuring low income BIPOC communities would receive economic benefits from newly created jobs and health benefits from clean energy. Though the drafted policy did not pass, it raised awareness around environmental justice. 


    Read more on this topic: 10 Examples of Environmental Racism and How it Works


    Goodfair aims to keep our prices affordable for low-income communities. We also want to minimize the textile waste burden impacting BIPOC communities. Shop Goodfair’s affordable used clothing.  

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