A couple of years ago I published an article about the lack of affordability in the ethical fashion industry which received spirited responses from the community. Price is a factor for many shoppers, I concluded in the article, to pretend it’s not is doing a disservice to the ethical movement.
The price issue has been an ongoing concern for many. When we published a post curating affordable eco-friendly and ethical underwear brands, which was set at USD $29 or less, a reader pointed out that most people couldn’t afford to purchase underwear at the higher end of this price range.
So I polled our Instagram audience on the matter and asked, “Do you think ethical underwear over $20 is too expensive?” Roughly 500 people responded and the results were in: 67 percent said yes it was.
This result did not surprise me. The Eco Warrior Princess (EWP) community also includes budget-conscious students, low-income earners, and cash-strapped parents. I suspect the reason we’ve attracted such an eclectic set of followers is because we actively work to ensure that EWP does not frame the sustainable lifestyle message through the lens of elitism, but rather, promotes eco philosophies of innovation, anti-consumerism, self-sufficiency, frugality, purchasing quality and environmental stewardship.
Now recently on Facebook, I happened on an innovative eco-friendly plastic-free toothpaste product where you pop a bite-sized toothpaste tablet in your mouth and it breaks down as you brush your teeth. “So so cool,” I thought. It was $12 a bottle. As I began to crunch the numbers in my head, calculating how many pills were in a bottle and how long it would last me, I scrolled to read the discussion thread and came across these comments:
“And as usual, green products are too expensive for most people. Find a way to keep costs to the same as over the counter products and I’ll buy them!”
“So why does everything that’s supposed to help the planet cost so fn much? Oh yeah, just like healthy food…they guilt you then jack up the price to get rich while you struggle to not be judged.”
“Most people cannot afford $12 for toothpaste they pay 88 cents for. Families are struggling to make ends meet. Sad but true no matter what excuses you provide.”
Concerns about affordability in ethical consumerism surfacing again.
I’ve been stewing on this issue a lot lately since it’s one of the biggest barriers for the mass consumer; the consumer we need to be influencing over to the green side if we really want to move the needle as a movement. Earlier in the year, I made a pact with myself that I would actively get out of algorithmically-influenced online communities and seek to engage with diverse people outside of the ‘eco chamber’ in the hopes of planting lots of green living seeds. I had been feeling that the online community was becoming too exclusive and we were wasting precious resources and energy preaching to the already converted. With climate change a pressing concern since some of our politicians are bed follows with the fossil fuel industry and are too slow to act, I decided that I needed to commit to getting the message out to the broader masses in the hope of making a greater difference. Engaging with people online and offline, the same concerns about the movement kept coming up:
Sustainable living is too expensive.”
Debunking the myth that a sustainable lifestyle is expensive
I grew up in Melbourne’s western suburbs, what used to be (and still is) a working-class area. My parents migrated to Australia from the Philippines in 1985 and on their humble incomes, built us a comfortable life where we did not go without. There was very little money in the kitty for extravagant consumer purchases since the household budget was tight and income stretched just enough to cover the mortgage, utility expenses, and private school tuition. Since the Filipino culture is a hierarchical one and children are expected to obey their parents; acting spoilt, selfishness and complaining were not tolerated. We made do with what we had and what we were given.
It’s in my childhood that I learned the foundations of a sustainable lifestyle even if at the time, that’s not how I would have described it. We were taught money was earned and that our parents’ money didn’t grow on trees. We were taught the value of hard work and of saving money. My father shopped secondhand and frequented garage sales and my mum purchased produce from the markets (sometimes purchasing organic when she was feeling especially luxurious) and cooked dinner most nights. Since my parents had lived in the developing world where scarcity is a real problem, they viewed waste, and particularly food waste, a sin. We were told time and again that kids in the Philippines weren’t as blessed as us, and that we should be lucky that we had a roof over our head and good food on the table. My siblings and I were expected to eat all the food on our plates, turn electrical items off at the socket, switch off lights when we left the room and to wear layers in winter to prevent unnecessary use of ducted heating.
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When I look back on my childhood, I realise that the adoption of these sustainable lifestyle activities were born purely out of having little disposable income, necessity and survival. My parents were hard-working, practical and humble and taught us simple values that centered on frugality, humility, and resourcefulness. These are the values that I carry with me to this day and this is the point that I want to drive home.
You don’t need lots of money to live sustainably. People living in the developing world, for example, have a lower carbon footprint than those in the Western world. In fact, it’s people residing in the industrialised nations that are responsible for a greater share of consuming the world’s resources and global carbon emissions.
Thus, sustainable living is not about consuming the fanciest eco-conscious product so as to win the approval and admiration of people within the community. Nor is it a game of one-upmanship. It is about minimising our environmental footprint and protecting nature, which, let’s face it, can be best done by embracing a simple lifestyle. When one remembers that the point of it is to reduce one’s carbon footprint, consume less and learn to live in alignment with our natural environment, the journey becomes relatively easy. Cultivating these intrinsic values helps to fortify against the competition and comparison nature fostered by capitalism and even “conscious capitalism“.
