The Privilege of Sustainability

Eating organic, buying eco-friendly, going zero waste, and living off the land is available and easily accessible to everybody, right?  Actually, not so much. 

While the recent rise in sustainability across all industries is ultimately a positive thing, there is an often-unspoken reality that comes with it.  Living sustainably requires more money, more time, and more energy to keep up. And unfortunately, underserved populations, that do not have this time and money, are left out of the discussion and movement to live sustainably. Yes, in today’s world it is very much a privilege to be able to live sustainably. 

The current eco-conscious trend, where influencers and bloggers post their daily designer organic threads, and document their zero-waste how-tos, fails to address the deep inequity woven throughout. It is fair to say most sustainable products are more expensive than non-sustainable ones. And, if you live below the poverty line, the fast, cheap, and easy are usually the only options. Likewise, if you are perpetually in survival mode, you most likely do not have the time or energy to make sure that you don’t buy anything in packaging, let alone make your own food from scratch. The idea of owning your own land and growing food from it is implausible for most. Especially as systemic oppression and financial disparity keep many people, especially those of color, locked into wherever they happen to reside with no feasible way out.


The trend encompasses substantial judgment, and a holier than thou approach, which then creates more shame and actually feeds further marginalization. Those who have the money and time, tout the sustainable life, rave about their practices, and often make it seem like if you aren’t following specific eco rules, then you aren’t doing enough for the earth. The dark realities of fast fashion are important, but not at the expense of people who don’t have the means to shop elsewhere, to shop sustainably. Same goes for Black Friday and post-Christmas sales. Yes, these are grotesque displays of consumerism, but there are people who can literally only afford things they need and want on these days, because of the sales. We shouldn’t blame individuals for our capitalist society that has largely created these disparities. The idea that you are a responsible, conscious consumer because of your sustainability choices, is only as redeemable as your acknowledgement of the inherent privilege of doing so.  By not including all people, just those of means, we hinder the movement to save the planet

And if we are really going to take a deeper look at the inequity involved in this eco-movement, we need to remember that the original sustainability stewards were black, brown, and indigenous people of color. Throughout various cultures and locations, indigenous peoples have been in close relationship with the earth and its cycles. Through their close and reverent relationships with all eco-systems, they knew best how to consume and preserve that which feeds and sustains the people and the planet.  Through mass colonization, however, these practices and ancient wisdoms have been lost, destroyed, and widely forgotten. And the people holding this knowledge were also destroyed, forgotten and oppressed. They have been relegated to the fringes of society rather than leaders in this movement, that is for them, the natural way of life.  So, it is even more troublesome to see a resurgence of regenerative practices being claimed by, accredited to, that mostly benefit of white people, while people of color do not have the privilege to participate so effortlessly.  


The point here is not to bad mouth the sustainability movement, by any means. We need all the people we can, to wake up and take better care of our earth and each other. We need to call out mass consumerism, and quell the current climate crisis, to collectively fight the good fight against Big Corps.

But we are also in dire need of more conversations that lead to tangible results around the importance of authentic inclusion and diversity in the environmental movement. We need to embrace, include, bring in and uplift the underserved populations (with the least access). We need to educate people, not shame them. And we need to recognize the privilege we have in simply making eco-choices, so that we can to work to make the move to an eco-conscious lifestyle, accessible to everybody.

Written by Alexa Rae

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