When Political Correctness Hurts the Sustainability Movement

When Political Correctness Hurts the Sustainability Movement

Political correctness simply put, is the avoidance of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.

Originally, as the term indicates, political correctness was a way of life reserved for politicians whose jobs demanded that they always be on the right side of every issue (even if the right side meant sitting on the fence) lest they offend any voters and lose precious votes. I think those times are now behind us. Like a couple of other traits, political correctness – it seems – has gradually made its way beyond politics and got a firm hold of us all. In everyday life, we increasingly relegate to the background the importance of saying what we mean and meaning whatever we say.

With this frolic outside of its ‘traditional’ political arena, political correctness has expanded its domain to include issues of cosmetic media perception and fake appearances. Put differently, it is no longer enough that we not favor an idea over another, it seems we must also ensure that we appear to not have any opinion on the matter as well. A person’s actions could show deep-seated ills against another or a group, as long as his/her speech appears sugarcoated or neutral enough.

When Political Correctness Begins to Hurt the Sustainability Movement
Credit: Unsplash

At no other time in history has political correctness taken greater center stage than in the age in which we live in. From politicians to CEOs, from institutions to brands, everyone who has something to lose – whether real or imaginary – if caught in the public lens now live in fear of the snafu, the political faux pas that may get their political career or their stocks plummeting down to oblivion.

If the current times are the perfect climate for political correctness, then the home for it would be the sustainability movement. The movement by its very nature seeks a more inclusive existence where all peoples, views and positions are equally respected and welcome. All these are very commendable ideals which all should strive to abide by. Still, there is a possible shortcoming to this. This quest for a more inclusive existence runs parallel with considerable efforts to give everyone so much latitude that they can be whoever they’d rather be, accommodating their shortcomings and in time, their excesses.

This accommodation quickly stretches into a desire not to offend anyone and from this desire comes a reluctance to say what needs to be said, write what needs to be written and in the simplest of terms; call people out on their bullshit when necessary. Thus, the sustainability movement may have unwittingly become the pacifying uncle at the family dinner who refuses to caution the naughty teenagers or tell the annoying aunts to cool it.

To be clear, I’m not saying that the sustainability movement has remained entirely neutral for fear of offending its core values. On the contrary, the movement has been quite vocal and vociferous on a number of issues as regards to some anti-climate change campaigners and deniers, politicians and governments who through their actions or lack thereof are set on dragging mankind to a watery grave. The point here though is that these are the obvious targets. They are “enemy”. They challenge the ideals of the movement and so it is politically correct to rail against them. Where the difficulties come up are with the issues closer to home, those issues with subtle undertones such as where you may have to argue against inclusivity.


A lot of the issues that the sustainability movement are concerned with often relates to the welfare and wellbeing of people who are in some way or the other disadvantaged or wronged. From fair trade and child labour to equal pay for women, sometimes the subjects of these issues involve people and places in the first world whose daily lives often revolve around issues of reusables, more women in politics etc. Since the sustainability and eco movement is mainly made up of white people who are mostly female, it is not strange that such matters are prominently written about, reported and portrayed by the sustainability community.

At other times, the issues raised would revolve around life-threatening matters as child labour, poverty, waste etc. When such issues come up, they are often associated with developing nations as those found in Africa, some parts of Asia and the Middle East. These issues are not pretty. Writing about them is not easy and portraying them, whether in pictures or videos is not flattering.

One of the most volatile points is that of race and white privilege. So, how does a blogger in the sustainability movement talk about the simple lives of less developed countries without seeming condescending? How does her/she post pictures of African artisans and not seem racist? Truth be told, this has been somewhat of an elephant in the sustainable room.

The reluctance to delve into such issues is actually not from the lack of desire from the predominantly white eco-community. Rather, it stems in part from fear of the backlash that might ensue if the blogger appears to be racist, elitist or in some way portraying other people, races or genders as less than they ought to be. It also flows from the conflict that the bloggers feel within themselves as to writing and posting about these issues. The society, as one global village, has somehow made it out that if those experiences in question are not yours, you’d best avoid them.

How Political Correctness Hurts the Sustainability Movement
Credit: Shutterstock

If you are a white female living in the US, what could you know about working in a garment factory in Bangalore? And if you know something, how could it possibly be enough? Why would you care to post pictures of cotton pickers in Egypt from the comfort of your living room? The blogger who strays into those murky territories then finds that he/she requires too much preparation. The work to be done to fine-tune the pictures and prove that the piece was written without bias then far outweighs the blogger’s desire to actually say what he/she believes ought to be said. As a blogger friend put it, posting artisan pictures requires “preparedness”.

This has led to what I term ‘the gentrification of eco-living’. The easy way out is to stay away; speak of the milder issues and post pictures of white beaches, flat lays of reusable cups and zero waste kits. Let the owners of the more disturbing experiences speak of them. That way, we could fairly expect not to appear biased or condescending. 

'This has led to what I term ‘the gentrification of eco-living’. The easy way out is to stay away; speak of the milder issues and post pictures of white beaches, flat lays of reusable cups and zero waste kits...'Click To Tweet

In reality, I have found that the owners of the most gruesome experiences are often not able to tell their stories. If all sweatshop workers in Bangladesh could all write about their experiences working in the hells of fast fashion, it would be a wonder and we would have a stronger voice against unfair labour practices. The thing though is that these workers often can’t. That said, it is imperative that people share these stories regardless of race, nationalities or status in life.

On another note, from my observations and various conversations, I have come to the realization that the dreaded “backlash” does not often come from the most relevant people; persons whose issues are being discussed and whose pictures are being posted. Rather, when it comes at all, it flows from self-appointed “equality activists” who more often than not view such acts through the cynical eyes of modern political correctness. Why do we not call them out on their bullshit? Why do we let them continually control our narrative?

Political Correctness in the Sustainability Community
There is an abubdance of images of eco bloggers at beaches. Credit: Unsplash

This conflict is not peculiar to white eco-bloggers. I am Nigerian and earlier this year, the World Bank declared Nigeria to have the highest number of poor people in the world. Personally, this information has been deeply troubling and somewhat offensive. You see I am very well educated and even though my finances could be better (along with the rest of mankind), I know that I’m not poor. From time to time, I pick up my laptop to write and I feel the urge to eulogize the wealthy minority in Nigeria, to share only single stories of our success and bring to the fore only ‘positive vibes’ about my homeland.

The danger with sharing only this single story though is that our narrative would be incomplete. There is such a thing as truth and honesty. We are not all poor, so while I would ‘pick up arms’ against the blogger that puts this label on us all, the truth remains that some of us really are poor. I write about them as often as I can because it would be a great disservice to bury their stories so as to appear politically correct.

In the coming weeks, I hope to write some articles that will provide guidelines as to how to better tell the stories of African (and other developing) nations. Until then, write it honestly, write it fairly and write it with genuine interest and concern and I can guarantee that those who matter the most, those who need their stories to be told will cheer you on.

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