No sustainability in shame

Shedding light on the classism behind the sustainability movement

A photo of a coatrack filled with a random assortment of clothing on coathangers.

With the impending doom of our planet on the horizon, environmentalism and sustainable lifestyle choices has rightfully come to the forefront of the global consciousness. However,  it is important to note that the sustainability movement has often come under fire for being elitist; and it absolutely is.

To briefly define sustainable consumption, it can be understood as the use of services and products that cause minimal harm to our planet and preserve it for future generations. Those that police how environmentally-friendly our consumption is  – from militant vegans to sustainable lifestyle influencers – are notorious for their simplistic views of sustainability.  For the most part, they are unable to differentiate between those who are unwilling to be sustainable and those who are unable to. Being good to the planet has a price tag, which is often quite substantial, and effectively locks out those in low-income brackets. The culture of shame that emerges from the sustainability movement ignores the complex barriers to entry that are created by capitalism.

 Free-market capitalism has ensured that sustainability is not universally accessible: higher price points for sustainable essentials such as food and clothing effectively bar sustainable options to people in lower-income brackets. In addition, the sustainability movement often neglects to critique capitalism as the main instigator behind the profit-driven actions of large corporations, in destructive industries such as mining. This should not be news to us; this year in Australia, the approval of the notoriously disastrous Adani mine in Queensland shows us that the greed of capitalism will continue to win out over the continued survival of our fragile ecosystems. The Carbon Majors Report, tells us that a mere 25 corporations have been responsible for over half of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions over the last 30 years. As long as ecocide is profitable to such corporations, capitalism will continue to quietly carry out ecocide to a global level. And yet, the sustainability movement too-often sets it sights on the choices of individuals. 

The sustainability movement is flawed and largely inaccessible in many ways. Particularly regrettable is the emergence of a shame culture that villainises non-sustainable lifestyles, blind to why people may not be able to live more sustainably. The animal rights group PETA has previously declared that eating meat and being an environmentalist are mutually exclusive. This rhetoric underlines sub-movements for sustainability such as militant veganism, which have often come under fire for being too dogmatic in their methods of persuasion. I have often found that the shaming of non-sustainability turns the sustainability movement into a hostile environment, which is inadvertent to the complex barriers of entry that sustainability entails.

Social media platforms such as Twitter have given rise to the amplified rhetoric of militant vegans. Recently, I came upon a tweet: “If you still eat meat at this point you are honestly just selfish”. Sadly, this was not the first statement from this ignorant line of rhetoric that I have encountered, nor will it be the last. These statements highlight a central flaw in the sustainability movement – the onus of saving the planet should not merely be on individual consumption but on the consumption of multi-million-dollar corporations who leave devastating ecological footprints in their wake. This attention given to individual consumption goes to show the short-sightedness of militant veganism. Many people cannot become vegan for reasons such as health or financial instability. Inability to be sustainable is too often construed to be unwillingness. Until the sustainability movement is able to move beyond simplistic views and a culture of shaming others into joining their ranks, it cannot meaningfully contribute to the continued survival of our planet.

The barriers of entry to sustainability created by capitalism must be brought to the forefront of our discussions. It is an issue that is so often ignored, either by the aggressive views pandered by militant vegans or the simplistic representation of sustainability by social media influencers. On social media, ethical fashion brands such as Reformation or With Jéan are promoted as shining beacons of sustainability. We need to keep in mind that though these companies are represented as ethical and eco-friendly, they are still positioned to be profitable, as capitalism would have them be. A quick glance at their price points, which mostly sit in the hundred to hundreds range, prove them to be inaccessible to most. Optimistic representations of ethical fashion uphold the culture of shame because they are exclusionary and create an economy of cultural capital that revolves around one’s ability to access or perform sustainability. There is a lack of awareness on social media regarding the absence of accessible sustainability that feeds back into the sustainability movement’s shame culture.

While sustainability should absolutely be championed, the shame culture that it often plays off is unproductive in many ways shame won’t put food in mouths or clothes on backs. It realistically does nothing to reduce barriers of entry into sustainability while creating an animosity that makes the sustainability movement even more unwelcoming to outsiders.

There are good arguments for ecologically sustainable life choices. The meat industry treats animals horrifically, and we are devastating our planet with the wasteful processes that underline fast fashion. These are all sound points to make for the argument for sustainable living. However, the priorities of low-income demographics lie in quiet everyday survival. Capitalism plays a central role in both the devastation of our planet, and the disenfranchisement of working class communities. 

As consumers, we should be mindful that sustainable options are simply not accessible to all. The shame culture that we see emerge from the current elitist sustainability movement is unproductive and aggressive, shaming poor people for being poor rather than prioritising the root of the inaccessibility dilemma; capitalism. Shame is not a sustainable force of change; compassion and collaboration are.