Companies Making Racial Equity Commitments Must Consider Their Environmental Impact on Marginalized Communities

(Franco Nadalin/Adobe Images)

We know from our polling of the American public, done with The Harris Poll, that Americans want CEOs and high-profile business leaders to speak up and speak out on issues of racial injustice in society. Americans believe CEOs and business leaders should take a stand against systemic racism, and more specifically, implement workplace policies that dismantle racism and advance racial equity. It’s why, since the George Floyd protests sparked a national reckoning with racial injustice in late May, we have seen a steady release of racial equity commitments from the country’s top companies.

But, as we recognized in the CEO Blueprint for Achieving Racial Equity that we published in July alongside FSG and PolicyLink, these commitments must extend beyond just the workplace. It is critical that companies recognize the intersection between racial justice and the built environment, and understand and address their role in perpetuating environmental racism in Black communities. And with Climate Week in full swing, companies should consider making racial equity commitments that will help change the course of harmful polluting.

A new question needs to be asked: Will new racial equity commitments change the course of harmful corporate polluting in marginalized communities?

The connection between corporations, racial inequities, and the environment begins with a history lesson. For decades, discriminatory land use policies made it easier for corporate entities to buy large parcels of land in Black communities, which were typically developed into large-footprint operations, like industrial plants. But living in close proximity to these large-footprint operations – which emit NOx, SO2, and PM 2.5 pollutants – can severely affect resident health and cause property devaluation.

One clear effect of such large-footprint operations is unhealthy air quality affecting the surrounding predominantly Black populations. Black communities have also been shown to have a higher rate of particulate matter (PM 2.5) exposure, which can lead to cardiovascular and respiratory health effects. Such diseases have a higher prevalence in these communities and are reflective of the longstanding environmental inequities.

To start addressing these environmental and health disparities, the environmental justice movement began in the 1960s with the Civil Rights Movement calling attention to unfair environmental working conditions, known as the Memphis Sanitation Strike. This movement continued into the 1980s when Black Americans organized a non-violent protest against the placement of a PCB landfill in North Carolina. It was during the 1980s that the term “environmental racism” was officially coined to describe the systemic environmental inequities faced by Black communities. Environmental racism has ultimately been defined as the pipeline of discriminatory housing and lending policies at the national and local level leading to the devaluation of Black-owned properties.

Unfortunately, that environmental racism continues today. For instance, while the Stonecrest area of south Atlanta was recently deemed the “New Black Wall Street,” it is simultaneously battling to keep a recycling plant from being built in their backyards. Similarly, the neighborhood of Grey’s Ferry in Philadelphia experiences staggering numbers of illness and disease, and is in close proximity to a Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery. This year has particular relevance, as new research from the State University of New York and ProPublica has found a link between communities’ exposure to hazardous air pollutants and COVID-19 mortality rates. With the United States death toll amounting to 200,000 lives lost, and Black Americans dying at a rate over twice higher than white Americans, this demands both attention and action.

With the widespread effects of environmental racism, the solution may lie with many players – corporate America. But despite the case being made for the link between racial justice and environmental justice, there is not a robust amount of examples of corporate leadership in this space. One example, however, is PG&E’s Environmental Justice policy, which explicitly states its intent to minimize the negative impact of their operations on communities of color and take environmental justice impacts into account when developing new policies, such as those related to climate change. The California utility company addresses its historic plants’ impact on communities by remediating 33 of their 41 manufactured gas plants.

But across the board, there is little communication around the corporate role on this issue. Looking at the energy sector (Energy Equipment & Services, Oil & Gas, Utilities) only four of the 27 companies disclosed all air emissions measured by JUST Capital’s 2020 Ranking data (NOx, SO2, and PM). The energy sector is of particular note due to energy intensive operations leading to a larger amount of emissions. Disclosure is often a starting point when improving corporate performance, and the lack thereof is concerning.

The nature of environmental justice as a whole (social and environmental impacts) calls for an intersectional approach. Corporate racial equity commitments should include a social impact assessment, which can answer key questions about the implications of a company’s operations.

We offer below a list questions for companies to keep in mind regarding their industrial plants and action steps to take, in line with the CEO Blueprint for Achieving Racial Equity, to begin the journey of transferring the impact of racial equity commitments to all people affected by their operations. There is a lot of conversation around environmental justice getting its “moment in the sun,” and we look to corporate leaders to sustain that momentum.

Questions to Ask:

  • Has your company identified all the social impacts of your industrial plant locations?
  • Which communities are impacted by your industrial plant’s air emissions? Are they communities that are already systematically oppressed?
  • Is there another feasible location for your industrial plant that would not create harmful conditions for any community?
  • Are you involved in the communities your industrial plant’s air emissions are affecting?

Actions Steps:

  • Perform a Social Impact Assessment on all industrial plant facilities and share the results with the impacted communities.
  • Invest in the communities where facilities are located. JUST Capital measures this through our “Community Development” and “Charitable Giving” issues.
  • Develop environmental justice policies ensuring your operations will not affect Black populations/communities.
  • Track and disclose air emissions of all scopes and locations. JUST Capital also measures this through our “Pollution Reduction” issue.
  • Develop robust mitigation strategies that are easily communicated and publicly accessible.

As the fight for racial equity and against climate change rages on, we must ensure that our efforts benefit all stakeholders.

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