Environmentalism and Privilege

It’s Enviro-Mama Thursday, and today I’m thinking about environmentalism and privilege.

I’ve been spending some time lately contemplating whether the green movement is reserved for people who can afford to make more sustainable choices. A recent trip to my local organic grocery store to stock up on gluten-free flour and a few other things ran me $200, and I only bought two bags of stuff. Whole Foods is sometimes jokingly called Whole Paycheque, because that’s how much the groceries you buy there are going to cost you. And even when you’re shopping at a discount store, organic or sustainable products are going to cost you a lot more than their conventionally-produced cousins. The sustainable product that really gets me is toilet paper make from recycled paper. Shouldn’t it cost less to make something out of recycled material than raw lumber? Apparently not.

On top of some of the costs of choosing more environmentally-friendly products, there’s the time, energy and inconvenience involved in researching and implementing sustainable practices. Is that shampoo that says organic on the label really green, or just green-washing? What the heck is a paraben, anyway? When is it better to buy local food, and when does choosing organic really matter? And who wants to be responsible for keeping the green bin clean? (Answer: no one.)

In some cases, going green can be considered a luxury. When your food budget is already stretched paper thin, you’re probably not willing to pay two or even three times as much for organic, free-range eggs. When you don’t have reliable internet access, you’re probably not up-to-speed on where and when your local farmers’ market is happening, or what ingredients you should be watching out for in your personal care products. And when you live in an apartment, you’re much less likely to have access to curbside recycling than if you live in a house in the suburbs like I do.

In other cases, going green is the cheapest choice going. Reducing your consumption and reusing things you already have will save you money. So will second-hand shopping, gardening, repairing something instead of replacing it, and taking public transit. Sometimes, when you don’t have a lot of cash to play with, you make environmentally-friendly choices out of self defense. Even so, there may be times when you’d like to buy a more sustainable product, but it’s simply out of your reach.

As I considered the implications of environmentalism and privilege, I reached a conclusion for myself. I thought about this quote from Mother Teresa:

“Live simply so others may simply live.”

I get two things from this quote. First, we all do what we can. If you’re in a position of relative privilege, you need to consider that as you make your choices. Maybe you’re able to donate money to charity, or you can afford to buy organic flour. The second thing I get from the quote is that our actions impact others. The dish soap I use ends up in the sewer system, and eventually the ocean. This reminded me of the connection between food consumption and water consumption that I learned about on World Water Day. When I buy a less-polluting dish soap, or eat less meat, I’m not just impacting my own own pocketbook, I’m impacting the world around me. If someone else can’t afford to make the same choices, that doesn’t absolve me of my responsibility to do the best I can with what I have.

In an ideal world, non-toxic shampoo wouldn’t be a luxury item, and organic bananas wouldn’t cost twice as much as conventional bananas. Unfortunately, though, we don’t live in an ideal world. In our real world, all that any of us can do is make the best possible choices for our own unique set of circumstances. If that means buying luxury items because we believe they’re not only better for us, but better for the planet, we don’t have anything to apologize for.

As more people adopt a greener lifestyle, the costs of earth-friendly products will decrease, as manufacturers are able to adopt economies of scale. Until then, we can advocate and use our voices, so that everyone’s children are safe, and not just the kids whose parents can afford fancy bubble bath. We can work to create innovative programs to make environmentalism more accessible to everyone at all income levels. And we can reduce our own environmental footprint, so that there are some resources left over for others.

What do you think? Do you think environmentalism is reserved for people who can afford it? And how can we change things so that sustainable choices are more accessible to everyone? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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  1. At the farmers market, we hear a lot of people say they consider shopping there to be a luxury. What we experience, however, is that they don’t completely understand seasonality. Of course strawberries are more expensive when it is a)a bad growing year or b)the shoulder season. But there are ways to shop smart at the farmers market. We also encourage people to put food by, and take that flat of tomatoes you bought on sale for cheap because they were ripe to bursting and make salsa, or sauce, or just canned tomatoes. Planning helps keep the cost of vegetables down. The other factor is the nutritional value is higher and you need less food to provide you with the same nutrients. So the fish or the meat that is often pegged as overpriced goes farther and you don’t have to eat as much. However, most people have become used to obscenely high portion sizes and generally overeat. This summer, one of my plans is to do some comparison shopping to highlight some of the “deals” going on, just like how Superstore has three grocery carts at the front of their store showing off how you can save money. I think there is some divide in environmentalism… but I also think that you can make small choices that don’t cost you anything. It’s about a sum of all parts for me.
    Jen’s last post … More Notes About Working From HomeMy Profile

  2. (I am not an expert on privilege by any means) I do think that some aspect of environmentalism has both sprung from privilege and is reserved fro those with it. The rest is what I hear Mother Teresa saying and I believe that those with privilege need to focus on living simpler with grace because those that can’t depend on our actions to do so.

    Those that can’t afford a Prius or organic shampoo can, and often do, make the choices that save both money and environment. The problem I see is that it is those in a state of relative privilege trying to dictate what those around us do without taking their circumstances into consideration. I also see a system that supports poor food choices – that is one thing I would love to see changed in the here and now.
    Brenna @ Almost All The Truth’s last post … Kid Snacks for Energy and HealthMy Profile

  3. Well said, by you and your commenters.

  4. Definitely, DEFINITELY a privilege. And trust me, there is nothing worse than being educated and broke. As we live primarily month to month (and with income that varies a lot month to month as well), some weeks our grocery haul is primarily organic while other times we just buy whatever we need to get by. Awhile back we bought organic, local pork chops – I think it was $14 to feed the three of us one serving each, and that’s JUST the protein for that particular meal. Meal planning factors in but ultimately, more food is better than organic food if less food means you’re still hungry. And it makes me insanely angry because organic, healthy fare should be the NORM, not the other way around. And the system won’t change as long as more people are struggling than not, creating a huge market for the cheapest food possible.

  5. I’ve thought about this a lot, too. On the one hand, making family cloth from old sheets is environmental and cheap, but anytime we shop at our local natural foods store we end up spending two or three times as much as at Safeway. I guess it depends on whether you’re being green because you have to to save money (doing no-‘poo because you can’t afford organic shampoo, or any shampoo), or if you’re buying green things out of a place of privilege. It’s a tough one even to talk about, because money and privilege are such sensitive topics. Thanks for bringing it up, though!
    Lauren @ Hobo Mama’s last post … Books and unschooling a preschoolerMy Profile

  6. Environmental choices can come from a place of privilege. I know there are times I can’t afford to make the “better” choice. But as you pointed out there are time when cost and consciousness combine to make the “right choice” easy. I do what I can when I can.

  7. Thank you. I have gotten grief from people in the past for not buying organic. “Don’t you KNOW how BAD that is? Don’t you LOVE your family?!” Yes, I know how bad it is and I love my family. But I would rather give them non-organic food than no food, and that’s pretty much our choice a lot of the time. Those who are privileged enough to do the natural, environmentally-friendly thing, should. It’s good for them, good for the environment, and may eventually help bring the costs down for the rest of us. But they also need to respect that we aren’t all capable of doing the same.

    I’ve turned half my front yard into a garden so I can get those organic veggies for free. But my shampoo remains as toxic as ever. It doesn’t mean I don’t care. I do what I can. When I can do more, I’ll do more.

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