Perspectives on Environmental Justice

Perspectives on Environmental Justice

Andrew M. Wells
University of Georgia

Jessica Belue Buckley
University of Louisville

Dillon Kimmel
University of Delaware


Student affairs administrators consider both sustainability and social justice to be important considerations in our work (ACPA & NASPA, 2010; ACPA, 2008).  While these priorities are clear and often inform student affairs practice, the language used to advance these issues separates them.  Social justice is understood as a process of addressing systems of power and privilege; social justice advocates work to dismantle oppressive institutions while advancing equity for historically marginalized communities (Bell, 2010).  Conversely, sustainability is focused on environmental issues and often falls short of critiquing the socially unjust institutions that create environmental problems (Agyeman, 2005).  We propose the perspective that environmental issues and social justice are connected to one another and that a philosophy of environmental justice (Agyeman, Bullard, & Evans, 2002) can inform and enhance student affairs practice.

As institutions that not only educate citizens and leaders, but also provide vision and research for contemporary problems, colleges and universities have a role to play in alleviating environmental degradation.  Global environmental degradation is contributing to poverty, growing divides between the rich and poor, issues of hunger and malnutrition, as well as threats to cultural vitality of communities in vulnerable parts of the world (Brainard, Jones, & Purvis, 2009).  Postsecondary institutions must work to address these kinds of issues and focus on studying not just subjects for their own sake, but also to ensure college students are adequately equipped to respond to the causes and outcomes of environmental degradation (Cullingford, 2010).  In 2003 Anthony Cortese, founder of Second Nature and a leading advocate of sustainability in higher education, argued that postsecondary institutions have a moral obligation to create a just and sustainable future.  As institutions have a responsibility to address global issues, student affairs administrators have a role in engaging colleagues and students in understanding and developing skills to mitigate issues of environmental and social injustice.  As student affairs administrators prepare students for life in an increasingly globalized world, we should embrace environmental justice as a priority in students’ learning and development (Agyeman, Bullard, & Evans, 2002).

In this article, we hope to demonstrate the importance of incorporating environmental justice into student affairs administrators’ practice.  First, we examine common definitions of sustainability, social justice, and environmental justice, as well as demonstrate how these concepts are related.  Next, we explore how and why these concepts are important for student affairs practice.  Finally, we discuss examples of environmental justice in practice in a myriad of functional areas from across the country through interviews we conducted with student affairs practitioners at campuses noted for their connection of environmental and social justice issues.

Social Justice, Sustainability, and Environmental Justice

To better understand how social and environmental justice intersect, it is important to establish a common understanding of the terms “social justice,” “sustainability,” and “environmental justice.” One of the “Basic” foundational competencies in the field is to be able to “articulate a foundational understanding of social justice and the role of higher education…in furthering its goals” (ACPA & NASPA, 2010, p. 12).  Student affairs associations, such as the ACPA – College Student Educators International and the National Association for Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA), host multicultural and social justice institutes to foster continued learning and action around issues of social justice.  Across North America, student affairs personnel embrace social justice as a core principle of good practice, and indeed, an area of professional competency (ACPA – College Student Educators International & NASPA – Student Affairs Professionals in Higher Education, 2015).

Social Justice

The core principle of social justice is rooted in common definitions, which we argue are directly related to environmental sustainability and justice.  Bell (2010) suggested that “social justice is both a process and a goal” (p. 21) with “the goal of social justice [being] full and equal participation of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs” (p. 21).  Social justice is not a process or a goal that is without challenges; advocates of social justice recognize the many intersecting and interacting structures of power that must be addressed.  North (2006) suggested that social justice education has three “spheres” that necessitate a balance of (a) knowledge and action, (b) micro and macro levels of consideration, and (c) redistribution of goods and recognition of individuals or communities (p. 509).  She suggested that the work of social justice seeks to address and consider each of the tensions of her framework.  On campus, the work of social justice often seeks to disrupt systemic marginalization of groups based on social identities, such as race, class, or gender.  These efforts are not limited to the campus community or even state or national borders. Bell (2010) and North’s (2006) concepts of social justice transcend geopolitical boundaries and are relevant for the entire planet’s population.  The pursuit of social justice on college campuses connects us to a global movement toward social justice, and if the pursuit of social justice includes and addresses environmental issues, practitioners may be brought closer to advancing global environmental justice.

