Metal straws, beeswax papers, and tote bags galore. The environmental movement, transformed from the counterculture protests of the 1960s, has entered the trend cycle of your favourite department stores. As people have begun to realize that our climate crisis is worsening, many have committed to finding ways they can make a small difference, which is admirable in itself. The result has been a plethora of new brands of reusable bags and recycled jackets, and the consequent shaming of those who are not participating in the commodification of environmentalism. 

It’s an odd shift, though it’s clearly one that is having a positive impact on the planet. Yet there is a clear gap between those who understand their special ability to afford a higher-end, perfectly marketed, environmentally conscious lifestyle and those who lack this introspection. This phenomenon seems as though it has just been introduced in the recent years, as people have been living zero waste for decade, but stores like Indigo and Urban Outfitters have recently begun prioritizing sustainable products; products that while adorable, are not affordable in the least. And while one can see how the special manufacturing required for environmentally conscious items is reflected in the price point, it does feel unfair that certain people are excluded from the movement simply because they cannot partake in its new manifestation—everyone can reduce and recycle, but few can afford reformation. Should they be seen as anti-environmentalists or alienated from purchasing sustainably? 

For the rich, white women consuming (and often posting) these products, sustainability is activism in aesthetic packaging. Those who are privileged enough to purchase according to eco-conscious principles are able to avoid protest and political messaging by changing their own lifestyle. The environmental movement has shifted away from the radical, anti-big establishment messaging of the 60’s and 70’s and towards a more palatable manifestation for greater society. Beeswax wraps, pilgrim dresses made from recycled materials, and veganism are not only good for the planet, but look great on your Instagram feed. This occurrence, in hindsight, is a great feat for environmentalists. Small steps for the larger cause. If tackling the Bezos of the world is too aggressive, too social-justice warrior-like for you and your friends, you can still contribute to reducing your carbon footprint while staying aesthetically pleasing to the watching eyes. 

This is a privilege few have. To shop organic vegetables and reusable bags is not realistic for the majority of society, those of who live paycheque to paycheque. Sustainable living is by no means cheap, and the sad truth is, environmentally harmful clothing and food are often what some people can barely afford. Those in lesser positions of privilege are left out of this sustainable shift, not by choice but by necessity. It is simply unrealistic to expect all people to cough up the extra ten or fifty dollars for a bathing suit made from plastic when society has yet to reach a living wage. This type of ostracism is a direct result of the fact that sustainability has not been popularized by equitable division of organic food or policy that legislates better production, but by what is aesthetically pleasing and popular via Instagram bloggers. As Jadyn Kuah, the VP of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Indigeneity (EDII) at Queen’s Backing Action on Climate Change (QBACC), so perfectly put it when asked for her thoughts on this debate, “Nobody can be a perfect consumer, and we cannot consume our way out of this crisis.”

As most systemic inequalities go, it is integral that we maintain an intersectional lens when discussing such a topic. Jadyn notes that the, “[marginalized] groups are more likely to be affected by displacement and oftentimes they are not the persons who caused the climate crisis in the first place.” Racial minorities are more often than not in the lower income bracket and are not fiscally able to participate in the newest trends that have arisen, even if these trends are perceived as social responsibilities. Jadyn wants people to recognize that, “the environmental movement has so much space to grow. Largely, it’s been a very ‘white’ movement that marginalized people have not had a lot of voice in.”

This conversation is in no way an attempt to downplay how far the environmental movement has come. It is both inspiring and important that people have noticed how they can adjust their own lifestyle to be more conscious of our inevitable climate crisis. Yet, there is still room for a fair critique, not so much of the movement itself, but of its commodification and the shame culture that arose from it. If you are not able to afford sustainability, the immediate reaction is that you are ignorant of the imminent decline of our planet—a reaction that most people should see is unfair. In our conversation, Jadyn pointed out how, “being able to buy from a local sustainable farm is a privilege… shame culture should be frowned upon and should start to change.” 

As the VP of EDII for QBACC, Jadyn hopes people will begin to realize that, “Advocacy matters just as much as becoming a vegan. We need to acknowledge that people cannot be perfect,” and that, “People should want to get involved. Activism is a scary thing that people shy away from because it is a harder choice.” 

Samantha Lin, an EDII director for QBACC, responded with the following when asked about the intersections of sustainability and inclusion:

“Traditional ‘environmentalism’ places the responsibility on the individual consumer to solve complex systemic problems through personal choices. The climate crisis is caused by powerful carbon-emitting corporations who are driven by values that prioritize profits over people; these same beliefs are the roots of injustice in our world. To tackle the climate crisis and build a more just and vibrant world for all, we must work collectively to challenge systems of power, recognizing that every person has unique strengths to contribute.”

It should be clear that discussions surrounding sustainability need to be adjusted. As articulated by Samantha, the root of the ecological and climate crisis today is found in the profit driven nature of society, not in the low income neighbourhoods who cannot afford to purchase sustainable fashion. While it is heartwarming to see our planet begin understanding the mainstream definition of something that is important, the popularization of sustainability has acted as a divisive force. Instead of finding ways to resist the political and social forces empowering multi-million dollar corporations to profit off of resource extraction, society has shifted into shaming those who purchase fast fashion as the sources of our climate crisis. If you can avoid purchasing from the “sheins” of the fashion sphere, that is the responsible choice. But to expect a low-income household to make the same sacrifice is not only unreasonable but ignorant of how different systems of oppression prevent individuals from being able to participate in certain movements in the same way. 

Yes, if you can afford it, live as sustainably as possible. While the privileged try to be environmentally conscious, it is essential they don’t forget to be conscious of inclusivity and diversity. There is no progress being made to save the planet if your  “activism” is more divisive than unifying. 

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