BIPOC - Decolonising Environmentalism

How BIPOC culture shapes sustainability  

Repurposing things is common practice in my house. From reusing plastic tupperware from the Chinese takeaway to mending clothes and passing down outfits from the older to the younger generation, my mother has instilled these practices in my sisters and me since we were young. By doing so, my mother has passed down the narrative of reducing waste to different generations. Culture shapes sustainability, especially for many immigrant families like mine.

My parents, especially my mother, have passed down these values due to their own experiences – often from a scarce upbringing where they did not have the privilege of choice but to make the most out of what they had. For many of us working-class communities of colour, our lifestyles of being resourceful and cost-efficient are informed by sustainable practices – without us realising it or not. 

BIPOC - sustainability

BIPOC and Cultural Connections

There are apparent connections between sustainability and Black, Indigenous and People of Colour cultures. For my South Asian immigrant family from a working-class background, being mindful of waste through recycling and repurposing is culturally instilled in my parents due to their humble upbringing and lifestyles.

Repurposing tiffin biscuit boxes as sewing kits, plastic containers as plant pots, to old clothes as cleaning cloths – things around the house constantly held a creative purpose as a resource, not waste and are standard practices in immigrant households.

Today, the concept of sustainability has increasingly become a trendy concept. One example is the effortless eco-conscious content on social media on how to be more sustainable by the zero waste community. Yet, my mother understood and taught me to be mindful of waste before sustainability became trendy. 

While being sustainable often means out of a sheer need for lower-income communities, being sustainable can be a direct choice with certain privileges for wealthier individuals. For instance, eco-friendly products and sustainable clothing hold good intentions but are often more expensive and not affordable for everyone.

The privilege of choice, with the addition of income, time and accessibility is not afforded to everyone and therefore sustainability movements can lack inclusivity. For instance, while the zero waste community lacks representation of a diverse demographic, spreading the idea of being mindful consumers is a positive message regardless.

Under a capitalist, consumer-driven society, buying your way into sustainability can feel like the answer at first. But my South-Asian family values have taught me about mindful consumption – what was often not a choice for my parents, now has become a conscious choice and part of my lifestyle.

Understanding the importance of decolonising sustainability further taught me that you cannot buy your way into sustainability. I am learning that being sustainable is about being resourceful and essentially making the best out of what you have.

BIPOC - decolonising sustanability 
2019 Erik McGregor

Indigenous Knowledge 

If we were to define sustainability, it concerns fulfilling the present needs of current generations without compromising the needs of future generations. Sustainability as a practice supports a social, environmental and economic balance of community, care and sustenance. To understand sustainability, we must understand that the Earth’s resources are finite, therefore must be conserved and utilised wisely for positive long-term consequences. 

There are BIPOC communities that best understand this practice. Historically, indigenous communities are known to carry a reciprocal relationship with the land and the environment. For example, Indigenous Knowledge is a complex knowledge system that highlights the ways of environmental care and stewardship by indigenous communities due to their long histories of close interaction with the environment.

These knowledge systems centre on environmental care and sustainable practices such as natural resource management and conservation, unique to the local community. Indigenous Knowledge goes against a colonial framework implemented by the western capitalist society that historically concerns the exploitation of natural resources and the perception of nature as an object of control and domination. 

Protest and Resistance

Further, there are many movements led by BIPOC advocating sustainability and the protection of the environment. For example, indigenous resistance against the Dakota Access Pipeline in the US followed due to the threat to the water supply and sacred native lands of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

In November 2021, protestors from diverse communities gathered in Glasgow, UK – the host of COP26, an annual UN climate conference – to protest for climate justice by highlighting systemic oppression in the climate movement. Through movement and protest, diverse communities such as indigenous people are at the frontlines of defending and protecting the environment for people and the planet from profit-driven industries. 

Marginalised communities – predominantly people of colour – bear the brunt of environmental threats such as environmental racism and the threat of climate change, but contribute the least to the cause of these issues. From the immigrant family experience to Indigenous Knowledge, the connections between BIPOC and sustainability are cultural, political and personal, and interweave between the way of life, knowledge and resistance.

Decolonise sustainability

Sustainability is not a black or white term and existed before the term became a trend in western society. As a concept, it holds a long history and cultural connections with the daily lives of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour. What we can do is recognise our own privileges and understand how systems of oppression intersect and affect especially those who are marginalised in society. Who gets to dictate what matters and what is valued?

Being sustainable does not hold more value now the concept is repackaged and appropriated from a mainstream, white-washed lens. Understanding the contribution of BIPOC who have long practised sustainability in their day-to-day lives can be further positive to consider the sustainability movement through an inclusive lens and to amplify diverse voices in a movement that leaves them out.

We can uplift BIPOC individuals advocating to decolonise sustainability, educate ourselves about intersectional environmentalism and focus on slow, conscious habits over perfection.