Exploitation of the working poor and colored people, and exploitation of the environment can often turn out to be interconnected: Disadvantaged communities have little resources or political power to defend themselves against companies seeking to maximize profit. Industries therefore tend to strategically direct pollution of the environment to these areas. The environmental justice movement (EJM) arose as a reaction to this form of discrimination.

The origins of the EJM can be traced back to other movements, such as the civil rights and the public health movement. They share the similarity that the role of local communities was of major importance, often connecting social struggle with environmental issues. The environmental justice movement uses a grassroots, participatory approach in organization and decision making, termed the "ecological democracy".

One of the successes of the movement in the United States was its role in changing the US waste infrastructure. Many companies relied on waste incineration, with the highly polluting facilities typically placed in the poorest neighborhoods. The environmental justice movement's protests focused on the negative effects of waste incinerators. While these campaigns were in favor of recycling, what finally made the industry switch to a recycling approach were mainly economic reasons: It simply turned out that recycling was more profitable than waste incineration in the long run.