What is Environmental Racism?

In the middle of the Black Lives Matter movement, where so much of the world is fighting against police brutality and social injustice, another important (and lesser-known) issue is being brought up – environmental racism. The fact that climate change and environmental hazards disproportionately affect BIPOC, and that climate change is being made worse by systemic racism.  

As a brand founded on sustainability, the ethical treatment of all people, and one that supports the Black Lives Matter movement wholeheartedly, we wanted to share this topic with you and point you to more resources.

Intersectional Environmentalism – What is it?

In response to more and more obvious incidences of environmental racism, many environmentalists are expanding their scope of study and work towards intersectional environmentalism

"An inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet. It identifies the ways in which injustices happening to marginalized communities and the Earth are interconnected. It brings injustices done to the most vulnerable communities and the Earth to the forefront and does not minimize or silence social inequality.” - Leah Thomas, Intersectional Environmentalist, Activist & Eco-communicator.

In short, climate change and environmental issues are not just weather or emissions issues – they’re inextricably tied to the same issues we’re battling as we speak – systemic racism and racial injustice.

Environmental Issues Affect BIPOC More  

BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) are much more affected by environmental issues than white people. In fact, studies have shown that BIPOC have 1.28 to 1.54 times higher exposure rates to particle pollution than the white population (particle pollution is considered the largest environmental health risk factor in the US).  

And it not’s just an adult problem either. A study in New York found that black children have on average, at least double the blood lead levels as compared to white children. That is a heartbreaking stat to hear – no child or person deserves this.

Pollution Inequity

Another study, on pollution inequity, measures the amount of pollution a racial-ethnic group creates vs how much pollution they’re exposed to. What it showed: most air pollution is caused by the white population, yet black and POC communities suffer the most from the pollution effects. By the numbers, the black population is exposed to 56% more pollution than they cause (a massive “pollution burden”), while the white population is exposed to 17% less pollution than they caused – a major “pollution advantage”

So basically, the white community is creating most of the pollution, and the black community is suffering most of the health effects.


Image: axios.com

Why Does Pollution Affect BIPOC More?

It’s been shown that BIPOC communities are more likely to live near toxic polluting sites and have poor air quality. Power plants, polluting industrial facilities, and oil and gas operations are built on low-cost land where lower-income communities are built. And thanks to hundreds of years of oppression, slavery, and systemic racism, BIPOC have had to overcome not only individual injustice and inequality, but a whole oppressive system that was built against them. Hence why race and economic status are so strongly linked. Not to mention the fact that many BIPOC are paid substantially less than their white counterparts doing the same jobs.  

Besides the discriminatory placement of toxic facilities, there are countless outright forms of environmental injustice like the Flint Crisis, where local water supply was switched to the river to cut costs, and residents were exposed to lead and other contaminants. The community was mostly made up of POC, and when they reported the water quality issues, officials dismissed their concerns for over 2 years before even acknowledging the problem. This just doesn’t happen in primarily white neighborhoods.


Image: M. Wuerker

BIPOC Receive Less Help In Climate Crisis

Maybe the most disheartening proof of systemic racism: during climate crisis and natural disasters, it’s been shown again and again that black and ethnic communities receive slower (and far lower levels) of support.

With Hurricane Katrina for example – though the primarily black communities were hit the hardest, “the relief was far slower and inadequate compared with that provided in predominantly white and higher-income neighborhoods, despite those being less impacted”, says Georgina Bostean, Assistant Professor of Environmental Science, Health, and Policy at Chapman University.

How Climate Change is Made Worse by Systemic Racism

It’s bad enough that BIPOC bear the bulk of the pollution burden, but the other side is that they’re often excluded from the climate conversation. A conversation that statistically, BIPOC are more concerned about than white people.

The problem: the black community is being hit from all angles. They are battling systemic racism, police brutality, unfair wages, mass incarceration, and overt prejudice every day. And so, the 23 million black people who truly care about addressing the climate crisis are otherwise occupied and overwhelmed fighting for their very existence.

