Does the Sustainability Community Have a Racism Issue?

Does the Sustainability Community Have a Racism Issue?

By Lucie Stepankova


The sustainability community is known for not backing away from the difficult conversations – but there is one topic that we still seem to be avoiding: racism. There has been some discussion in the past about sustainability and poverty but, as a movement, environmentalism still fails to acknowledge racism in relation to our efforts to protect the natural environment.

A lot of these issues have to do with the elitism of the sustainability community, which has risen since sustainability has become a trend. And what is trendy, comes with a premium price tag.

The Elitism of Sustainability

The current view of sustainability is centred on what those in a privileged position can do – the white, upper middle-class people with little restriction of access to education, information and technology. We are being told to ‘opt for sustainable swaps’, ‘buy organic’ or ‘shop at zero waste stores’. Trendy sustainable products such as KeepCups, stainless steel water bottles, bamboo cutlery or organic cotton shopping bags have been put at the forefront of how an eco-friendly lifestyle is perceived, as if ownership of those items somehow validated you as a member of the sustainability community. 

Much of what sustainability is portrayed as online promotes an individualist view of the topic – making a difference through your consumption choices. Voting for a better future by supporting ethical and sustainable endeavours with your money. While this can empower those, who do have the extra disposable income to take individual responsibility and shop more consciously, it further establishes the notion that sustainability is only for the privileged, while it should be something we all take part in.

To make sustainability accessible to all, we need to view it as a collective effort. That means campaigning to give people who are not in a privileged position the opportunity to live sustainably as well. Besides that, changing our system (such as relying on more renewable energy over fossil fuels) will make all of our lives inherently more sustainable, even if we can’t afford to buy the fancy sustainable alternatives.


Why do black people lack access to sustainable options?

In contrast to those who can access sustainable options without a worry are people whose position in the society, income, residence or race has resulted in a disadvantage – people who cannot afford to buy a sustainable coffee cup or post on Instagram about how easy it is to be eco-friendly. More often than not, black people belong to this disadvantaged group.

According to a report by the Social Metrics Commision, black and minority ethnic households in the UK are more than twice as likely to live in poverty as the white population. Nearly half of the Black African Caribbean population lives below the poverty line, while the same is true for less than one-fifth of the white population. This drastically impacts the household’s ability to spend a premium on sustainable alternatives.

A 2018 study has shown that 1.2 million people in the UK live in food deserts – areas with lack of access to fresh produce or food in general, where most of the population lives in poverty. A significant portion of the black community is affected by this, due to their lower income. Living in a food desert means that you often can’t make more sustainable diet choices, simply because they’re not available. People may need to stockpile food with longer shelf-life and avoid unpackaged, sustainable foods due to their quick expiration – if they even get access to these items at all.

As a person in the position of privilege, how could I possibly ask those who are living below the poverty line because of discrimination to make sustainable choices when I know it takes the kind of privilege they don’t have to make them? What I can do as a member of the sustainability community, and what you can do as well, is help make sustainability less elitist, more focused on the collective rather than individual contribution and more accepting of those who lack the resources to be sustainable in the Instagram definition of the word.

YouTuber Teanna Empowers talks about the elitism within sustainability, and especially the zero waste community. In one of her videos, she makes the point that if we hope to fight environmental issues such as climate change, we need to solve the racism issue first and introduce systematic changes – so that black people have access to sustainable options.

While black people (and other minorities) remain underprivileged, we cannot have conversations about sustainability without taking racism and our fight against it into the equation.



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