Sustainability for Whom?

Trends / Sustainability
Reya Sehgal
Mar 2, 2022
‘Sustainability’ is routinely a top search term amongst Getty Images customers, rising +111% over the last year, but signs are pointing to a rising consciousness of the unequal impacts of climate change: searches for ‘environmental justice’ grew by +324% in 2021. Despite the increased interest in visualizing a concept that places the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities most impacted at the center of the environmental movement, popular visuals continue to center white people—and that's not a surprise, because the environmental movement has long been associated with whiteness. Visuals related to environmentalism and sustainability regularly highlight white people protesting, cleaning up beaches, hiking, farming, and living zero‑waste lifestyles. They’re also seen as the face of environmental nonprofits, where studies report that the staff and boards are overwhelmingly white.Editorial news coverage of the climate justice movement has even been accused of cropping Black activists out of the frame.

When I say 'most impacted,' I am pointing directly to facts: the water crisis in Flint, the high rates of asthma in Black communities, and the prevalence of contaminated waste sites in communities of color, all of which suggest that “race is the most potent predictor” of environmental inequality, according to environmental policy professor Robert Bullard.3 BIPOC communities are frequently placed directly in harm’s way, due to the racial redlining practices that sought to separate Black and white neighborhoods—and the desires of the politically powerful to maintain safe, green, toxin‑free environments for white families, often at the cost of communities of color.4 Between 2003‑2015, Latinx Americans were exposed to 63% more pollution than they produced, while white Americans were exposed to 17% less pollution than they produced.5 Native American communities are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change, largely due to the forced relocations that have uprooted them from their homes and placed them in areas subject to extreme heat and drought.6 
Picturing the environmental movement while omitting the communities most impacted makes invisible the sustainable, resilient practices that BIPOC communities have cultivated.
In our most popular content, Black people are represented in less than 1/3 of visuals depicting sustainable lifestyles and environmental conservation, and other communities of color—especially Latinx and Native Americans—are underrepresented. However, studies show that 69% of Latinx people are concerned about climate change and its impacts compared to less than half of white people, and activities like using reusable shopping bags, recycling goods, and reducing consumption are common in Latinx households, particularly in California, where many people of Mexican descent draw on traditional practices of conservation.Visual GPS data further proves that high numbers of BIPOC households make economically prudent sustainable choices, such as reducing their carbon footprints through their transportation use, and participating in environmental advocacy and activism. And while they believe they have personally made significant progress toward living more environmentally sustainable lifestyles, BIPOC people are rarely pictured engaging in sustainable, day‑to‑day living.

Latinx, Asian, and Native Americans are least likely to be seen in sustainability‑focused imagery, even though they are highly engaged with sustainable practices. According to Visual GPS, Latinx people are more likely than Black or white Americans to make their homes more energy efficient, and are the ethnic group most likely to a) use environmentally friendly products, b) support brands based on their environmental support, c) vote for officials who will oversee changes to business and government efforts that harm the environment, and d) do business with smaller local companies over global ones in the name of sustainability. However, barriers do persist for Latinx communities, as 43% say sustainable practices are too expensive, and 32% need more information on how to live sustainably. Asian Americans may be the unsung heroes of the environmental movement—of all the racial/ethnic groups represented in the US, they are the most directly engaged with sustainable practices. And despite the fact that Native Americans are most often on the front lines of fights for land stewardship, they are seen in less than 1% of sustainability‑related visuals, and are never shown practicing environmental conservation.  

When certain kinds of sustainable practices are prized over others, namely those associated with high‑income lifestyles, low‑income people—many of whom are people of color—continue to be marginalized in conservation‑related rhetoric. In a speech at the 2018 Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra challenged the prevailing vision of an environmentalist, stating, “In the United States too often we think that ‘environmentalist’ means the person who is driving in that electric vehicle, when in fact we neglect the 20 people who are riding in the bus.”7 Including more BIPOC people in visual storytelling about sustainability and climate change can help shift the framework of environmentalism to the needs and work of those most impacted, and provide new avenues for picturing environmental care and sustainable practice.
Works cited
[1] 2020 NGO & Foundation Transparency Report Card (Green 2.0)
[2] Outrage at whites‑only image as Ugandan climate activist cropped from photo (The Guardian)
[3] Asthma Disparities in America (AAFA); Quotation of the Day: Tackling Environmental Racism Without Mentioning Race (New York Times)
[4] Past Racist “Redlining” Practices Increased Climate Burden on Minority Neighborhoods (Scientific American)
[5] What is environmental racism and how can we fight it? (World Economic Forum)
[6] Forced Relocation Left Native Americans More Exposed to Climate Threats, Data Show (New York Times); How loss of historical lands makes Native Americans more vulnerable to climate change (NPR)
[7] Which racial/ethnic groups care most about climate change? (Yale Program on Climate Change Communication); In the Bag: Why being green comes naturally to US Latinos (Grist)
Silent Heroes: Latin American Sustainability