Environmental Racism in Beauty 

Unfortunately, this is a very real issue in the beauty world. So many ingredients and components contribute to environmental suffering and racial injustice for BIPOC. A few of the most common ones: 


Found in almost every compact, lipstick, and palette, magnets are made from ‘Rare Earth’ elements which are processed with huge amounts of carcinogenic toxins. In Baotou alone, 10 million tons of toxic waste are produced every year from rare earth processing. These toxins are then pumped into bodies of water, endangering wildlife and villagers who live nearby. Of course, this is never done in metropolitan, high-income areas; it's done near low-income villages who aren't given a say in this destructive practice. 

Palm Oil 

Almost every cosmetic product contains some sort of palm oil or palm oil derivative. To grow palm oil, growers burn down forests to clear the land. Animals lose their homes, developers aggressively seize land from indigenous groups, and the fires give off huge amounts of greenhouse gases, formaldehyde, cyanide, and small particles that cause serious health conditions and many deaths. 

All our palm-oil derived ingredients are certified sustainably sourced. They include an RSPO certificate to validate that no deforestation, land burning, or exploitation of workers or local communities were involved. Check with brands to see where their palm oil comes from so you're not contributing to the issue. 

Products Made in China

Six of the top 20 most polluted cities in the world are in China. And although China is making efforts to improve their historically very lax pollution laws, the regulations are often ignored and not enforced. Chinese factories are still contributing to extreme levels of water, soil, and air pollution. Chemical runoff goes into waterways and local communities suffer the health effects. 

Not to mention, the average factory worker in China makes $300 per month, and in less urban areas, wages are as low as US $145 per month. That works out to about $2.00/hour for the highest-paid workers! And many of these workers are toiling away for 12-16 hours a day with minimal or no breaks. 

All of this to satisfy Western shoppers looking for a $5 eyeshadow. The truth is, cheap beauty can only exist through racial oppression. When a product costs only a few dollars, the people making it are paid next to nothing, and it definitely isn't being made in an environmentally responsible way. 

So what can we do as beauty buyers? Buy ethically-made products from brands who are transparent about their sourcing and production - who ensure workers are paid fairly, treated respectfully, and who don't contribute to environmental racism. 

So, What Can We Do for Environmental Justice?

“To white people who care about maintaining a habitable planet, I need you to become actively anti-racist. I need you to understand that our racial inequality crisis is intertwined with our climate crisis. If we don’t work on both, we will succeed at neither…” -Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, Marine Biologist, Policy Advisor, and Climate Activist

A few things we can all do right now:

We know, this seems overwhelming and maybe not within your grasp to fix. But there are things each of us can do as individuals, which, when multiplied by innumerable numbers of us, can make a massive impact:  

  1. Take the Intersectional Environmentalist Pledge by greengirlleah – we know we have!
  2. Follow greengirlleah on IG for more on Intersectional Environmentalism.
  3. Donate to, or participate in initiatives by the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment.
  4. Visit Green Action to learn more about their initiatives for environmental justice and Civil Rights.
  5. Read this article on Environmental Racism.
  6. Read the article: How to Be an Anti-Racist.
  7. Look up Green For All: an organization that works for environmental, racial, and economic justice.
  8. Follow mikaelaloach, a Climate Justice & Antiracism Activist on IG.
  9. Follow and support these organizations working to end racial injustice and police brutality: @reclaimtheblock, @unicorn.riot, @blackvisionscollective, @mnfreedomfund.
  10. Visit our blog where we’ve compiled black-created resources, petition links, anti-racism organizations to support, important books to read and documentaries to watch on systemic racism, prejudice, and white privilege.
  11. Attend protests if you can, and speak up for racial justice to your family and friends.
“You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” -Angela Davis

Image + cover image: greengirlleah


In honor of World Ocean’s Day, our Summer Solstice Eyeshadow Palette is 30% off until 6/14 with code OCEAN. All ĀTHR Beauty charity proceeds will go towards Communities United Against Police Brutality for at least the month of June. 

- ĀTHR Beauty xo

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