To better align campus social justice efforts with global environmental issues, student affairs educators might apply North’s (2006) framework of social justice to examine issues of sustainability, such as climate change.  Brainard, Jones, and Purvis (2009) argued that climate change is a social justice issue when considering the ways in which changes in rainfall, agricultural yield, desertification, and the scope of natural disasters have disproportionately affected the most vulnerable persons and communities around the globe.  The examination of climate change through North’s framework might help educators realize the need to balance (a) knowledge about climate change and tangible work to mitigate it; (b) individual actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and organized, structural actions; and, (c) attention to increased access to material (and other) goods for those most affected by climate change.  Using North’s framework as a lens, educators realize the need to recognize that not only equitable distribution of goods, but also cultural vitality of diverse communities is an important consideration of socially just responses to climate change.  Student affairs practitioners in North America cannot overlook the social justice implications of our behavior.  The decisions we make about consumption of energy, goods, and natural resources have significant consequences for people and communities around the globe.  As we acknowledge these consequences, student affairs practitioners assume responsibility for addressing these issues as a part of social justice advocacy.


Although less broadly discussed than social justice, the concept of sustainability is familiar for many student affairs administrators.  One of the first and most cited definitions of sustainability rises from the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED).  The commission’s 1987 publication, Our Common Future, articulates a definition of sustainable development that balances the needs of current generations with those of future generations. Student affairs documents acknowledge the WCED definition.  For example, in 2008, ACPA sponsored the publication of a monograph that explored the role of sustainability in student affairs administration, and in 2010, the joint ACPA-NASPA statement of professional competencies articulated the importance of both sustainability and social justice in our work.  However, the history of the sustainability movement significantly predated these documents.  The environmental movement, a precursor to sustainability, largely began in the 1970s (Agyeman, 2005; Ferris & Hahn-Baker, 1995) in response to issues of industrial pollution, air and water contamination, and urban waste disposal (Anguelovski, 2013; United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, 1987).  Scholars often attribute the modern environmental movement to the preservation of ecology for recreational and aesthetic reasons (Gould, Schnaiberg, & Weinberg, 1996; Postma, 2006); we have argued in this article that the social justice implications of environmental issues should inform our pursuit of social justice.

On the heels of the environmental movement, the sustainability movement sought to bridge environmental issues with economic issues, largely in the landscape of international development.  For many, sustainability was understood in terms of the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit (Elkington, 1999).  While sustainability has been described in many ways by many organizations and individuals, the consensus is that environmental sustainability addresses pollution, moderate consumption of natural resources, and the importance of human behavior on non-human species and systems.

The evolution of the environmental and sustainability movements has moved issues of environmental degradation into some common practice areas in student affairs work.  Student affairs administrators often include energy and water conservation in social and educational programming; we also highlight food scarcity in low-income populations by educating students about food waste and sustainable agriculture.  Sustainability is particularly prominent in housing and dining services, where administrators benefit both from the efficiency and popularity of environmentally sustainable buildings and construction (Pursehouse, 2012).  Environmental sustainability is no longer a philosophy exclusive to a political fringe group; it is a common expectation among many college students.

The work of sustainability in student affairs is typically limited to efforts that can be easily incorporated into existing structures and processes.  In a more aggressive approach to sustainability, student affairs practitioners would challenge unsustainable systems akin to the social justice critique of systematic power and privilege.  Newport (2012) argued that higher education uses sustainability to advance conservation efforts that save money, but fall short of fully integrating the movement’s strategic vision or social justice ideals.  He suggested that postsecondary institutions focus on the economic and environmental aspects of sustainability’s triple bottom line, while overlooking the aspect of social justice.  We believe that by applying a social justice ethic to environmental sustainability, we can synthesize two similar values and embrace a unifying ethic of environmental justice that centers environmental issues on a social justice framework.

Environmental Justice

We use the term “environmental justice” to describe the intersection of social justice and sustainability (Agyeman, Bullard, & Evans, 2002).  An environmental justice approach couples issues of environmental degradation with social justice and promotes action on environmental issues that affect historically marginalized communities.  The concept of environmental justice bridges the gap between social justice and environmentalism by naming the long history of the intersections of race, class, and abuses of the natural environment in the United States.  Environmental justice is closely aligned to the values and priorities of student affairs administrators who work to foster students’ attention to issues of equity and personal moral development.

Environmental Justice in Student Affairs

Student affairs administrators have long taken responsibility for students’ learning and development through co-curricular educational experiences (Creamer, Winston, & Miller, 2001).  In the context of an increasingly globalized planet threatened by climate change and persistent issues of environmental and social justice, student affairs administrators may consider how environmental justice is related to social justice, and how it can enhance students’ learning and development.  In the following section, we address the implications of environmental justice for student affairs practice such as equity and inclusion, student learning, and student development.

