Within the sustainability movement, I find there often is a lot of black-and-white thinking and little room for nuance. While there is an increasing understanding that not everyone has the same opportunities to make certain choices, and that the onus for change should be on society as a whole and not the individual, there is still a lot of judgment of people’s individual lifestyles and a lot of blanket statements being made. Too often, there is little understanding of access barriers that prevent people from making more sustainable choices.
In part one of this blogpost, I want to talk about those barriers. Although I believe everyone can do something when it comes to sustainability, there is almost nothing that is a good solution for everyone and anyone. I believe that having an understanding of these barriers is important to be able to truly involve everyone in sustainability. Because ultimately, sustainability should be for everyone and everyone should feel welcome into the movement, regardless of someone’s circumstances.
Income and money
One of the biggest barriers to a sustainable or eco-friendly lifestyle is money. While sustainability doesn’t have to be expensive and there definitely are ways to shop more sustainably on a budget, the truth is that many sustainable brands and products are more expensive – especially when ethical production is taken into consideration as well. While I believe it is incredibly important that the workers who made my products are being paid and treated well, this can often make things too expensive for many people’s budgets fast.
This most noticeably applies to clothes, as a lot of sustainable and ethical fashion brands are really expensive and out of most people’s budgets. Of course secondhand shopping can be a solution for many people, but it is also not always accessible – which I will come back to later in this post. Another issue is durability: products like furniture, tech and clothes that are better quality and made to last are often more expensive. In the supermarket it can also easily add a quite a bit of money each trip to buy organic, fair trade or vegan. Although for some people 20 extra dollars every week might not be that big of a deal, for many people it really is.
And it is not just products either: a well-insulated house often costs more than an old badly insulated house and if you want to insulate your home better or get solar panels, that also is quite expensive. Switching to renewable energy or a green bank is a really good idea for many people, but it can sometimes be more expensive or have a lower interest rate. There are a lot of sustainable solutions that can be truly impossible if you have a low income.
Knowledge and information
Another barrier that is not talked about a lot, is that sustainability is not always that straightforward. Many people want to be more eco-friendly, but they don’t necessarily have the right knowledge to do so – even many people who talk about zero waste online. What is truly sustainable is often not something that is easy to figure out for the average consumer.
Although I try my best to keep as informed as I can and keep a science-based approach, I’ll be the first to admit that there is a lot I don’t know either. But over the last few years, I have learned that sustainability is much more nuanced than many people make it out to be. For example, there is a lot of focus on the use of plastic. While single-use plastic is definitely an issue, the reality is that in some cases plastic can actually be the most sustainable choice. Just because something is packaged in glass, metal or paper, doesn’t mean it is automatically more sustainable than plastic.
Another example is that there is a lot of greenwashing going on. Many people find sustainability important, so companies and brands like to jump on the bandwagon and label themselves green, regardless of whether what they do is really eco-friendly and sustainable. This makes it hard for consumers to make informed choices and to figure out what is actually sustainable rather than just marketing. And even brands that are truly trying to be more sustainable and ethical aren’t perfect, because production and supply chains are complicated.
Location and physical access
The third barrier I want to talk about is location and physical access. How accessible sustainable brands, zero waste options, thrift stores and even fresh produce are, really depends on where you live and how systems are set up in your area. If you live in a walkable city with good public transport and curbside recycling, it is obviously going to be much easier to live a more sustainable lifestyle than it is when you live in an area where you need a car to get by and the nearest grocery store is miles away.
But even in a place that does have pretty good systems set up, location can definitely still be a barrier to living more sustainably, especially when you also face other barriers already. For instance, here in the Netherlands it is my experience that many big thrift stores are located at business parks that are often not easily accessible by anything else than a car. Additionally, our public transport system is not very accessible to disabled people who use mobility aids – and in walkable cities, disabled people are often an afterthought as well.
And let’s not forget that we are still living through a global pandemic, in which many people are dependent on grocery delivery and shopping online. This often comes with more (plastic) packaging and other types of waste. Society was already quite inaccessible to many disabled people, and the pandemic has only increased inaccessibility and inequality in many ways.
Let’s talk about something that mostly affects access to sustainable clothing: size. Way too many sustainable brands do not make plus size clothing, and there is also very little secondhand plus size clothing available. If you are plus size, shopping clothes in general is often already an issue, and shopping sustainably may simply not be an option for you.
But even if you fit within straight sizes, I find that size can be a barrier to shopping more sustainably. If you are either very tall or short, or have a body type that clothes aren’t made for, it can also be hard to find clothes that fit. Personally, as a short person with wide hips, I have a lot of trouble finding pants, jeans, skirts and dresses that fit my body properly. While I am definitely very privileged that at least brands make my size, finding clothes that actually fit my body can still be quite a challenge.
Especially since the only way I have access right now to both sustainable and secondhand clothing is online, and online size charts are seldomly right, ordering clothes can be quite a gamble. A lot of time and money and time can be wasted into ordering, returning and re-selling.
Time and energy
And that brings me to the last barriers I am going to talk about that often go hand in hand: time and energy. These are barriers that don’t get talked about a lot and often are forgotten, but they are definitely big ones that interact with all the other barriers I have talked about. Gaining knowledge about sustainability, sourcing sustainable products and services, finding things secondhand: it all takes up a lot of energy and time, which is something many people do not have.
Many people have disabilities and chronic illnesses that impact both their energy and the time they have apart from managing their illness and daily responsibilities. Additionally, there are also many people who are single parents, are caregivers for other people, or work multiple jobs to still barely get by financially – just to name a few examples.
And these barriers impact everything else, too. Having little energy and time to work with makes all the other barriers even harder to get around or straight out make them worse. For instance, disabled people are already much more likely to live in poverty. Poverty, in turn, can be a barrier to access healthcare, which makes it more likely for people to have health issues that may impact their size as well.
There are many barriers that make sustainability inaccessible to people and all of these barriers interact with and reinforce each other. There are still many things I haven’t discussed here because they are not something I personally can speak about, such as environmental racism and food insecurity. But I hope I’ve made it clear how these barriers can make many solutions inaccessible for everyone. In the next post, I will talk about how I believe we can make the sustainability movement more accessible and welcoming to everyone.