We've all come to know sustainability to be defined as the avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance. It is often said to be divided into 3 pillars: environmental, economy, and society. With that being said, somewhere along the line, this movement has lost focus on 2 pillars which then means this movement is now left to stand on one leg. Quite often sustainability gets positioned in a way that excludes the consideration of minority groups, both racially and socioeconomically. And it has somehow become marketed and promoted as a movement that is primarily for the middle to upper-class from first world countries when in fact, statically the groups with a higher risk of being harmed and displaced by climate change are people of colour and people that are making under a liveable wage. I've always had a push/pull relationship with this movement not because I don't believe in it because I do, but really, it's in the lack of conversations being had for the disenfranchised, about the disenfranchised or even with the disenfranchised. Here are somethings I think are important when addressing sustainability as a whole:
Remove the idea of the "sustainability aesthetic"
Someway somehow capitalism has wormed its way into the conversation that stands to reduce it. So many products and services are framed with a "Buy this if you want to be sustainable or live a healthy lifestyle" narrative and it is toxic to the survival of this movement. I went through a list of products and services that are marketed and promoted by influencers as things we need for our sustainability journey and me as a college-educated woman (of colour) making above-average wage (for my age) was to go on to follow what is considered to be "essential" to be, it would blow my budget away repeatedly. So, imagine what individuals below that average would say. A movement that is determined to save the world cannot be driven by the industry doing the exact opposite. We need to refocus on what is important; finding environmental, economic, and societal ways to change the world for the better. Like increasing minimum wages, proper healthcare for all regardless of their wealth, and access to clean food and water. Not which $60 reusable cup is more #aesthetic or how many metal straws we accumulate before we decide we have enough.
Consider your privilege
A lot of people are triggered by the word privilege but I am sorry to say we all have it. For example, a few of mine are: being able-bodied, having access to free health care as a Canadian citizen, and having access to a grocery shop that sells plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Some of us have more privilege than others and that needs to be heavily considered when preaching to people about what they need to do to be sustainable. Not everyone has a bulk food shop or can take public transportation with the recommended however many reusable glass jars in order to reduce their plastic waste. Not everyone has the privilege to grow their own food or filter rainwater or live off the grid. Not everyone can buy an electric car or ride a bike. These things aren't only affected by someone's income but also daily priorities, responsibilities, location, living situations, climate, family situations, etc. While I don't discredit the impact these things have on the global impact in reducing waste and fit into our lifestyles; if we de-center ourselves from the conversation and look to what else could be done on a larger scale by more people, that is when we will be able to enact real change. The key is consideration and compassion for however much or however little someone can currently do.
The term greenwashing is a term that a lot of us are familiar with by now. It is defined as activities by a company or an organization that is intended to make people think that it is concerned about the environment; even if its real business actually harms the environment. But what I haven't discussed as much in this space is the whitewashing of sustainability, one way being how ethical companies have profited century-old of ideas developed in the Eastern world, African tribes and Indigenous people without giving back to those communities. There are sustainable materials and technologies being sold, that have been a way of life for many cultures around the world that are now being rebranded as new and innovative which is simply not true. A few examples, Indigenous people have been able to sustain themselves for years by only taking what they need for natural and nothing more, several African tribes and their making of fabrics ethically to the use of Bamboo to make products in China. These ideas have been rebranded and marketed with a Euro-centric narrative as if they weren't already in existence. Another form of whitewashing circles back to influence. In this community majority of the faces leading the conversation are that of white men and women and rarely that of People of Colour (POC). When I was just starting my sustainability journey, I was naive enough to think maybe that was because POC cared less about the environment, but that isn't true. The truth lies in the lack of POC visibility in the movement, made evident by both social and traditional media (prime example the cropping out of climate advocate Vanessa Nakate from a picture taken with her peers). This is another reason we cannot talk about sustainability without talking about race because even when POC are fighting alongside Non-POC somehow our voices still manage to get erased from the picture.
I am in no way bashing the sustainability movement. The concept as a whole is exactly the North Star, we need to better our planet. But until we remove the veil of what sustainability looks like and who sustainability is for and who sustainability speaks to; it will never actually be sustainable.