Who gets to have a seat at the table?

When it comes to environmental justice, our actions need to be considered in a way that will help bring people and communities to the table who are historically left out. We can create change by telling a story that everyone understands and has access to, therefore creating systems that are equitable and just. When we start investing in areas of our society that have fallen behind, we give people the chance to experience new, diverse opportunities, and one way this can be done is through reforming industries. 

Let’s start by breaking down Environmental Justice

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines Environmental Justice (EJ) 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.” Okay, so what does that really mean? 

In simpler terms, Environmental Justice is defined by Robert Bullard (aka “the father of environmental justice”) who was a leading voice for environmental racism and pollution in minority communities in the 70s and 80s. He defined environmental justice as “the principle that all people are entitled to equal environmental protection regardless of race, color or national origin. It’s the right to live and work and play in a clean environment.” 

And to really break EJ down further it can be categorized into two parts: the decisions you make and the decisions you cannot always make. There are many decisions we can all make each day to improve the conditions of our environment. For example, riding your bike or taking public transportation to work, cutting back on single-use plastics, conserving water, or maybe even eating a more plant-based diet. On the other side, there are many decisions being made each day that we do not have control over and oftentimes the choices that you cannot make tend to have the greatest impact. For example, a new coal power plant goes up in your community that heavily increases the amount of air pollution in the area, or a chemical processing plant begins dumping their waste into a nearby waterway. Beyond political action, you are not easily able to make these decisions on whether or not they happen; they are sometimes beyond our control, but it still directly impacts you and your community. This can be a serious problem. Environmental Justice is the push to ensure that we all take responsibility for our influence on the environment. Without EJ, some populations may fall victim to the intentions and ambitions of others; when it comes to the environment, everyone should have some level of agency over the decisions that directly or indirectly impact their lives.

What is a Business’s Role? 

Businesses and corporations are at the center of what makes our society function, however, their actions do not come without consequences. Most, if not all of the negative environmental and health impacts come from businesses. Whether it is a heavy polluting industry, excessive water use, land transformation, or unequal access to basic services, businesses are behind the decisions that tend to disproportionately affect BIPOC communities or low-income neighborhoods. It is easy to point the finger at big corporations since they have massive operations, but small businesses can also play a role in impacting their communities and the natural environment where they operate. Progressive steps can be taken, no matter the sector your business is in, that reduces risks and strengthens the communities around your business. 

Top industries contributing to environmental justice issues

1. Fashion

With forever-changing style trends, influencer marketing, and price reductions due to fast fashion, this industry is putting up some impressive numbers; with a value of over 2.5 trillion $USD and employing over 75 million workers, it is no secret that this industry is contributing largely to the economy and even more to the environment. Energy-intensive manufacturing and long, complex supply chains lead the industry to contribute 10% of overall greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. What doesn’t help is the accelerated metabolism of clothes in an industry that encourages change—needless to say this industry is in desperate need for some radical re-envisioning. 

The footprint your shoes leave behind 

Did you know, Fashion is the 2nd most polluting industry on the planet next to the oil industry? The industry is also the second-largest consumer of water worldwide. It takes about 2,000 gallons of water to produce a pair of jeans. That’s more than enough for one person to drink eight cups per day for 10 years.

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This is because jeans are made from a highly water-intensive plant: Cotton. More than the excessive water use, fabric dyes pollute our waters. The fashion industry is responsible for 20% of all industrial water pollution worldwide. In an effort to get the lowest price, manufacturers are forced to produce in such large volumes that they end up with excess inventory. This inventory ends up in landfills. The equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill every second.

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Additionally, apparel manufacturing takes a highly skilled labor force. They should be paid fairly and treated well for these skills and unfortunately, many times they are not. Clothing-factory workers are also often exposed to unsafe—even deadly—workplace conditions, particularly when handling materials like cotton and leather that require extensive processing. The modern fashion industry is one of the most exploitative industries that creates an unequal distribution of wealth and environmental impacts and should have every business looking to make a change for good.

So what’s the good news?

There are consumers out there demanding change 

  • There is a role of an ethical consumer in this industry with a ‘voting with your dollar’ strategy, but this not only limits how we can vote—AKA Money—but also who is able to participate in the vote. Environmental Justice is more than just a means for individual consumers to get on board and demand this change. It is the responsibility of businesses to provide the means to make this change.

There are resources available to help

  • Fashion Revolution is a great resource for businesses, providing resources for brands, retailers, and consumers on how to be a part of the sustainable fashion transformation. 
  • FABRIC is a fashion consulting firm that offers guidance on training, innovative industry resources, and access to manufacturing, so businesses can build sustainable fashion supply chains domestically. They have already helped over 800 apparel entrepreneurs. Angela at FABRIC breaks it down for us and explains that, “Fashion justice is the opportunity to fix the environmental and human/animal rights issues that have plagued the industry for far too long so that we can create a sustainable industry that provides safe and well-paying jobs.” 