Equity and Inclusion

Equity and inclusion are at the heart of student affairs values.  An entire section of the Professional Competency Areas for Student Affairs Practitioners articulates standards for social justice and inclusion (ACPA & NASPA, 2010/2015).  The standards describe the need for professionals to work toward individual competence in equitable practice, competence in fostering students’ attention to issues of social justice, and competence in fostering institutional practices that are equitable (ACPA & NASPA, 2010/2015).  In an increasingly globalized world, college students and university administrators must reframe the perspective on social justice to incorporate an awareness of our place within and impact upon the global community.

We have argued that there is a significant connection between student affairs practitioners’ pursuit of social justice and environmental justice.  We present two examples of structural inequity steeped in environmental degradation to demonstrate the connection between student affairs and social and environmental justice issues.  First, according to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, hundreds of thousands of farm workers suffer pesticide-related illnesses each year; race is the most significant factor in differentiating where disposal facilities of hazardous wastes are sited (2003).  Second, climate change is resulting in agricultural shifts that are impoverishing small farmers globally; this contributes to malnutrition poverty in the most economically depressed communities in developing nations that have little control over the factors that contribute to climate change (Brainard, Jones, Purvis, 2009).  While these issues may at first seem disconnected from daily life on a campus, it is important to consider where campuses attain their food, dispose of their wastes, how they invest their financial holdings, and what policies govern the environmental and just labor implications of purchasing.  Answers to these questions may reveal direct links to environmental injustice.  By educating our students about the importance of our carbon footprints, consumption of locally-produced resources, and engagement in local and national discussions about sustainability, we can achieve progress toward environmental justice.

Student Learning & Development

Student affairs administrators have a responsibility to help curb institutional practices that maintain environmental injustice and educate students who can make individual and collective decisions that promote environmental justice.  This role in facilitating students’ ability to mitigate global concerns is rooted in the very foundation of the field of student affairs. The Student Personnel Point of View reminded administrators of the need to foster “development of more citizens able to assume responsibilities in matters of social concern” (ACE, 1949, p. 4).  The document’s authors claim postsecondary education must “[provide] experiences which develop in its students a firm and enlightened belief in democracy, a matured understanding of its problems and methods, and a deep sense of responsibility for individual and collective action” (p. 4). Today’s students live in a society that will only become increasingly globalized, and we must ensure their collegiate experiences prepare them to understand the global implications of their daily decisions.

By supporting students’ learning and development through the co-curriculum, student affairs administrators are ideally situated to incorporate a perspective of environmental justice in programming and educational interventions.  Service-learning, study abroad, and educational programming in residence halls are all examples of opportunities for environmental justice to enhance student learning. Service-learning opportunities help students apply theories and classroom learning in “new situations” (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005, p. 129) and in their communities (Keen & Baldwin, 2004).  Study abroad provides students with experiences in other developed and developing countries and enhances students’ capacity for perspective-taking in a global community (Tarrant & Lyons, 2011; Tarrant, Rubin, & Stoner, 2013).  Pascarella and Terenzini (1991, 2005) found that educational programming and formalized Living-Learning Communities contribute positively to student success and learning in university residence halls. Blimling (2015) notes that the more engaging the program and the more involved faculty and student affairs professionals are in the community, the more engaged and the more students learn.  We have argued that the research on student learning and development strongly supports the development of programs that integrate environmental justice and social justice learning in applied settings.  In the subsequent section, we describe examples of environmental justice in practice at six postsecondary institutions in the United States; these examples demonstrate the connection between environmental justice and student affairs work.

Environmental Justice in Practice

Today, at least one organization offers a designation to assist institutions in developing more environmentally just practices.  Similar to the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS; a system supported by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education), Fair Trade Campaigns offers a fair trade institution designation for colleges and universities who demonstrate a pledge to five commitments outlined by Fair Trade Colleges and Universities (2014).  According to Fair Trade Campaigns, a fair trade commitment “ensures consumers that the products they purchase were grown, harvested, crafted, and traded in ways that improve lives and protect the environment” (Fair Trade Campaigns, 2014).  In 2008, the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh became the first fair trade institution by developing a fair trade resolution for their campus community that included a commitment to fair trade education and building partnerships across campus.

Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa followed suit and signed their fair trade declaration in 2012, and has created an eight-person committee charged with peer education and outreach.  Some of Loras’ efforts included (a) offering fair trade coffee at a weekly coffee hour; (b) informing the campus community of the origin of food and highlighting when products are locally produced; and (c) connecting with local community organizations such as solid waste management and local farmers (A. McDermott, personal communication, October 20, 2014). By embracing fair trade as a priority for purchasing and education, the institution developed an economically feasible strategy to enact environmental justice even in a retail operation.

