“What is one question you wish interviewers would ask you about your book or yourself?”
Recently, I was asked this question in preparation for an interview, and it really struck a chord in me. As authors, creators, or generally public figures, I have found it sometimes difficult to tell the story I actually want to tell.
Of course this is not an issue for my own self-published writing, but if I am guest-starring on a podcast devoted to conservation conversation, for instance, I will tailor my answers to its more scientifically-inclined audience. If I am featured on an entrepreneurship podcast, I will intentionally lessen my discussion of the complex contents of my book and instead emphasize my journey to becoming a published author, marketing techniques, sales, and personal growth.
While each of these unique interviews — when combined — paint a more comprehensive picture of myself and my movement, one area that I have found utterly lacking has been discussions on environmental justice (EJ).
Although this topic is inherently political and might deter some audiences, this does not excuse the tendency for some hosts to turn a blind eye to this blaringly apparent issue. Not to say that every discussion on the circular economy needs to revolve around EJ, but it is certainly a challenge that needs to be explored.
So if I were to answer the above question at this point in time, I would ask to be asked about environmental justice.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, the concept of EJ essentially encompasses all the disparities in resource availability, environmental quality, and technological advancement that oftentimes result from relationships (or lack thereof) between industries and marginalized communities.
One major EJ issue, for example, is the siting of power plants. These industrial sites are overwhelmingly zoned in communities of color and low-income communities who likely don’t have the resources to take legal action against any violations of the plant or the money to "request" the plant be built elsewhere. The result is that these groups— without money or resources to mitigate environmental concerns — are left to deal with health ailments related to leaks, air and water pollution, and other negative externalities stemming from the plant.
Throughout my academic career as a college student, this increasingly important discipline has been actively discussed in a variety of my classes. In my environmental writing class, we read and wrote several pieces revolving around ecotourism, Aboriginal Australian culture, and environmental racism. All of these topics represent an intersection of social and environmental concerns — the essence of EJ.
Additionally, in my environmental law class, we dug into the legal debates surrounding environmental catastrophes, such as Love Canal and Flint, Michigan. Engaging in these lessons seethed me to my core, and over time I have acquired a real commitment and passion for EJ.
However, through the process of writing my book, I came to the stark realization midway through drafting that I hadn’t explicitly called attention to such issues as they relate to the circular economy. With the circular economy being such an ambiguous and novel concept, I had started out under the precept of teaching my audience the basics. But as I continued to deep dive into particular industries and points of contention, I realized that beefing up my discussion of environmental (in)justice would not only tell a more compelling and complete story, but it would also help draw my readers into real world debates and provide them with a representative foundation upon which the circular economy must be built.
You may be asking yourself:
How does the circular economy relate to environmental justice? Does this “new system” necessarily create more or less injustice? How can more equitable circular economies be designed and created?
As a reference point based on the research I conducted for my book, here are just a few perpetrators of environmental injustice in the zero waste movement and circular economy:
· Zero waste blogging community: Many zero waste bloggers post about their waste-free alternatives to plastic-wrapped, single-use items which are inaccessibly expensive to individuals with low disposable income. · First world exporters of waste: Particularly in the United States, waste is seen as a third world problem — simply because we ship massive amounts of our trash to these countries to sort and allegedly “properly dispose of.” This not only has environmental consequences by contaminating their natural resources, but it can also create health concerns and compete with local industries in these struggling nations. · Urban planners and industrial & treatment plants: More often than not, power plants, waste treatment plants and other industrial facilities are built in lower income communities and communities of color. This biased siting can create health and welfare implications for marginalized groups. · Zero waste business community: Although the rise of Black Lives Matter has encouraged many individuals to actively support small, black-owned businesses, these companies may still face hardship. Plus, high-end zero-waste brands perpetuate the issue of unrealistic & expensive expectations of the zero waste blogging community.
Infuriated by these prejudices, I returned back to my book with a vengeance. I began to sift through my chapters and expand upon adversities I had already touched upon — particularly in the fashion and waste treatment industries. I also made a conscious effort to highlight BIPOC-owned zero waste businesses, and I included a BIPOC afterword discussing intersectional environmentalism and a BIPOC-owned zero waste business directory to support these companies advancing the field.
A term pertinent to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) conversations is “tokenization.” In other words, over-exaggerating or “marketing” one small DEI effort for the sake of making one’s company or brand look good.
This is the exact opposite of what I hope to portray through my book. BIPOC and lower-income community members should not be tokenized as “one-off” zero waste businesses or strategies, and they should not be used as marketing tools to boost the movement.
A supporter and mentor of mine, Amy Bartucci, provided me some guidance along this process and eloquently explained that we need to have these EJ discussions when we talk about sustainable transitions. Since systems-thinking is at the heart of sustainability, we need to not only consider our technological and economic systems, but also our social systems and how particular marginalized groups may be adversely affected or disadvantaged.
That being said, I could write an entire other book on the intersection between environmental injustice and the circular economy. For now, I will continue to share stories such as the inspiration behind tonlé (a company aimed at uncorrupting the fashion industry in Cambodia) and BLK+GRN (a coalition of black artisans creating zero waste products).
As I continue to educate myself, write articles, and produce content for all of you, I hope to propagate this same passion for addressing environmental injustice in our little community. I know that I am certainly not an expert at this point, so if you have any interesting stories you’d like to share, relevant resources, questions or concerns, please share them in the comments!
Together we can strive toward a more just & sustainable future. Even by taking small steps like volunteering with EJ non-profits, writing to your local representative about EJ issues affecting your community, or attending town hall meetings, you can start to make a difference!
Hopefully, through our dedicated and consistent efforts, we can start to shift the norm for EJ from a niche ideal to a universal reality.