I became conscious of environmental issues in high school, mainly from vegan and zero-waste YouTubers. They taught me sustainability through the lens of consumerism. If you buy more sustainable products, then the demand for environmentally harmful products will go down. But what if these products are too expensive for some people? What if some people don’t even have access to these products?
The way sustainability is framed today is not for everyone. To be sustainable in this way, you need money, time, and resources. Likewise, if sustainability is only a choice for some, then it’s not a good solution. It’s barely even a band-aid on the problem!
Sustainability as we know it is elitist
The most popular and pushed ways to be sustainable are all based on personal choices. Here are some examples: using a metal straw, adopting a vegan diet, having a garden, buying sustainable products, buying organic foods, preparing your own food, having reusable bags, etc. All of these puts pressure on individuals who may not have the means to do so.
Eco-friendly products tend to be more expensive, making it difficult for many to afford them. Not everyone has the time to garden, make their own meals, or be vegan. And when it comes to buying organic food, some people don’t even have access to farmers’ markets or even grocery stores. Many people live in areas called “food deserts”, regions that lack easy access to grocery stores and healthy food options.
All the methods are great ways to be more sustainable if you can afford to. If you can make these decisions, I encourage you to do so! But this shouldn’t be THE solution. As I mentioned earlier, I use to understand being sustainable through a consumerist lens. The idea I was sold was that we can vote with our dollars. But as it turns out, not everyone can. Not to mention the ways that companies can trick us into thinking their product is the sustainable choice. Thus, this method of creating a more sustainable society is flawed.
This isn’t the only way!
Something that the mainstream sustainability movement forgets sometimes is the power of reusing products. This a method that low-income households have continued to do out of necessity. I remember my own grandma saving every single plastic bag from the grocery store to use later on. Although it’s not as glamorous, it’s still a way to be sustainable. Other methods could be to use hand-me-down clothing or re-purpose store bought food containers. This is not to romanticize methods used to lower living costs but to understand that sustainability can take on other forms.
Equally important, indigenous communities have been practicing sustainability for centuries. They have passed on from generation to generation traditional knowledge on how to be sustainable on their native lands. As a result, they can preserve their land and resources for generations to come. When their voices are silenced and they aren’t allowed to have autonomy on their native lands, it affects not only their livelihood but the world’s livelihood. Indigenous land has protected 80% of the world’s biodiversity and serves as a major sink for carbon dioxide. Thus, if we really want to protect our planet, indigenous voices should be front and center.
Let’s reshape how we view sustainability!
In conclusion, we should change the way we view sustainability. The way we view it in the mainstream is unproductive. It focuses on individual consumerist choices. This excludes low-income communities that cannot afford sustainable choices and also puts blame on the individual. It also makes us forget the extreme harm that corporations have on the planet. Our mainstream view of sustainability makes us blame ourselves when we are only a small part of a huge problem! Not to mention it discredits the work of BIPOC and low-income communities that have already been participating in sustainable practices and lifestyles.
To really become a sustainable society, we cannot be exclusive. Sustainability shouldn’t be about if you can afford to buy fancy eco-friendly products. It should be about holding those who harm our planet the most accountable and uplifting the voices of those who have been protecting the Earth for generations.
It’s about coming together to find a way for us all to make a more sustainable world.