Other businesses have successfully created sustainable models. Here’s how to get creative with your business strategy:

  • Consider a rental business model: The rental model is a clear winner for high-end or niche fashion. Rent the Runway is a company that allows consumers to rent pieces from their “shareable closet”. Pieces include designer quality collections on a fast fashion budget. 
  • Offer lifetime repairs: Companies like Nudie Jeans and Patigonia all offer lifetime repairs on their clothing to extend the life of your garment.   
  • Get creative with how your materials are sourced: Tonlé uses surplus fabric from mass clothing manufacturers to create zero-waste fashion collections. In Amsterdam, GumDrop collects gum and turns it into a new kind of rubber, Gum-tec, which is then used to make shoes. Companies like Queen of Raw help connect brands, designers, and retailers to dead stock of sustainable fabrics from factories and save billions of resources doing so.

Develop standards and practices for designing garments that can be easily reused or recycled. 

  • The Sustainable Apparel Coalition has created an index for measuring the full life-cycle impact of clothing and footwear products. 
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2. Energy and Transportation  

The energy industry is essential to supporting our modern standard of living and its growth is triggered by the increased energy need as well as the transition to renewables. However, the rise of clean energy is not quite evenly spread. There are many cases of injustices within the US when it comes to clean energy. Our current energy production pollutes the air at an alarming rate and at disproportionate levels. According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) report, “68% of African Americans live near a coal-fired power plant.” These groups are disproportionately affected by the toxic waste these plants produce and could be the reason why black children are “79% more likely to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution is suspected of posing the greatest health danger.” The long term effects of pouring greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere for so long are dire and often afflict the poorest populations who have no control and often no access to clean energies. This major gap is leaving us to question the burden of our choices and who pays. The truth is, we are all paying for these injustices and it is unfortunately often with our health and safety.

Energy justice is a complex issue with implications related to racial, geographical, social and economic consequences. Businesses can use their influence to improve public health and safety by contributing to the conversation about environmental justice and a just energy transition. Issues related to affordability, infrastructure development, and access will only continue to be points of interest for legislators; there is likely no single policy or movement that will be the solution to the problem, but if each business, corporation, and individual could get behind this movement and prioritize our community’s health and safety, imagine where we could be at with the climate crisis. Together we can help make a difference in this industry to promote more affordable, reliable, and cleaner energy for all. 

How can you get involved?

Find creative ways within your business to use clean energy

  • Consider installing renewable energy on your commercial building or site that makes the most sense for your business geographically. Look for government incentives or subsidies and consider investing in programs like Community Solar or similar initiatives.
  • See if your energy provider has any clean energy programs: Some power companies provide an optional service, called green pricing, that allows customers to pay a small premium in exchange for electricity generated from clean, renewable energy sources.

Practice energy efficiently at your business

  • Install energy star appliances to be more efficient with your energy use. Turn lights off when not in use, install smart thermostats to save energy on heating and cooling needs, and research other ways to be more energy efficient. This will not only save on emissions but also save you money.

Take political action

  • Research climate justice resources near you including petitions to sign, local movements to support, experts to follow, and legislation to support. Get familiar with the organizations and experts that are on the frontline of this movement and what government officials are doing to help support.

Look for other programs and initiatives 

3. Construction

Behind every building, house, highway, and parking lot there was a construction project that built it. More than just the intended infrastructure is left behind once a project is complete. From energy use, water contamination, air particulates and noise pollution, the construction industry has both temporary and lasting effects on the places and people around the sites where they build. No matter the scale of a project, there is always a construction site. These sites are either in or next to a community, and will have impacts to that community from the building process, regardless of project size or scope. Even after construction is complete, the physical infrastructure can cause issues as well. US highways and interstates have scarred BIPOC neighborhoods through sometimes purposeful planning. This not only negatively impacts the physical communities, but also the health of those living nearby through air pollution. Highway infrastructure is just one example of how construction can have temporary and long-lasting impacts on the people and communities in which they are conducted. 

How to build a better plan

Avoid risks early in the planning process

  • Conversations about the potential impacts and how to mitigate them should happen during planning stages, well before the project is underway. The earlier that issues are brought to the table, the better they can be planned for. Having social and environmental impacts come to the forefront of conversations will help your company avoid risks of being accountable for these negative impacts while boosting the trust of your community partners.

