Waking up from white environmentalism

What does it mean to look at sustainability through an antiracist lens?

Sarah Tulej
7 min readDec 9, 2020

I’ve worked in sustainability for almost a decade in the non profit sector, mainly with global corporations focusing on reducing their environmental impacts. Yet it’s only in the last year or so that I have come to learn in depth about racism, colonialism and white supremacy, and how they are very much alive and well in mainstream environmentalism.

By ‘mainstream’ environmentalism, I mean a sector working to tackle issues such as climate change that is dominated by white, middle class, university-educated people working in the non profit sector, governments, academia and the corporate sector.

A term that sums up pretty well the approach to sustainability that results from this lack of diversity and historical amnesia is white environmentalism. This article (aptly titled ‘All Icebergs, No Inclusivity’) lays out the concept very well.

None of this is wholly surprising if you consider that, in the UK, in 2017, a study found that ‘environment professionals’ were the second least diverse group after farming; 97% were white British. My personal experience has been that 99% of the time, the meetings I attended for my work in sustainability, everyone was white. And then white and male once you got to board level.

Image: Slow Factory

I’m going to write a list of things that I think fall into the category of white environmentalism, because the topic is so HUGE I am not sure really where to start. Together, they constitute a mindset that underlies the projects I’ve worked on and the approach to change of the people I’ve worked with. I want to be completely honest in admitting that these are all things that I have thought, said or done myself over the years.

My observations are based on working in the not for profit sector in the UK with corporate sustainability professionals.

What does white environmentalism look like?

  • Framing climate change, or the climate crisis primarily as an environmental issue that will be resolved via ‘rapid decarbonisation’ of industry
  • NOT engaging in discussions about climate justice and how the burden of responsibility for addressing climate change should fall to current and historical emitters of carbon, (i.e. countries like the UK and US, and multinational companies)
  • Keeping ‘environmental issues’ (water scarcity, pollution, biodiversity ‘loss’) in a separate category from ‘social issues’ (low incomes, abuses of land rights, gender inequality). Which gives the false impression that these issues are often, if not always, wholly intertwined…
  • …Yet, when forest in Brazil is burned down to grow soy to feed animals in Europe, not only is the flora and fauna destroyed. Indigenous people and communities that depend on the forest to grow food to eat and sell, to access fuel and medicines, are often left homeless and destitute. They may have been violently evicted from their land, or murdered. Water becomes scarce and hard to access as it is diverted to water vast areas of cropland. Water sources that people depend on are poisoned by agrochemicals such as pesticides.
  • Rarely, if ever, meaningfully involving marginalised groups in coming up with solutions. For example, people who are most severely affected by climate change, such as women from poorer (formerly colonised) countries, Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC), disabled people.
  • The flipside of the point above is inviting ‘experts’ and ‘thought leaders’ in organisations to contribute their views to projects or to speak at events. Not compensating these people for their time because they are already well remunerated through the positions of authority that they hold.
  • Using complex and overly intellectual language that can be alienating for people that are new to the topic, haven’t been to university, are younger, etc.
  • There being an assumption that the reason that the UK environmental sector is overwhelmingly white is because BIPOC and working class people are not interested in environmental issues. Perhaps attributing failures to recruit more diverse staff to the a lack of a ‘pipeline’ of talent to draw from, rather than looking inward to why people do not join or stay inside sustainability-focused organisations.
  • Devising sustainability projects that talk about the ‘empowerment’ of women working in clothing factories in Bangladesh, or ‘supporting local communities’ to diversify their incomes as they supply multinational companies with ‘natural resources’ for their products. But not challenging the grossly unequal power relationships that mean that people in poorer countries are destined to export their labour and local resources for consumption by people in rich countries.
Image: The Mirror
  • Not knowing (or ignoring) the historical context for this dynamic; that today’s patterns of exploitation run along lines drawn during the time of colonialism and slavery.
  • Underlying all of this, a paternalistic attitude that European or North American organisations are best placed to lead the development of ‘solutions’ for people facing severe environmental issues (water scarcity, collapse of agriculture) in formerly colonised countries.