So while there are sustainable living products and options that only the wealthier demographic have access to given the high upfront costs – some brands of ethical clothing, home solar systems, electric cars, shopping package-free bulk foods, and certified organic produce – there are still so many options available to people on lower income brackets, from embracing minimalism and consuming less to carrying a zero waste kit (as well as those ideas I’ve outlined above and others you will find in our free green lifestyle e-book here).
Sustainable living has the perception of being out of reach for the everyday person because clued-in greenies are using fancy-schmancy marketing and Photoshopped images to attract more people to the cause. It’s debatable whether these aspirational marketing messages promote more consumption or less; it’s just too early to tell. But one thing is clear – it’s confusing a hell of a lot of people and making some people feel bad that their lives don’t measure up to the images depicted.
Now acknowledging that creative marketing is being used by members of our community doesn’t mean that class privilege doesn’t exist; it does. It exists almost everywhere in the world and its values system can serve to erode the community if we let it. Our DC-based contributor Mary Imgrund in her article on the subject writes:
“One of the core beliefs of sustainability is to unplug from consumerism — buy less, save more, grow your own food, repair rather than replace, and so on. These are humble solutions, and usually the best ones. However, the new, capitalist version of environmentalism suggests that one can buy into the movement without making major lifestyle changes. Continue buying the same amount, they say, just buy my sustainable or new age version of that thing.”
Mary gets to the heart of the matter. Capitalists have found a way to turn the entire movement into a marketable commodity that consumers can buy into; cleverly manipulating the human desire for social status since it’s now cool to be ‘conscious’ ‘sustainable’ and ‘ethical’. Scroll through Instagram or Facebook and the message being perpetuated by these opportunists becomes clear: if you purchase the $100,000 Tesla, that $500 ethically designed dress or book that ‘eco’ resort located in the Maldives, you will acquire the status of being ‘sustainable’. Congratulations, your money gets you to the top of the sustainability pyramid. Hooray!
It can be frustrating for those who’ve worked at the grassroots level to see the movement being commodified by these seeming disingenuous actors, but this is capitalism and human nature for you. Where status is to be achieved and profits to be made, humans with questionable motives soon follow. The sustainability scene is no different. But let’s not make the mistake of thinking that the people who can afford the Teslas and expensive ethical dresses are bad people. They are people who have the capacity to spend lavishly on ethical consumer goods. Whether they’re trying to buy a conscience or not, does it really matter?
Now I empathise with people who are priced out of the market, are feeling anxious and making comparisons between their humble, frugal lives to the Instagrammable lives of the eco glamorous. There is no shame in the simple life, regardless of how the predatory capitalists and advertisers make you feel through their “you need to purchase this to make you feel sexy/cool/loved” aspirational marketing. I grew up humbly, I still live humbly and I like to think that I make sustainable living look simultaneously cool, attractive, attainable and achievable.
My heart also goes out to the people who feel that their low incomes are preventing them from achieving all their sustainable lifestyle goals. But succumbing to the manipulations of the capitalist system and other people’s egos doesn’t help, we can feel bad about ourselves when we let these ideas in; when we give our power away and when we start to compare rather than focus on our individual and collective actions.
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Likewise, I implore people of means and opportunity to recognise the challenges that people in the lower income brackets face and use whatever time and resources they can give to support climate change policies and programs that make affordable eco-friendly options convenient and accessible to everyone.
In her book, “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate”, author and award-winning journalist Naomi Klein encourages us to move beyond focussing on individual responsibility and instead encourages us to tackle the issue through demanding changes in political and corporate attitudes and push for low-carbon policies that will help all people live sustainably. She writes:
“We will need comprehensive policies and programs that make low-carbon choices easy and convenient for everyone. Most of all, these policies need to be fair, so that the people already struggling to cover the basics are not being asked to make additional sacrifice to offset the excess consumption of the rich. That means cheap public transit and clear light rail accessible to all; affordable, energy-efficient housing along the transit lines; cities planned for high-density living; bike lanes in which riders aren’t asked to risk their lives to get to work; land management that discourages sprawl and encourages local, low-energy forms of agriculture; urban design that clusters essential services like schools and health care along transit routes and in pedestrian-friendly areas; programs that require manufacturers to be responsible for the electronic waste they produce, and to radically reduce built-in redundancies and obsolescences.”
'Sustainable living is not about consuming the fanciest eco-conscious product so as to win the approval and admiration of people... Nor is it a game of one-upmanship. It is about minimising our environmental footprint & protecting nature'Click To Tweet
The enemy we all have in common is extreme capitalism which encourages the “greed is good” mentality, drives social and economic inequality, pits us against each other, exploits our natural environment and the vulnerable. Since we know it has the propensity to divide us, we need to steel ourselves from it and ensure that its corrosive nature and the capitalist-slash-opportunists looking to prey on our willingness to pay more and thus profit from green consumerism, don’t seriously undermine what we’re trying to achieve as individuals and as a movement.
We recommend reading this next: Eco Gentrification: Is The Green Living Movement Being Whitewashed?
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