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Jan 03, 2023 • Caitlin Ellen
When Phantila and I set out to start Sabai, there was one thing we were both certain of: we wanted to build a business centered around inclusive sustainability. Most companies that market themselves as sustainable create a brand that only embodies whiteness. Not Sabai.
Sabai is a Thai word that means cozy - this is how we want every single member of our community to feel when they engage with us, no matter their race, religion, gender, sexuality, or background. From our name to our entire brand ethos, we take a global approach to sustainability that focuses on bringing everyone into the fold, and acknowledges the history of sustainability and its origins within Black and Indigenous communities.
Making Sabai an inclusive brand is not only representative of our beliefs but also of the unjust reality that people of color are disproportionately impacted by environmental issues. Communities of color in America are exposed to significantly more air pollution, toxic waste sites, landfills, lead poisoning, and other industrial complexes.
The proof is in the pudding: A study conducted in 1983 by the U.S. Congress’ General Accounting Office (GAO) found that 75% of the hazardous waste landfill sites in eight southeastern states were in low-income communities of color.
Meanwhile, a 2014 study found that Black people are 75% more likely to live near fenceline zones. A fenceline zone is defined in the study as, “an area designated as one-tenth the distance of the vulnerability zone, in which those affected are least likely to be able to escape from a toxic or flammable chemical emergency, but not representing the outer bounds of potential harm.” This means that Black people are more likely to be exposed to chemicals that have been linked to cancer, birth defects, and chronic illnesses.
To ensure that Sabai embodies inclusive sustainability, our team is working to reduce waste by using recycled materials and through our Closed Loop Program, Sabai Revive. Meanwhile, Sabai’s products are nontoxic - they are made without harmful chemicals such as flame retardants or formaldehydes to prevent further inequities in public health. Unchecked by government, corporations big and small are responsible for this legacy of harm. As a small business, we lead by example through our inclusive and sustainable ethos. However, it is the strength of our message that we hope will inspire our community to take collective action and demand these practices from our governments as well as all corporations.
To close out Black History Month, I spoke with Sustainable Brooklyn's Whitney McGuire to discuss environmental racism, climate change, and sustainability messaging. Whitney is a Co-Founder of Sustainable Brooklyn, an organization that is bridging the gap between the sustainability movement and targeted communities. She is also an attorney and leader in fashion law.
Caitlin: Can you tell us how sustainable corporations are excluding Black and Brown communities?
Whitney: The sustainability movement doesn’t incorporate the different aspects of different cultures that practice sustainability. We are the originators of this concept of sustainability that is being appropriated, repackaged, and resold to us as a commodity that we need to buy into in order to “be sustainable”. It’s a fucking lie. When you’re broke you take the train, when you’re broke you take the bus, you shop second hand clothing, you shop at thrift stores.This has been my entire life.
Caitlin: Right. Where do you think that cognitive dissonance began? Where can we trace the rewriting of this legacy within history to?
Whitney: Not addressing the lived experiences of descendants of enslaved Africans throughout America is [the first] gaping hole in most conversations about sustainability.
Caitlin: Of course, so essentially history has been re-written from Day 1. Do you have any advice for brands with sustainable products that want to ensure their company is inclusive and incorporates the communities of color that have been at the forefront of sustainability for generations?
Whitney: If you want to be on the wave of the future, and you want to actually paint the future and break with the status quo, you have to be willing to make bold decisions. For corporate brands, that can be difficult with the landscape of venture capital funding. But we at Sustainable Brooklyn try to emphasize the importance of really paying attention to your responsibilities within intersectionality. Any brand that is on that wave is automatically willing to at least do some introspection to ask, "Where is our accountability, and how can we make more intentional actions? What is our responsibility to our consumers and their communities?" These brands can’t operate in silos anymore, and can’t think that "business as usual" is going to shield them from the impacts of an unstable social climate. Brands have to really understand that they have much more responsibility now than they have been given in the past.
Caitlin: How can our community help the environmental justice movement?
Whitney: Locally, our elections are really impactful. It’s vital that we take the extra step to go to the police commissioner’s website and see who our actual representatives are, to go to our County Board of Elections and see who the gatekeepers to our safety are. So I would encourage people to use this momentum from the national election to form habits of political engagement.
Caitlin: I couldn’t agree more with your advice to create habits of political engagement, especially at the local level. Thanks so much Whitney for sharing your perspective, life’s work, and action steps with us!
For more resources on Environmental Racism and the Environmental Justice Movement please visit:
Photo by Sustainable Brooklyn, featuring Co-Founders Whitney McGuire and Domonique Drakeford on the Essential Sofa in Indigo Velvet.