environmental issues

Why Environmental Racism in the Beauty Industry is Too Often Overlooked

We have a lot of work still left to do.

Major current environmental issues are top of mind these days. More and more awareness is being brought to climate change, pollution, and overall resource depletion. We live in a time where there is a plastic-free and environmentally friendly alternative for just about everything. That being said, there is one major category of environmental issues that often gets pushed to the side: environmental racism.

Environmental Racism in the Beauty Industry

According to Greenaction.org, environmental racism refers to “the institutional rules, regulations, policies or government and/or corporate decisions that deliberately target certain communities resulting in being disproportionately exposed to toxic and hazardous waste based upon race.” Environmental racism can be due to intentional neglect or a lack of institutional power, but the undeniable result is that these communities just don’t have access to the same resources.

A Personal Perspective

Zoe Sheppard, a J.D Candidate at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law with a B.A. in Environmental Studies and Minors in Social Justice Theory and International Studies, shared her perspective.

Sheppard says that she sees this disparity in her own hometown neighborhood when it comes to environmental issues and racism.

“Where I’m from, in Baltimore, all the beauty supply stores have super cheap hair care products. They also usually have a lot of chemical ingredients,” she shares. “When I’m in a bind I’ll purchase these, but If I want good quality hair products, I have to drive to a nicer part of town where I can find other brands. I know that my access alone is a privilege. The fact that I have a car and have time to go out of my way to get these products is a huge privilege. But it shouldn’t be.”

Safe beauty products should be accessible everywhere and the burden falls on our government to fix that.
Zoe Sheppard

The Impact on Environmental Health

Throughout her studies in environmental issues, environmental racism, and public health issues, Sheppard says it has become evident how BIPOC communities are often subjugated to poor conditions that directly impact environmental health. On top of that, those same communities are told they have the responsibility to fix these issues.

“The narrative is that we shouldn’t purchase fast fashion, we shouldn’t buy groceries at bodegas, we shouldn’t purchase cheap cleaning products or beauty products because all of those have a terrible impact on the environment,” Sheppard says. And while It’s great to have the privilege to make those conscious efforts and avoid those purchases when you can, Sheppard says that the reality is that the responsibility falls much farther upstream. “Safe beauty products should be accessible everywhere and the burden falls on our government to fix that,” Sheppard says. “Not the low-resource community members.”

Creating Awareness Around Environmental Racism

“I really think having these conversations is a crucial first step,” Sheppard shares. “More people need to be aware of this. Not just the communities that are impacted, but everyone. Highlighting these truths and the narratives of BIPOC regarding environmental racism is imperative.

“In fact, I think a lot of BIPOC who suffer as a result of these toxic products aren’t even aware of it. I would love to see us figure out how to get healthier beauty products to low-income BIPOC communities.”

Sheppard notes that community-driven and led efforts like these could be impactful. Unfortunately, that would still place the burden on the most impacted communities. The best way to create real, long-term change is to pressure our local representatives to care about these issues.

Finding Solutions for Environmental Issues and Racism

The solution to environmental racism needs to be built on anti-racist rhetoric. By centering intersectional environmentalism in our practices, we can prioritize all people as well as the world we live in. This starts at the top, with policies that offer safe conditions for everyone equally.

While staying conscious of our individual carbon footprints no doubt makes a difference, we have a responsibility to take our efforts a step further. By examining the systems we ourselves might benefit from, we will be able to begin to break them down.

This is true in every area of our lives – from creating plastic-free households to staying conscious of beauty products. “If these products are so harmful to people and to the environment,” Sheppard says, “no one should be using them.”

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