I’ve wanted to write this blog post for a long time, and yet I’ve been hesitant to put pen to paper and begin the hard work. Why? First and foremost, this interconnection of environmental and social justice is deeply rooted in our culture and an incredibly complex topic, and becomes downright daunting when trying to package it into 1,000 or so words. Secondly, I myself am a white woman - I hold privileges that mean I benefit indirectly from many forms of racism, including in the environmental space. This past weekend, I was called to engage closely with this topic, and have been reminded that my work in the environmental realm requires that I get my hands dirty with uncomfortable realities and that I, as a privileged person in our society, educate those around me on aspects of sustainability and environmentalism that need to be addressed. For this post, I have taken both academic knowledge on environmental and social justice and art created and celebrated by our incredible BIPOC community. We cannot - and should not - have this conversation without acknowledging their lived experiences and critical input.
What is Environmental Justice and Environmental Racism?
Let’s get some terminology out of the way before we dive in. The EPA terms environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” When we look at systems of oppression, we see where marginalized communities are not treated with the same equity and respect as those with inherently more privilege (white, male, and wealthy largely dominate this category). This bleeds over to environmental factors, like exposure to climate change and unsafe environmental living conditions (more on this later). The term “environmental racism”, therefore, relates to practices that place people and communities of color at heightened risk of dangerous environmental factors, or leave them out of important environmental conversations and opportunities.
A Problem Extending Worldwide
Environmental racism is a global problem, and one that already impacts billions of people. When we look at environmental racism, we look at factors like the built environment, food insecurity, energy sources, clean energy access, and vulnerability to climate change and natural disasters. When impoverished BIPOC communities are priced out of safe, affordable housing and forced to inhabit environments that place them at heightened risk of sea level rise, if they are in poorly regulated, pollutant-heavy parts of cities, or if they lack accessible clean drinking water, that is environmental racism. (We're all looking at you, Flint, MI.) When people of color and other minorities are intentionally left out of decision-making that impacts environmental policy or their access to safe living environments, that is environmental racism. We see this through erasure of indigenous cultures by white-dominated communities that place little or no value on indigenous connection with the land or cultural customs. We see this through lack of global support for impoverished communities already suffering from sea level rise, in which moving is not a viable option for families. This form of injustice has escalated dramatically with more vulnerable countries facing the first serious consequences of climate change, but it can be identified in countless scenarios in the US, as well.
Local Roots of Environmental Racism
Closer to home, we see the impacts of environmental racism on a different scale. In her beautifully narrated book “Braiding Sweetgrass”, Robin Wall Kimmerer explains how the erasure of indigenous customs, language, and wisdom has impacted the indigenous populations and botany science education here in the US. By intentionally excluding these voices from sharing the table when engaging in environmental sciences or establishing environmental policy that affects these communities, we leave out a necessary voice. Wall Kimmerer throws her experiences with the white-dominated higher education system into sharp relief when she describes her traditional values of connecting with and sharing the natural world in comparison with her fellow colleagues who treat science and new research as purely a "what" rather than a "why". I cannot recommend this anthology of stories highly enough.
Here in Colorado, we can see environmental racism at work right in our own backyard. Commerce City, CO is the most polluted city in the state, and is home to a population with over 50% BIPOC families. With multiple heavily-polluting factories within several miles of one another inside city limits, residents have complained of constant nosebleeds, migraines, and startlingly higher rates of asthma and cancer than the rest of the state. In the documentary “A Good Neighbor”, local Latina mom and community member Lucy Molina shares her journey of identifying the environmental injustices present in her city and her resulting fight to change the narrative through engagement with both local politics and advocacy. She also shares her experiences of push-back from dismissive leaders who refused to listen to the voice of a female-identifying Latina mom. If you are interested in attending a private viewing of this new local film, please connect up with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Why This Matters to All of Us
As Lisa Molina so poignantly commented when I saw her speak in late March 2023 following a showing of the film “A Good Neighbor”, “what’s happening in Commerce City is what will happen to all of us eventually.” We see environmental issues occur first in marginalized communities where there is less advocacy for human and environmental safety and equity, but all of us will eventually reap the results. In “A Good Neighbor”, the documentary stresses that much of the water pollution in Commerce City impacts the Colorado River that provides their drinking water. However, these repercussions will be felt as contaminants move downstream over city and state lines, polluting much farther than just the chemicals’ point of entry.
When we refuse to allow all voices in our environmental decision-making and ignore advocacy in BIPOC communities, we not only support overtly racist institutions, we strip critical voices from the table. Just as Robin Wall Kimmerer’s holistic view on botany science and Lisa Molina’s advocacy of corporate regulatory practices in Commerce City, these voices produce a full picture of the problems and pitfalls facing communities far and wide - and ultimately all of humanity - and allow us to all benefit through environmental innovation. It will take all of us to tackle the implications facing us from climate change, and we need all of us collaborating as one to combat it.
Environmental racism encompasses so many disparities locally, nation-wide, and globally, that indeed full books have been written on the subject and one single blog post can hardly scratch the surface on the vast scope of the problem. At Summit, we know and acknowledge that environmental racism also can look like inaccessibility to eco-friendly products and services in the community. Sustainable products often carry a heftier price tag, and those communities without as much disposable income are not able to afford them. Similarly, household environmental services such as recycling and composting may be out of reach for many. As the founder of a small product-based sustainable business, it has been my mission to grow my local company and address affordability of my products through adding a variety of products at different price levels to allow as many individuals as possible to access eco-friendly products. While this has proved to be a complex endeavor, it is one I continue to strive for as a business owner.
About Summit Sustainable Goods
As we continue the hard work of decolonizing environmentalism and allowing folks from all walks of life a place at the environmental table, we are proud to serve the great state of Colorado and all of our wonderful communities. Based primarily in Denver, CO, Summit Sustainable Goods provides a variety of sustainable products, many of them handcrafted locally by other small businesses. We are proud to offer high quality products from BIPOC business owners, including Glow + Gather, Jo’s Body Shop, and Anaruz Handmade. As we expand our inventory, we plan to introduce a wider array of affordable products for all Coloradans and celebrate the wonderful BIPOC makers throughout Colorado.
Ready to shop sustainably at a local company working toward big impact? Welcome! Check out our website at www.summitsustainablegoods.eco or visit us at a local pop-up around town for high quality and eco-friendly household and personal care products. (Info available through our website or socials.) Want to follow our journey and learn about future zero waste events and happenings? Adventure with us by signing up for our monthly emails or follow us on Instagram or Facebook to keep up-to-date on all things Summit.
"Braiding Sweetgrass" by Robin Wall Kimmerer, published 2013