And, in addition to the list above, here are some other examples of white environmentalism. Thanks to Serayna Keya Solanki, a climate and environmental justice advocate and consultant, for sharing her personal observations and contributing to this article:

  • Not unpicking the ‘education to sector pipeline.’ Educational content does not include or give weight to diverse perspectives from global communities. This lack of diversity in educational content in turn informs the environmental sector, its understanding of and approach to sustainability issues.
  • Not building safe workplaces for ethnic minorities to contribute their perspectives. This includes lived experience and community knowledge, alongside educated content to inform the values which underpin our approach.
  • Not allocating agency and taking direction from ethnic minorities and working class people in the sector well. This is despite being key people who straddle cultural worlds and realities— European/North Americans alongside countries where frontline communities reside.
  • Not being willing to invest in long-term training and education programmes by marginalised groups or underrepresented people. We perceive marginalised groups as the receivers of the solutions we design, as opposed to ourselves being the receivers of the solutions and approaches we all need from frontline communities.

We need to consider whether we are not helping, but hindering

The issues that humanity is facing are increasingly severe and urgent, despite decades of environmentalism and corporate-sponsored sustainability initiatives. White environmentalism is, at its heart, part of a mindset rooted in the idea of continued Western imperialism and capitalism (albeit a slightly reformed version).

The people most affected by environmental issues are pushed to the margins when it comes to deciding what the solutions should be. These hidden voices include working class people of colour and indigenous people. People who are at the front line of defending their communities from violent evictions to make way for mining projects and oil pipelines.

A big question in my mind at the moment is:

What does it mean — as a white middle class sustainability professional — to be an effective ally to marginalised people?

What I hope is that this list prompts other privileged people working on sustainability issues to reflect more critically on how they approach ‘environmentalism.’ And to consider whether their work might be unintentionally reinforcing systems of oppression.

By writing an article like this, I do not want to take away attention from the people actively involved in climate and racial justice work. Their work is hugely important and yet still grossly underrepresented in the mainstream environmentalism.

Image: Slow Factory

I want to share what I’m learning and realising, and now want to help undo, with the people who I am connected with through my work. Primarily affluent, white, liberal, educated people (like me) working in the environmental sector.

I am certain that a lot of people in the sector may have made pledges earlier this year to be actively anti-racist. Yet so far I have seen very little evidence of anti-racist allyship, for example in ‘professional’ spaces like LinkedIn where people I know frequently share things about their work in the environmental sector.

And, I hope that people like me voicing these observations will take some of the burden away from marginalised people who may be tired or traumatised from trying to tell us how how oppressive and harmful a whitewashed version of ‘sustainability’ can be.

I strongly believe that those of us in positions of influence in environmental organisations need to start stepping aside and directing resources (money, time, exposure) to marginalised people globally whose work and wisdom has been ignored, left out, or silenced for many years.

Do you work in the environmental sector? Does any of this resonate with you? Has any of this struck you as inaccurate or unfair? I’d love to hear what you think.

Here are just a few of the people I follow whose work has greatly influenced me. Please read and support their work.

Slow Factory, Human Rights + Environmental Justice Institute

Aja Barber, fashion consultant and activist

Nova Reid, anti-racism activist and educator

Serayna Keya Solanki, Advocating for Climate and Environmental Justice

The Mirror

Tori Tsui, EurAsian intersectional climate activist, writer, advisor, researcher

No White Saviours, disrupting the White Savior Complex (WSC) in international development, aid, and missions

Leah Thomas , founder of Intersectional Enviromentalist

Gal Dem, award winning online and print publication committed to sharing perspectives from women and non binary people of colour

Ravideep Kaur, Presence Coach | Decolonisation/Reclaiming Power| Anti-Oppressive Consultant



Sarah Tulej

Northerner living in Rotterdam via East London. 🎉 Intersectional environmentalist, photo snapper, charity shopper 🌱