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Written by Alida Minkel
on April 22, 2021

Companies that have made racial equity a part of their diversity and inclusion strategy must realize that their sustainability efforts also need to be a part of that strategy. Understanding the connection between racial justice and environmental justice is a critical step in helping to address the environmental racism that affects so many Hispanics and people of color.


Environmental racism refers to the disproportionate impact of environmental issues on the health and safety of underrepresented communities.[1] It can take many forms, from power stations being closely situated near predominantly minority communities, to contaminated drinking water, to living and working in unsafe buildings. While income inequality can have an impact on which populations these problems most affect, racial inequality also plays a major role. In fact, a 2007 study found that race was a stronger indicator than household income “in predicting where commercial hazardous waste facilities were located in the U.S.”[2] The social and ecological impact of environmental racism illustrates the need for an intersectional approach in addressing it.

One way environmental racism can be addressed is by working with the communities most impacted by it, such as the U.S. Hispanic community. U.S. Hispanics care deeply about environmental and health protections. Nine out of ten Latinos want climate action, with support for climate action ranking second only to immigration reform.[3] In fact, their amount of support for action to combat climate change outweighs the concern of most Americans. This concern stems from a number of underlying reasons.

  1. Hispanics tend to live in areas most impacted by climate change: More than 60 percent of all U.S. Latinos live in California, Florida, Texas, and New York, which are states that are among the most vulnerable to severe heat, air pollution, and flooding. What’s more, over 24 million Hispanics live in the 15 U.S. cities most heavily polluted by ozone smog.[4] This had an especially negative impact throughout 2020, with research finding a link between communities’ exposure to hazardous air pollutants and COVID-19 mortality rates.[5]
  2. Hispanics face increased climate-related risks due to their occupations: In 2020, U.S. Hispanics made up more than 30 percent of the nation’s crop production workers and more than 30 percent of construction workers.[6] As a result, Hispanics are almost three times more likely to die while on the job from heat-related causes than their non-Hispanic, white counterparts.[7]
  3. Hispanics face challenges that make facing climate-related threats more difficult: Climate change issues highlight many of the health and economic disparities experienced by racial and ethnic minority groups in the United States. Racial and ethnic minority groups are not only more likely to be employed in occupations with increased climate-related risks, they are also less likely to have health insurance – one in five Hispanics (19 percent) are uninsured – and more likely to have underlying health conditions that put them at greater risk for negative outcomes if they get sick or injured.[8]

Maximizing Sustainability Efforts Banner
Addressing climate change and environmental racism clearly presents a tremendous benefit for Hispanic communities. But what does this mean for Corporate America’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts? What can employees do to ensure their organizations are maximizing their sustainability efforts in a meaningful way?

  1. Push your organization to make sustainability a central CSR goal: Sustainability should not be thought of as an objective separate from racial equity. It must be thought of as part of a consistent, organization-wide priority that directly relates to the organization’s diversity and inclusion efforts. This will require companies to find a way to engage all employees in this effort. Sustainability efforts not only provide financial benefits, but studies have shown that employee retention, productivity, and overall engagement also increase as well.[9] Sustainability is therefore a great avenue for Hispanic employee engagement and retention since it’s most likely an issue already very important to them.
  2. Leverage the intersectional expertise of your sustainability and race/ethnicity-based ERGs: Organizations can accomplish this by partnering with multiple Employee Resource Groups (ERG) to more precisely target their sustainability efforts in a way that both aligns with their employee’s values as well as maximizes the impact of their efforts. Leveraging the expertise of leaders within ERGs focused on multiple areas of CSR can help organizations develop an intersectional approach to addressing environmental racism.
  3. Purposely invest in communities where industrial facilities are located: Companies need to make sure that the communities located around their industrial facilities are invested in and well-informed about how such facilities are impacting their environment and communities. This requires organizations to implement robust tracking and evaluation methods and disclose the results with transparency and clarity. Additionally, when developing environmental justice policies and development plans, organizations need to ensure their operations will not affect underrepresented populations disproportionately.

Hispanics throughout Corporate America must work together to amplify the voices of communities impacted by environmental racism. By leveraging the intersectional expertise of ERGs, working with Hispanic leaders, and demanding investment and action, we can create a path to tackle this challenge and help all communities thrive.

 

Interested in learning more about the link between environmental justice and racial justice? Here are some additional resources:

[1] Beech, Peter. 2020. “What is environmental racism?” World Economic Forum. Retrieved April 15, 2021 (https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/07/what-is-environmental-racism-pollution-covid-systemic/).

[2] Bullard, Ph.D., Robert D., Mohai, Ph.D., Paul, Saha, Ph.D., Saha, and Beverly Wright, Ph.D. 2007. Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: 1987-2007. Cleveland, OH: The United Church of Christ.

[3] Quintero, Adrianna, Juanita Constible, Juan Declet-Barreto, and Jorge Madrid. 2016. Nuestro Futuro: Climate Change and U.S. Latinos. New York, NY: National Resource Defense Council.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Younes, Lylla and Sarah Sneath. 2020. “New Research Shows Disproportionate Rate of Coronavirus Deaths in Polluted Areas.” Propublica. Retrieved April 20, 2021 (https://www.propublica.org/article/new-research-shows-disproportionate-rate-of-coronavirus-deaths-in-polluted-areas).

[6] United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2021. Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey: Employed persons by detailed industry, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity. Washington, DC: United States Bureau of Labor Statistics.

[7] Quintero, Adrianna, Juanita Constible, Juan Declet-Barreto, and Jorge Madrid. 2016. Nuestro Futuro: Climate Change and U.S. Latinos. New York, NY: National Resource Defense Council.

[8] Artiga, Samantha, Rachel Garfield, and Kendal Orgera. 2020. “Communities of Color at Higher Risk for Health and Economic Challenges Due to COVID-19.” KFF. Retrieved June 30, 2020 (https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/communities-of-color-at-higher-risk-for-health-and-economic-challenges-due-to-covid-19/).

[9] Polman, Paul, and CB Bhattacharya. 2019. “Engaging Employees to Create a Sustainable Business.” Stanford Social Innovation Review. Retrieved April 15, 2021 (https://ssir.org/articles/entry/engaging_employees_to_create_a_sustainable_business).

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