Engage with all stakeholders

  • It is important that all of the stakeholders are engaged with to avoid risks that could halt or hurt your company’s reputation in the future. Not only should those that have a financial stake in the project be heard, but also those who have health, environmental, and personal stakes as well. 

Invite an expert to consult

  • Hiring a consultant can help merge the gap between the project partners and the rest of the stakeholders. It is much better to have an expert in the room that is working solely on the social and environmental impacts than to have these issues added onto another person’s responsibilities. 

Evaluate current contracting process 

  • Be mindful of the contacts that you are working with. Bring the following questions to the table when deciding on contracts: Who are the people making up the construction teams? Where are materials sourced? Why are these choices being made? 

Hire Locally

  • Local craftsmen can be more expensive, but they lend integrity to the project. The dollars that you are putting into the project, are now going to support the people that are living where the project is happening. This can lead to your business getting more jobs within the area through trust and better relationships. 

Make your projects LEED or WELL Certified

  • LEED or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is the most widely used green building rating system that incorporates various criteria to determine the sustainability of a building. The WELL Building Standard is a performance-based system for measuring, certifying, and monitoring features of the built environment that impact human health and wellbeing. Use these certifications as a guideline to new projects. 

Consider incorporating Biophilic Design

  • Biophilic Design focuses on connecting humans and nature in the built environment. Providing green spaces, water features, abundant plants and natural materials creates a host of benefits, including helping to reduce a development’s carbon footprint and regulating the temperature of buildings. To learn more about Biophilic design, watch the video here!

4. Food and Agriculture

Current agricultural practices and systems feed the world, but at the cost of high social and environmental impacts. Due to high chemical inputs, massive concentrations of animal feces, and harsh labor conditions (just to name a few) the agriculture industry has a lot of environmental justice issues. A Duke University study shows that people living in communities with the highest density of hog operations experienced 30% more deaths among patients with kidney disease, 50 percent more deaths among patients with anemia, and 130 percent more deaths among patients with sepsis, as compared to people in communities without big hog facilities. In the US, the industrial ag industry rellies on undocumented immigrant workers who are not protected by health care or labor laws. They are exposed to harmful chemicals sprayed on produce, extreme heat of fields, and long, grueling, dangerous hours in meat processing plants. Injustices do not stop at harsh working conditions. Take the wine industry for example, BIPOC and Latinx laborers make up the majority of vineyard workers, at the professional and owner level they represent less than 1%. With such a wide variety of injustices within this industry, it is the responsibility of businesses to ensure the mitigation of negative impacts. 

Growing equity along with crops

Consider the Co-op model  

  • In the face of systemic injustices within the agricultural industry, Kalchē Wine, a small vineyard in Vermont, is utilizing the cooperative business model to empower their employees. A cooperative business model is different than the investor-owned model that dominates our current economy. Cooperatives are the idea that those who work in the business should also be the ones who own and operate it. It is not a new idea, but co-ops offer a way to protect employees, communities, and businesses themselves from hyper-focusing on maximizing profits and shareholder returns over truly supporting the humans that run a business and the communities the business runs in. Kathline Chery, a cofounder of Kalchē Wine, sees their cooperative business model as a way to change the system. She said it is important that employees are a part of larger profit-sharing because, “without the talents of your employees, you don’t have a business.” 
  • Exploring the cooperative business model is a way that your business can work for those that work for the business. If employees are more engaged and integrated into the decisions a business is making, they will be more engaged in their work. You have an opportunity to give your employees more purpose and fulfillment than a paycheck at the end of the month. Search online to see if your state has a local employee ownership center that offers cooperative tools, support, and resources. 

Get on board with Fair Trade 

  • Get Fair Trade certified. Fair trade is a way to ensure that better prices, decent working conditions and a fairer deal for farmers who are working in developing countries are at the core of your business model. Fair Trade America has a four step process for your products to become certified. 

Souring from responsible suppliers

  • Small businesses in the food sector can help support agriculture equity and improve their business by sourcing locally grown organic food whenever possible. Knowing who your suppliers are and how they source their products can lead to more informed decisions that support responsible practices.
  • When you can’t source locally, use Fair Trade products when purchasing your inventory. Using Fair Trade can strengthen your supply chains and add transparency and credibility to your brand. Learn why Fair Trade makes the world a better place.  

Environmental Justice For All

When it comes to Environmental Justice, every business should be taking steps towards a better tomorrow, no matter the sector or scale. Small business owners may struggle with where to get started but fear not! We have made a comprehensive guide with steps for your business to follow and consider to produce a more equitable practice. There are four main action points, evaluation, integration, education, and avocation. By using this tool you will be able to analyze the status of your business when it comes to environmental justice and develop new practices for an equitable future. Change is coming and business leaders have an opportunity to get in front of it.