Green Jobs are too White: How environmental groups can increase diversity in the workplace

This year, the Oscars’ overwhelmingly White winners, speakers, performers, and presenters raised questions about the diversity of the red carpet and how the show’s producers could better embrace the ethnic backgrounds of the film industry. Like these Hollywood worries, recent studies about the shortfalls of diversity hiring in environmental groups, from non-profit organizations to government agencies and foundation employment, show that the “Whiteness” of green jobs affects not only ideas and communication about the environmental movement but even the giving of grants and donations to environmental projects[1].

Diversity in the work force is a problem in many occupations in the US, but one that is especially drastic in environmental organizations.

Diversity in the work force is a problem in many occupations in the US, but one that is especially drastic in environmental organizations. A study surveying 191 environmental non-profits, 74 government environmental agencies, and 28 leading environmental grant making foundations, found that people of color were underrepresented in the environmental movement. People of color are 36% of the U.S. population, and comprise 29% of the science and engineering workforce but they do not exceed 16% of the staff in any of the organizations surveyed[2].

This “Green Ceiling” has been in place for decades. Angela Park, founder and chief executive of Mission Critical, a nonprofit, and a member of the Council on Sustainable Development during the Clinton administration believes the environmental movement suffers because of the lack of racial diversity in protection organizations. Americans giving priority to the environment has declined over the past 10 years, from 47% in 2003 to just 41% in 2012.[3] Park told the Washington Post “We are never going to solve the problems without all our communities represented[4].” The diminishing concern over environmental issues can be blamed on messaging that no longer reaches the diverse demographic of the US. Van Jones, an activist for diverse hiring practices and head of Green for All, believes green jobs can be a vehicle to lift urban youths and others out of poverty. He advocates that diversity is needed in organizations in order to match the diversity of the people they serve. “The more the green movement transforms into a movement for economic opportunity,” Mr. Jones said, “the more it will look like America.”[5]

The absence of people of color in environmental organizations is often misguidedly blamed on the belief that minorities care less about the environment than Whites. Recent studies report this conclusion is blaringly unsupported. In a survey ranking race and identification with environmentalism, 71% of Asian Americans consider themselves environmentalists, more than 30 points higher than the national average. Among some groups, including Chinese and Vietnamese, the proportions are even higher.[6] In a survey by the National Council of La Raza Action Fund, Spanish-speaking Latino voters in Colorado, North Carolina, and Florida were 77% more likely to vote for a pro-environmental candidate in local and national elections[7]. Non-whites have consistently believed climate change should be a top priority for the president and Congress. In the same study however, Whites that view climate change as a priority has actually dropped more than 10 percentage points over time.[8] This is discouraging because as environmental damage increases, citizens should be more concerned than ever.

It’s not hard to see why people of color see environmental impacts as a major concern. Poor and minority families are more likely to live in industrial towns or near plants emitting toxic contaminants.[9] A study of air pollution in the US found that African Americans and other minorities breathe in air with 38% more noxious nitrogen dioxide than Whites because of their close proximity to power plants, poor healthcare, and constraints on mobility financing.[10]

Despite both higher overall support for environmental action and increased exposure to environmental risks, minorities are still underrepresented in environmental protection groups.

Despite both higher overall support for environmental action and increased exposure to environmental risks, minorities are still underrepresented in environmental protection groups.

One of the barriers to achieving diversity is that employers can place too much value in university degrees. From Earth Day 1970 until today, the majority of the people directing, staffing, and even volunteering at green groups have not only been white men, but they also hail from wealthier households with elite educational pedigrees.[11] Frank Peterman, who served as the Southeast Regional Director of the Wilderness Society from 2003 to 2010 and worked to ensure urban communities benefitted from public land systems, believes environmentalism doesn’t have to be such an intellectual enterprise. Peterman says, “Two of the greatest conservationists I’ve ever known were my father and grandfather. Neither of them had more than a 6th grade education, but they knew how to protect the Earth[12].” This overemphasis is combined with the fact that African-Americans and Latinos are underrepresented in higher education, due to failures in the education system, economic inequality, and structural racism.

Environmental organizations should be asking what conservation means if its mission is being hurt by an overemphasis on academic accolades, causing a lack of diverse perspectives and ideas.

Other problems of diversity hiring are unconscious bias during interviews, inadequate recruitment to hiring organizations representing people of color communities, and poor retention tools for keeping diverse employees. The impression that there are low numbers of people of color in the applicant pool can be partially attributed to organizations failing to go beyond their use of traditional, limited recruiting practices such as word-of-mouth, environmental websites and informal networks.

The good news is that there are several steps groups can take to improve their hiring and retention practices and benefit from the ideas, perspectives, and experiences that connect environmental organizations with the people and communities they serve. Recommendations for diversifying leadership and creating inclusive workplaces are:

Tracking and Transparency

  • Diversity statements without a plan and rigorous data collection are just words on paper. Organizations and associations should institute annual diversity and inclusion assessments.
  • Disclosure should facilitate sharing of strategies for addressing unconscious bias and overhauling recruiting beyond the green insiders’ club.


  • Foundations, NGOs, and government agencies should integrate diversity goals into performance evaluations and grant making criteria.
  • The environmental field’s associations should use their convening role to showcase leaders and laggards on increased diversity.


  • Increased resources must be allocated for diversity initiatives to work.
  • Provide sustainable funding for networking to reduce isolation and support existing leaders of color.[13]

By taking small steps to encourage hiring and retention of diverse members, green organizations will have a bigger and better impact on garnering support for environmental sustainability in the face of a changing world.