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!