sustainability: propaganda or proof?

4 minute read

Once upon a time, there lived an English maiden who believed with all of her heart that conscious consumerism and sustainability would cure the planet from the evil of unsustainable practices. She dreamt of the day when her emerald knight in recycled armour would come to her rescue and prove to everyone how his green growth would save us all from destruction . . . 

That is the stuff of fairy tales and hippy porn. And that English woman was me. I realise that many of us have been seduced by these green myths, and in the era of fake news and fast rumours, it's easy to be captivated by reactionary pseudoscience and shrewd sales strategies that don't take into account the complexity of the sustainability movement. Unless you have a PhD in the STEM field, it can be prohibitive to spend large amounts of time researching the validity of every headline. It's 2017, and we continue to be subject to propaganda. Whilst some of these beliefs and purported 'truths' stem from justifiable and defensible concerns, they have been used to push political agendas that distort the evidence, detract from the quality of the conversation and negatively impact the potential for future scientific and socio-economic research.

The sustainability movement has been plagued by similar distortions that compel many of us to espouse the merits of recycling or low-footprint energy (‘renewable’ or ‘clean’) without understanding how the economy and equity dialogue with the environment. It's easy to forget that there are consequences to every action, regardless of intention, and it would benefit the quality of the conversation about sustainability if we evaluated the impact of our individual and collective actions on the environment, economy AND equity.

Back to school, economy style

What is the economy? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is “the organisation or condition of a community or nation with respect to economic factors, especially the production and consumption of goods and services and supply of money.” Broadly speaking, the economy exists within our social world and emphasises the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services. Production is comprised of natural resources, labour and capital, and changes to the economy are influenced by technology, innovation and employment relations.

Now that we all experts on the economy, we ought to consider the types of confusion that arise when discussing the management of natural resources and human well-being. Within the academic community exists divergent working definitions of sustainable development that, without exploration, obfuscate our cultural knowledge of the pros and cons of sustainability. 

Unlimited economic growth is not sustainable, although increasing the quality of life is
— Margaret Robertson

In his book Sustainability, Kent E. Portney defines sustainable development as “promoting economic growth only to the extent and in ways that do not cause deterioration of natural systems.” This is closely related to his definitions of the green economy, sustainable business, sustainable consumption and equity which focus only on the environment (p. 212-213). Whereas increasing production of goods, services and skills is paramount to Portney’s understanding of sustainable economic development, Margaret Robertson’s perspective adopts an additional social focus that considers the reduction of inequality and poverty as they relate to a stable, and therefore sustainable, economy. “In order for systems to continue over the long term, resources must be distributed fairly, with each individual able to meet their own basic human needs.” (p. 5-6).

conscious confusion

 Photo Credit: City of Boulder

Photo Credit: City of Boulder

It’s no surprise that there’s so much confusion around the sustainability movement, and whether or not it’s benefitting the management of natural resources and global quality of life. If the role of social equity is contentious to those who see the sustainability movement as the interplay between the economy and the environment only, a perspective that, when married to myopic media outlets, does more to sustain our confusion than engage with the intricacy and necessity of sustainability discussions. 

We need to consider how to measure the efficacy of sustainability efforts. How do we weigh the need to protect the environment against our obligation to elevate global human rights? How do we know what works?

As I mentioned before, I’ve had many conversations scolding my parents for their apathy towards buying eco-friendly products. In my mind, purchasing items made by abused people and chickens was the root of all evil!  

“Mama, your new top was made in China! You know that means it was made by slave labour. The markups are huge!” (I use a lot of exclamation points when speaking with my parents!)

“Dad, stop buying pre-made egg mayonnaise! You’re supporting factory farming and the suffering of chickens! Do you know even what all these extra ingredients are?” (Better question: do I know what all these ingredients are?)

Come on Marianne and Ollie, vote with your $ or £! It matters. Or, does it?

conscious consumerism

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Thinking that my parents were as responsible as the global economic system that sustains this type of inequity didn't help me unravel one piece of the conversation. If only they would buy farm-fresh eggs from their local farm, or abstain from eggs altogether, all would be right with the world.

Consume consciously!

Think about what you're buying and where it came from!

. . . it's no wonder my parents have developed selective hearing.

buying better

Conscious consumerism is a movement that's popular with millennials for its rhetoric of empowerment. It is based upon the premise that, unless we choose to live off-grid on a farm and barter, we are all consumers who have the power to vote ethically with our money. We can choose to consider the environmental and social impacts of our purchasing decisions and habits. As we consume consciously, we must repair and dispose of goods with the same, righteous intention. Instead of taking damaged goods to the dump, we can visit repair cafes and source appropriate recycling facilities. When examining the impact of our votes, we might research companies who practice closed-loop systems, advertise their charitable collaborations, and don’t exploit their employees. Not only is this potentially time-consuming, but do these business ethics actually result in measurable outcomes that counteract consumerist culture, reduce or eliminate harm throughout the supply chain and improve quality of life? How great is this impact? Is conscious consumerism an actionable measure that supports the holy trinity of sustainability?

 We blend business with charity by partnering with this game-changing organisation!

