Principles & Concepts of Environmental Justice


It is important to note there is no one agreed-upon definition of “environmental justice.” The terrible effects of environmental pollution—on health, safety, life expectancy, communities and culture—and the inextricable links between exploitation of land and exploitation of people, have echoes throughout history. The term “environmental justice”, however, developed after the struggle in Warren County and other horrors drew national attention. Called by many the “next phase of civil rights”—the burgeoning movement also drew many of its strategies and momentum from the success of environmental litigation a decade before.

There are several working definitions of environmental justice and its core principles, and ongoing tension between the oft-cited U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) definition and the original “Principles of Environmental Justice” developed at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991.

LEG takes the position that environmental justice, at its heart, is about access to justice: fighting so that all—poor and rich, rural and urban, minority and majority—are ensured basic human rights and have control over their quality of life. Quoting from Dr. Robert Bullard:

  • [I]ssues of environmental racism and environmental justice don’t just deal with people of color. We are just as much concerned with inequities in Appalachia, for example, where the whites are basically dumped on because of lack of economic and political clout and lack of having a voice to say ‘no’ and that’s environmental injustice.

Thus, references to the “environmental movement” or “grassroots environmental organizations” relate to a broad issue-umbrella, from food to health, from urban planning to land conservation, and to issues faced by predominantly—but not exclusively—lower-income (both rural and urban) communities and communities of color.


Principles of environmental justice developed throughout the 1980’s and 1990s in convenings of environmental grassroots organizations, indigenous communities and nations. Taken together, they represent critical ideological pillars of the environmental justice and environmental movements, including:

Although perhaps attracting less mainstream media attention in the 1990s and early 2000s, the movement continued to develop and deepen its roots, recognizing kinship with other movements, from civil rights to health to food justice, and reemerged into the public fore along with the growing debate on climate. Today many organizations are working on issues that have an environmental justice component, even if not framed as such (e.g. housing rights). Grassroots groups have also formalized alliances—the Climate Justice Alliance, the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, the Indigenous Environmental Network and the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives—to name a few, and have formulated additional principles based on the existing ones, including:

Further Resources

The table below lists selected resources (articles, research centers, videos) as an overview reference on issues of environmental justice. Think an important article is missing? Tell us here!


Environmental Justice Organizations, Liabilities and Trade, Mapping Environmental Justice – weblink

USDA Food Environment Atlas – weblink

Cooper Center, Demographics Map – weblink


Robert Bullard – The Genesis of Environmental Justice – weblink


Northeastern Environmental Justice Collaborative – weblink

Website of Dr. Robert Bullard – weblink – weblink


The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations, Taylor, D. Green 2.0 (2014) – weblink

Environmental Justice Reader – II: A Survey and Review of Critical Issues in Disenfranchised and Vulnerable Communities in the Twenty-First Century. Johnson, Glenn S., Shirley A. Rainey-Brown, and Richard D.S. Gragg, III. Ronkonkoma, NY: Linus Publications (2012) – weblink

Rally the People: Building Local-Environmental Justice Grassroots Coalitions and Enhancing Social Capital. Mix, Tamara L. Sociological Inquiry 81(2):174-194 (2011) – weblink

Environmental Justice Law, Policy & Regulation (2nd edition), Rechtschaffen, C., Guana, E., O’Neill, C. Carolina Academic Press  (2009) – weblink

Justice in the Air: Tracking Toxic Pollution From America’s Industries to Our States, Cities, and Neighborhoods. Political Economy Research Institute (2009) – weblink

Strategies for Implementing the Environmental Justice Vision, Rechtschaffen, C, 1 GGU Env. Law J. 321 (2008)weblink

Mapping Environmental Injustices: Pitfalls and Potential of Geographic Information Systems in Assessing Environmental Health and Equity. Maantay, J. Environmental Health Perspectives 110(2): 161-171 (2002) – weblink

The Evolving Structure of the Environmental Justice Movement in the United States: New Models for Democratic Decision-Making. Faber, Daniel and Deborah McCarthy, Social Justice Research 14(4): 405-421 (2001) – weblink

Environmental Justice: Grassroots Activism and its Impact of Policy Decision-Making. Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 56, No. 3, pps 555-578 (2000) – weblink