Alongside my work at ERM, I’ve been pursuing a Master’s in Environmental Sciences, which I completed this spring. It was in the classroom that I first dove into the concept of environmental justice, learning about the intersection of the social justice and environmentalist movements as well as the disproportionate impacts of environmental harm on people of color.

Environmental Justice: An Introduction

My own introduction to this topic may have been recent, but negative environmental impacts on communities of color have been evident for decades. For instance, elements of racial bias in city planning have resulted in many industrial complexes being situated in minority communities, where the surrounding residents are often subject to magnified health risks due to their proximity to sources of pollution and disturbance.

While I encountered it in the course of my studies, environmental justice is far from being just an academic concept. The continuing impacts of environmental racism are measurable. Consider:

As the world confronts the challenges the climate crisis will bring, environmental justice issues are likely to worsen. For example:

  • Sixty percent of the global population could be at risk for dengue fever by 2080 due to lengthened transmission seasons. Those most likely to be affected are impoverished communities in dense population centers in the global south whose populations are not responsible for the majority of past GHG emissions.
  • Small Pacific Island Nations are responsible for just 5 percent of current fossil fuel emissions as compared to industrial countries, yet they face climate change impacts from sea level rise threatening their very existence.

Government and Corporate Response

Both governments and corporates have begun responding to pressure to address environmental justice issues. While encouraging, further action is needed.

An important component of the Biden Administration’s environmental and social policies is Justice40, a program that promises to deliver at least 40 percent of federal investments in climate and clean energy into disadvantaged communities in order to benefit people historically affected by environmental injustice. As the low carbon economy is built, the administration’s plans require that associated infrastructure development takes environmental justice considerations into account by consulting with at-risk groups who have not always been included in these processes in the past.

Across the Atlantic, the EU’s Green Deal has enormous potential to help address environmental and climate justice and help finance a just transition globally. In 2021, the EU partnered with a handful of other governments in committing $8.5 billion towards South Africa’s decarbonization efforts and that nation’s phase out of coal-fired energy production. There is hope that more funding of this type will be provided to other countries in need of transition support at COP27 in November 2022.

In addition to emerging government actions, some progressive businesses are proving to be trailblazers in terms of their environmental justice actions.

Patagonia has made environmental and climate justice a core consideration. They’ve covered the basics with a goal to reach net zero goal by 2025 and by attaining fair trade certification across much of their supply chain, and they take a step further with their stakeholder education campaigns. Patagonia Action Works provides customers and stakeholders with education resources on environmental justice and makes the company’s stance clear: “environmental justice is racial justice.” Relevant education materials and examples on how to get involved are incorporated into their comprehensive stakeholder education portfolio.

Ohio-headquartered electric utility AEP recognizes the need to decarbonize for the planet and for the health of the communities they serve. They also take seriously the responsibility they have for local economies during the pursuit of a just transition. As part of decommissioning of coal-fired assets and the decarbonization of their generation portfolio, AEP announced plans to retire an East Texas fossil fuel-burning power plant by 2023. In creating the closure plans, AEP partnered with the Just Transition Fund to convene a community transition taskforce and draft a high-level action plan for local economic diversification within six months of closure. The transition taskforce also helped relocate members of the plant’s workforce into new jobs outside of coal. It was a considerable success: by the end of 2021, 75 percent of the workforce had secured new employment.

In Brazil, Natura promotes environmental equity by working with native communities in the Amazon. By utilizing the Brazilian legal mechanism of Benefit Sharing, Natura distributes gains from finished products that utilize genetic heritage or traditional knowledge from native populations in the Amazon. Natura’s partnership with traditional Amazonian communities has also helped promote biodiversity and conservation in the region, resulting in the conservation of over two million hectares of forest.

Ways Your Business Can Make a Difference

The following four steps can help any business improve its performance on environmental justice issues.

Evaluate: An organization should first evaluate ways their activity might cause environmental and social impacts. Evaluation through impact assessment and stakeholder engagement can be powerful ways to determine how your company may be contributing towards potential injustices. Where assessment and engagement activities are already performed for other purposes, environmental justice can be incorporated into the process as a primary consideration. Understanding the effect of the business on vulnerable communities is critical to determining which steps to take to prevent environmental justice issues from arising in the future. 

Integrate: Strategies to take action on environmental justice should be integrated into a company’s everyday activity. Consider starting by establishing or updating a net zero policy to address the wider issue of climate justice. Reductions in waste production or water usage can help by limiting distributed pollution, or a business might make its facilities more community friendly by adding tree cover to reduce the urban heat island effect. Companies might also follow B Lab’s Climate Justice Playbook for Business to determine how environmental justice strategies can fit into their overall plan.

Educate: Environmental justice must be a point of education for internal and external stakeholders. Consider including environmental justice as well as more comprehensive DE&I education in employee training. Provide customers with information on how your company is taking action on environmental justice. Inform suppliers how their actions might be negatively impacting disadvantaged communities and collaborate with them to effect positive change. Educating stakeholders on the actions you are taking to address environmental justice may inspire them to act also.

Advocate: Companies can advocate for environmental justice through their direct business activity as well as via collaboration and engagement with industry groups. A company could consider sourcing a certain percentage of their supply from local minority-owned businesses or from a certain geography as ways to engage with impacted economies. Relevant business coalitions and initiatives can facilitate collaborative advocacy and engagement that furthers the environmental justice movement and magnifies voices for change. What’s most important is that these actions include the impacted communities and help amplify their calls for change.

Making Environmental Justice the Norm

Society is signaling a desire to address past environmental injustices while preventing them from happening in the future. Leading governments and corporates are listening and acting, but further momentum is needed. Companies can play a key role in this drive towards an equitable future by considering how they might evaluate, integrate, educate, and advocate for the environmental justice movement. The time to start this process? Now.