We blend business with charity by partnering with this game-changing organisation!

If the impact exists only within a niche market, then the global aspect that underpins the sustainability movement is obsolete. In order to make sustainability sustainable, fashion more ethical and cosmetics eco-friendly, we need to ensure that they are little less fad, and a little more movement and certainly, a highway to systemic change. Phillip Haid challenges the myth that these types of actions create superficial change. “This argument is flawed, because it is rooted in an old-fashioned charity mindset and model that believes business and social impact objectives cannot co-exist to create a true ‘win-win’ at a much larger scale.” Conscious consumerism blends business with charity, which could increase opportunities to invest in environmental and social development. It also offers a level of transparency and trust that large charities can no longer guarantee. But, that doesn't mean we have found the panacea.

conscious living

Another way to tackle the problem of unsustainable business is through the individual consumer. YOU and I can not only consume differently, but not at all. We can refuse to purchase items based upon need versus want. When awareness becomes a part of your identity, you relate to the world with new eyes. And, once you see things differently, you behave differently. For Stevie Van Horn, sustainability activist and environmental advocate, she practices what she preaches. Many of us buy organic produce but disregard reusable bags, eat artisanal cheese but conveniently forget the habitually-pregnant cows. Not Stevie. 

 Stevie using her reusable grocery bags

Stevie using her reusable grocery bags

She embodies the cultural change of sustainable living: by challenging the status quo, Stevie forces us to question how we want to relate to our planet through every decision that we make. Refuse the straw and the plastic bag, don't buy foods wrapped in plastic, remember to carry resusable grocery bags, and bring your own reusable containers, cups and cutlery . . . everywhere. Oh, and don't ever forget any of them! 

Ideally yes, but in actuality, not quite. Stevie adopts a gentle, encouraging approach that emphasises doing your best, and forgiving forgetfulness. Sometimes we rush out of the house without our reusable grocery bags. Sometimes we ask for no straw and receive one anyway. 

It's fundamental to the success of the sustainability movement that we don't chastise or punish ourselves for making mistakes. Even the most conscientious of us forget our reusable coffee mug, and without acknowledgment of this fact, many are deterred from trying. 

 Ladies and gents, reusable straws don't take up much space in your bags!

Ladies and gents, reusable straws don't take up much space in your bags!

Cultivating this type of awareness takes time and perseverance as old habits are replaced with new ones. There's no such thing as a perfect sustainability activist, and if we could forgive ourselves our mistakes and struggles, we could speak to the activist in all of us and effect real change. In the famous words of Tesco, "every little helps."

For Stevie, consciousness means that we think critically about our behaviours, actions, choices and speech. In this way, sustainability becomes a question of necessity AND practice. Do I need a new top? Do I need that cereal bar? Do I need an electric toothbrush with disposable heads? Do I need to use a throwaway coffee cup?  Do I need to buy green beans wrapped in plastic? Do I need to drive there?

If everyone lived like myself and made the exact same choices, bought the same products, used the same bags etc. . . how would the world look? That idea is daunting when thinking of the choices I used to make. I ate meat and dairy everyday for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I double plastic bagged everything, I threw food away just because it looked weird. I believe that is actually the reality of our world
— Stevie Van Horn
 Follow Stevie's example, and make your own chia seed pudding and bring your own spoon!

Follow Stevie's example, and make your own chia seed pudding and bring your own spoon!

When we think about necessity, we ought to consider the consequences of what we need and want, and also be able to distinguish between the two. In her interview with Glamour, Stevie explained that necessity was correlated with the planet's health, her health, and her purse. When she questions the necessity of her decisions, she actively considers the interdependent relationship between the tenets of the holy trinity of sustainability: Environment, Equity, Economy.

Living as a trash-free goddess has its challenges, but saying no to single-use plastic isn't one of them. On her website, Trading Waste for Abundance, Stevie offers her patrons a guide that is accessible, informative, and quite frankly, encouraging. Changing our habits doesn't have to be time-consuming, costly or challenging. If it matters to you, make time for it. And remember, we are learning all the time!

Stevie embodies the cultural change of sustainable living: she challenges the status quo and forces us to question how we want to relate to our planet through every decision that we make
— Sophie

unconscious consumerism

 Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

In her provocative article, Conscious consumerism is a lie: Here’s a better way to help save the world, Alden Wicker suggests that transparency and information are insufficient inspiration for consumers to make the ‘right’ choice and either force companies to change, or nurture the success of other, more ‘ethical’ companies. Her reason: capitalism. Instead of tackling the sustainability issue from the perspective of the individual as Phillip Haid considers, Wicker’s argument points to systemic issues that incentivise companies to practice unsustainable and unethical business. Whilst this is a valid consideration when evaluating the sustainability of companies, it ignores the fact that capitalism is integrated into a free market model, which is implicitly driven by supply and demand. If demand for more environmentally and socially friendly services and products increases, the supply of services and products that deplete natural resources and quality of life will diminish over time. This won't be an overnight process, but Rome wasn't built in a day either...

