Can’t buy me sustainability (sung to the tune of ‘can’t buy me love’)

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I once accidentally bought organic cabbage. As a student on a budget, I was shocked at the checkout, and then ashamed at my reaction. Was it not my responsibility to be environmentally conscious first, cheap college student later? But buying organic was a world apart, and in mine we walked around the grocery store hunting for the lowest price. Cabbage for $1 was a steal, organic cabbage for $5 was a luxury. 

The exclusive and expensive lifestyle of luxurious environmental sustainability is omnipresent on social media, and pushes other forms to its periphery. Although buying consciously is a powerful tool for change, its dominance feeds into the very problem it attempts to solve: finding a long-lasting solution to climate change. All the while, many alternative forms of sustainability, the ones passed down by grandparents and performed silently on a daily basis, are downplayed.

Scientists have known about climate change for decades, and its effects are becoming increasingly devastating and clear. This November, an entire city in British Columbia was evacuated because of intense flooding. The 2021 IPCC report clarified what many already knew: human activities are responsible for climate change, and these changes are happening fast. Within the next two decades, we will reach a critical temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius

Climate change affects all of us, but some communities are hit much harder. Climate vulnerability is influenced by health status and living conditions, and people of colour are more likely to score poorly in both categories as a result of systemic racism. Many countries who contribute negligible amounts of greenhouse gases will also receive the harshest consequences, especially island nations like Haiti and the Philippines

Clearly, sustainability has become an urgent call to action, but what does it look like?

Over the phone, my friend Akiko remarked that “I feel like everything marketed as sustainable means it’s more money.” Luxurious environmental sustainability is bought as a lifestyle and then promptly shown off: an expensive ethically-made set of jeans, the fancy spring water at the grocery store, eco-friendly laundry detergent – what’s next? It’s ‘Instagrammable sustainability’, another friend remarked. If it can’t be flaunted, does it even count? This form of sustainability can be socially and politically powerful. A rise in veganism has forced major companies to find plant-based alternatives, and McDonalds released McPlant in this year. 

While there still may be some benefits to, yes, the climate(!) amidst the practises of luxurious environmental sustainability, the problems it poses are more alarming. Who can afford ethically-sourced clothing? Who has the time to learn how to use eco-friendly period products? Many forms of luxurious environmental sustainability require different types of privilege, be it money, time, or access to information. ‘Instagrammable sustainability’ can also harm marginalised communities. With a rise in the popularity of thrifting, people who actually depend on affordable clothing have to look elsewhere as prices rise to meet increased demand. When these same people turn to fast fashion, they are shamed for it. 

Image from Unspash

To be clear, buying luxurious environmental products is not a problem in and of itself. 

It becomes a problem when it is dictated as the only good way to be sustainable, and used to shame those who don’t adhere to dominant norms. When those who criticise fast-food eaters and fast fashion wearers are the same people who grimaced at the smell of a leftover lunch made with love. At the hand-me-downs from cousins. When these same people used to dress head to toe in Forever 21. There is a double-standard here, a pattern repeated: “ghetto until proven fashionable”. Nareasha Willis, the designer who popularised the term, explains that Black culture is first ridiculed and then appropriated by a white elite. In a similar vein, sustainable practises passed down by families, often from marginalised backgrounds, have become commercialised and co-opted by a privileged few. 

But individuals who engage with commercialised sustainability are not to blame. Corporations are. Companies can “drive policy change, shape consumer preferences, and rapidly respond to the necessities of climate change at a scale and pace beyond any other political or private entity”. A 2017 Carbon Disclosure Project report found that 71% of recent industrial greenhouse gas emissions were released by 100 energy companies. Without taking accountability for their role in fueling the climate crisis or making meaningful change, companies remain the largest roadblock towards climate justice. 

Luxurious environmental sustainability not only caters to privilege, but also contributes to the growth of these companies. “I worry that sustainability is actually about the sustainability of capitalist exploitation and dispossession,” Niki laments in a Shades of Sustainability story. With loose environmental regulations on private businesses worldwide and growing incentives to capture a sustainability-oriented market, environmental marketing is often more about profit than genuine concern. 

During COP26, the United Nations annual climate change conference, the fossil fuel industry was the largest delegation present. Activists had restricted access to events. Ayisha Sidiqqa, cofounder of Polluters Out, remarked that “I had an observer’s badge but did not and could not observe any negotiations that took place”. When oil and gas industries continue to have a seat at the climate decision-making table, climate change solutions will be commercialised rather than addressed. When marginalised voices are not integrated into global policy-making decisions, sustainable solutions will not meet their needs. 

Instead of seeing social equity issues as tangential to environmental concerns, intersectional environmentalism addresses their interconnected nature. At its core, this form of radical sustainability aims to protect both people and the planet. It also gives space for alternative forms of sustainability. 

Alternative sustainable rituals have been rolled up in stories, secret recipes, the harsh and familiar whisper from a family member across the dinner table: “finish everything on your plate or else -”. Intersectional wellness educator Kahryn Pedroza affirms that “families of colour have been left out of the sustainability narrative despite being the unknown or unacknowledged leaders of this effort.” 

De-valued within discourses of environmental sustainability, family practises are sometimes not perceived as ‘sustainable’. After noticing how passionate my friend was about using carrot ends for hot soup, I asked her what other sustainable practises she grew up with. Her immediate response was that reducing food waste was “not a matter of sustainability. In my head that’s part of how I grew up. That’s how my parents were – no waste – eat every part of the vegetable”. 

Image from Unsplash

Paige Curtis, a writer and environmentalist, describes how sustainable living was the basis of her parents’ upbringing in rural Jamaica. Tied to a strong value system and reflective of resourcefulness and creativity, sustainability was born out of “respect for the land and its richness” and because it was the only way to get by. 

Luxurious environmental sustainability is rooted in consumption and gives more power to profit-driven corporations – complicit in the problem it targets. By bypassing the magic of traditional family values, we are neglecting a wealth of valuable information about how to connect to the land we are on and waste less. Radical forms of sustainability, from family practises to resilient cities, need to be valued. “Sustainability is like a sari,” Neha writes, “there are so many styles, shades, and purposes, each one deeply rooted in our lived experiences and each one just as valid as the other.” 

Article by Layla Razek