Like Loras College, Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida mobilized different units such as the campus bookstore to purchase fair trade clothing, and athletics to purchase fairly traded sports equipment.  Additionally, students were exposed to education about the migrant farmers who produce many of the state’s citrus fruits and learn about aspects of environmental justice through their coursework (A. Francis, personal communication, October 20, 2014).  These examples demonstrate the value of leadership within divisions and departments on campus, and how this leadership can demonstrate to senior campus administrators that environmental justice is a relevant pursuit that can be advanced campus-wide.

Integration of these concepts into the institutional academic missions is important to the advancement of environmental justice initiatives.  At Seattle University, the Center for Environmental Justice and Sustainability leans on the institutional mission and Jesuit tradition to communicate its message.  The mission of the institution includes “…empowering leaders for a just and humane world,” and the Jesuit tradition of “seeing God in all things” (K. Price, personal communication, September 26, 2014).  Administrators at Seattle University have embraced the natural connection between sustainability and social justice that yields environmental justice.  Beyond institutional mission and values lies the importance of collaboration and partnership between individuals and units on campus.

Partnership within and across academic divisions is an important contributor in the pursuit of environmental justice.  At Elon University, a Sustainability Master Plan was created in 2007 as an effort to create an all-campus commitment to sustainability.  Later, a more succinct Sustainability Policy was written and disseminated throughout the campus.  Elon’s Leadership and Multicultural Office and the Office of Sustainability frequently partner to create educational opportunities on campus.  This includes a yearly Intersect Conference that seeks to bring together various perspectives related to social justice and inclusion.  “When you sit down and share with [social justice educators] your thoughts, you get a positive response.  There really are common interests and goals” (E. Durr, personal communication, October 10, 2014).  Collaboration across the institution yields enhanced results for sustainability.

In addition to staff collaboration, involvement of students in teaching one another about sustainability is a common, successful practice.  The influence of peer education has long been recognized as one of the most significant factors in an undergraduate’s growth and development while in college (Astin, 1993; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005).  Institutions that have adopted environmental justice principles recognize the power of peer education to reach the larger campus community. Student leadership groups such as Eco-Reps at Seattle University have been duplicated at many other universities nationwide and can be enhanced to incorporate social justice principles and training.  At the University of Colorado-Boulder, students in a Climate Justice Leadership Program are trained on sustainability and social justice principles; in addition to group projects, each student completes a capstone designed to educate the campus community (M. Gabrieloff, personal communication, October 16, 2014).  The examples provided in this section demonstrate not only the importance of leadership at the top level of campus administration, but also the value of embracing students’ passion, energy, and willingness to partner with campus leadership to advance environmental justice.


While traditionally viewed as separate issues, sustainability and social justice are inherently related.  Our hope is that by embracing environmental justice as the natural extension of our values regarding social justice and sustainability (ACPA & NASPA, 2010/2015), student affairs practitioners can begin to realize the local and global implications of their practice in developing students and promoting equity.  Environmental justice empowers us to address the challenges of environmental degradation and social justice.

Reflection Questions

  1. How can we incorporate environmental justice into the the strategic goals of my department?
  2. How can we incorporate environmental justice into the learning outcomes in my department or functional area?
  3. How can I communicate the importance of environmental justice to my students? Colleagues? Senior administration?
  4. How can environmental justice inform my personal life as well as my professional role?
  5. How can I foster an environmentally just mindset on campus, encouraging students and colleagues to consider broad and long-term implications of decisions such as purchasing (i.e., thinking “single-purchase” instead of “single-use”)?
  6. What are the “facts” of environmental justice on my campus? For example, where does our waste go? What are procurement policies? Where do we invest? What is our relationship with the local community?


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About the Authors

Andrew M. Wells is a Ph.D. candidate in College Student Affairs Administration at the University of Georiga.  His current research focus is on college students’ attitudes toward the environment and student affairs practitioners’ incorporation of environmental justice in practice and pedagogy.  Prior to beginning his doctoral studies, he worked in student affairs at the University of California, Davis.

Please e-mail inquiries to Andrew M. Wells.

Jessica Belue Buckley holds a B.A from the University of Virginia, an M.Ed. from the University of Vermont, and a Ph.D. in College Student Personnel from the University of Maryland.  She is currently the Clinical Assistant Professor and Assistant Project Director, Cadre & Faculty Development course at University of Louisville.

Please e-mail inquiries to Jessica Belue Buckley.

Dillon Kimmel holds a B.A. from Ball State University an M. Ed. from the University of South Carolina.  He currently serves as a Complex Coordinator at the University of Delaware.

Please e-mail inquiries to Dillon Kimmel.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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