If consumers are making a "series of small, ethical purchasing decisions while ignoring the structural incentives for companies’ unsustainable business models," then perhaps the efficacy of these actions to change the market is minimal. But, if this fad becomes a movement, then it has the potential to change the market and lead us down a more sustainable path. 

As I mentioned before, the low-footprint technologies of carbon-deferred solar panels or wind turbines, for example, aren't neutral sources of energy. This corresponds with the Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative, which uses an accessible infographic to demonstrate that there are no significant differences between the carbon footprints of green and brown consumers. In a research paper, cited by Wickers, and produced for a roundtable discussion of sustainable production and consumption, Csutora found that “individual environmental behaviour does not always modify consumption patterns significantly. Consumers offset the impact of their environmental behaviour by consuming more.”

If you think that refusing your local, non-organic produce and opting for imported, organic fruits and vegetables is environmentally sound, think again. More of a good thing isn't necessarily good.

On its face, conscious consumerism is a morally righteous, bold movement. But it’s actually taking away our power as citizens. It drains our bank accounts and our political will, diverts our attention away from the true powerbrokers, and focuses our energy instead on petty corporate scandals and fights over the moral superiority of vegans
— Alden Wicker

If recycling our clothes is negated by purchasing new ones, and research into ‘ethical’ products and practices an issue of privilege, Wicker makes a good point. If the sustainability movement is plagued by indirect prejudice against the people it claims to advocate for, then we truly need to focus our energies on democratising our work in this field. In addition, placing the onus too heavily on the individual absolves the political and social systems of their insidious, inter-institutional reaches. The system is broke, and Wicker’s arguments are credible when we think about measurable, significant AND systemic change. Laws need to be rewritten and more importantly, enforced. 

what next?

 Visit your local farm, and maybe you too and play with baby goats on their birthday!

Visit your local farm, and maybe you too and play with baby goats on their birthday!

Conscious consumerism is a lie? Not quite. Wicker's article is provocative, and it certainly challenges aspects of the homogenised millennial movement to do as you're told, and patronise Whole Foods, drive a Prius and feel community pride in an abundance of solar panels. But, vote with your feet, and not with your credit card? 

We need both. Continuing to buy single-use plastic water bottles and the latest MacBook Pro, whilst calling your representatives, and challenging lobbyists still means that you are supporting ocean plastic pollution and financing poor working conditions for the Chinese. We need to attack the problem on the micro level and macro level if we want to see systemic change. Look more critically at figures such as Stevie Van Horn; her lifestyle isn't fad or fiction. Follow her on Instagram @stevieyaaaay to see how you can live more sustainably. 

 

How to live more sustainably:

  1. Ask, do I need this? Or, do I just want this? Buy what you need and DON'T BUY INTO consumerist culture.
  2. Find locally sourced produce. Reduce the hidden carbon emissions behind the production of your food and support local farms. Meet the REAL people who so lovingly tended your food. No doubt, they can answer your questions about sustainable farming practices too!
  3. Eat less or no meat. If it is really important to you, consider learning how to hunt and prepare the meat.
  4. Bring your own coffee flask, reusable water bottle and reusable grocery bags when you're out and about.
  5. Vote! Research your local and national political candidates and be ready for your elections.
  6. Volunteer 2 hours a week at a local organisation that works DIRECTLY with our disenfranchised members of society . . . the impoverished, children, animals etc. Take your pick.

Change is top-down and bottom-up Wilde Pack!

Demand Better.

Glossary

Technology refers to techniques, skills, methods, and processes used in the production of goods and services.

Innovation pertains to the implementation of better solutions, and existing or anticipated needs, which is achieved through more effective products, processes and services.

Employment relations describes a multidisciplinary field concerning the employment relationship.

Useful definitions for when you want to berate your parents using peer-reviewed literature, taken from Kent E. Portney:

Equity: An element of sustainability that emphasizes equal treatment in protection and improvement of the environment and in sharing the benefits of development

Green economy: The portion of the economy or portion of a country that is engaged in activities that have little negative impact on the environment or that produces goods and services in support of environmental improvement.            

Resource/environment root of sustainability: A way of thinking about sustainability that emphasizes the connection between depletion of natural resources and environmental quality as it influences the capacity of the Earth to support human populations.

Sustainable agriculture: A term applied to the farming practices that seek to produce food with the smallest impact on the environment and the largest contribution to human nutrition with the least potential harmful effect on consumers.

Sustainable business: Corporations, practices, and products that purport to be sensitive to their impact on the environment.

Sustainable consumption: Human and organisational behaviour that relies on consuming less, or on consuming goods and services whose production requires less energy or less fossil fuel-based energy.

Sustainable development: Economic development that accepts the limits imposed by depletion of natural resources and environmental degradation.

Sustainable economy: An economic system that produces human well-being without requiring depletion of natural resources or environmental degradation.

Definitions taken from the Bible of English Language, the Oxford English Dictionary:

Economies of scale:  the relative gain in output or saving of costs resulting from the greater efficiency of large-scale processes.

Economies of scope: the relative gain in efficiency or sales which may result from producing, distributing, or marketing a range of products, as opposed to a single product or type of product.