Is sustainable living and conscious consumerism attainable for all?

Photo by: Alex Hetherington

Eco-friendly alternatives to conventionally produced items have sprung up left and right — finding “green” products has never been easier. As someone who prides myself on making sustainable choices in my daily life, I can’t help but feel pleased. But lately, I’ve found myself wondering: has the sustainability movement left lower-income individuals behind? Is a product truly sustainable if it surpasses the budget of consumers? Can sustainability itself be sustainable if it is not inclusive?

Paying a Premium for Sustainability

The fact of the matter is that sustainable goods cost more. Businesses internalise their externalities, and the consumer is often left paying the price. A dress made by a brand that pays its employees a living wage and uses sustainably sourced organic cotton will inevitably cost more than its fast-fashion counterpart. A plastic-free, refillable, natural deodorant costs more than a multinational’s antiperspirant. Organic free-range eggs cost more than those produced with lower animal welfare standards. While greener products will become more affordable as they become more wildly available and in higher demand than their unsustainable counterparts, this is not currently the case.

Time as a Resource

This isn’t to say that there aren’t ways to be sustainable that are affordable. They exist. Buying less. Borrowing from friends. Buying second hand. Repairing items you already have when they get damaged. Making your own cleaning or beauty products at home. Starting your own compost. Washing and reusing containers intended for single-use. Returning unrecyclable plastic bags to collection points in shops.

The problem here is that more affordable green choices often require a little extra work and a little extra time. As we all know, time is a valuable resource. This is especially true for people of lower socio-economic classes, people of colour, women, and people who are physically or mentally impaired. We cannot ignore the impact of time on environmental choices, as this would “ignore the reality of many people’s lives.

It’s also been proven that people who feel more connected to nature, are more inclined to take action to protect it. Unfortunately, the working class has reduced access to green space and other environmental goods. This, combined with the fact that people who are well-educated and left-leaning are more likely to be interested in environmental issues, further explains why sustainable habits are harder for lower-income groups to form.

Socio-Economic Status as a Barrier for Sustainable Living

The reality is that sustainability is a luxury many can’t afford. If you’re worried about having enough money to pay your bills every month, which source your energy provider is using is likely not a primary concern of yours. The same goes for organic or other sustainably produced food. Concerns of affordability often outweigh the concerns of sustainability. This is understandable when you consider that 800 million people go to bed hungry every night and that 17% of the world’s population, equivalent to 1.3 billion people, has experienced moderate food insecurity (meaning they do not have regular or sufficient access to nutritious food). In fact, just here in the UK, an estimated 8.4 million people reported having insufficient food in 2014. And lately, due to the economic situation resulting from COVID-19, food banks have seen a drastic increase in demand, highlighting “that current social security safety net measures [are] not enough to prevent poorer families being swept into destitution.” The UK’s biggest food bank network, The Trussell Trust, gave out 89% more food parcels in April 2020, when compared to April 2019, and the Independent Food Aid Network saw a 175% increase.

If someone is struggling to afford enough food for themselves or their family, how can we expect them to afford sustainable food? If someone is struggling to get by day to day, how can we expect them to worry about future generations? For the working class, the concept of sustainability is often an afterthought; “when challenges of poor education and social injustice consume daily life, there is often no mental capacity left to think about ‘the needs of tomorrow’.” There are innumerable things that could (and should!) be done to improve the wellbeing of many. Only then, when they’re no longer just getting by, will they be able to deliberately make eco-friendly choices with more ease.

Environmental Classism

Certain environmentally friendly products seem to charge more simply because they can. Sustainable branding is frequently used in marketing to help wealthier shoppers identify premium products. Sustainable, ethical buyers are still considered a niche market. For some, environmentalism is a status symbol. Not only that, but it is not uncommon for some environmentalists to be judgmental of others in the movement based on their actions or inactions. But here’s the rub: “environmentalism can’t afford to exclude, police, and grant participation to the handful of individuals able to live the perfect green life.” It must be diverse, include contributions from various social, economic and racial groups, and consider the challenges and experiences of others. Environmental policies need to take into account the capacity available to all members of the public to engage with them.

Disparities of Climate Change Impacts

Not only is it more difficult for lower socio-economic classes, often composed of people of colour, to participate in sustainability due to time or financial constraints, but they are also disproportionately affected by climate impacts — despite the world’s richest 10% being responsible for 50% of global carbon emissions. In fact, if we take the US as an example, oil refineries are disproportionately located in Black neighbourhoods — leading to a slew of health problems. But that’s a whole other can of worms I’ll get into another time.

Reduction of Inequality as a Sustainability Driver

While we don’t want to compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs, we must ensure we are not inadvertently ignoring the needs of those alive today. We mustn’t forget the social prong of sustainability; we must address the socio-economic disparities found within our every borough. Instead of packaging the (in)accessibility of sustainable goods and services as a price issue, it helps to think of it as an income issue. Lower-income and working-class individuals will be better equipped to make environmentally friendly choices when social issues are addressed. To tackle our environmental problems, we must first tackle our inequality problems.

Who is Responsible?

Yes, individual action is important. And yes, you should do everything you can to minimise your impact. But there’s no use in finger-pointing or shaming others who are unable to do the same. There’s a difference between being unwilling to participate in sustainable practices, and being unable. We cannot give individual choices more attention than the structural constraints that lead people to make these choices. We cannot make others feel guilty for decisions that are largely out of their control. Nor can we hold individuals accountable, whilst letting governments and corporations off the hook.

Governments need to incentivise and subsidise innovation in the sustainability realm and enact ambitious policy change. Wider structural and political solutions need to be put in place by the government to help people afford, choose, and prioritise ethical products. The private sector must also set ambitious targets and act upon them to help mitigate the problem of climate change that they helped create. It’s the responsibility of brands to make products that people want to buy at a reasonable price and make them sustainably.

As many of you know, the reality is we cannot afford to not be sustainable. It’s just not all up to individuals to bear the brunt of the cost.