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Is living sustainably a luxury?: The elitism of “going green”

living sustainably

In recent years, the word “sustainable” has been widely used in everyday life. From recycling trash cans to solar panels, it seems like “going green” is the latest trend in the global market. With surface temperatures higher than ever and global warming at a pace of no return, living sustainably or “going green” seems to be a socioeconomic measure many businesses are incorporating into their brand to cater to new consumer needs. 

Sustainable living is commonly thought to target the upper class, which leaves lower income communities to choose between either cheaper and more wasteful materials, or environmentally friendly options. According to a survey about consumers’ attitudes and behaviors towards sustainability, the main reason people are reluctant to embrace sustainable consumer goods is their high costs.  But what does it really mean to “live sustainably”? 

In broader terms, sustainability is defined as the process in which something is able to maintain itself for a long period of time without help from an outside source. However, the term has many interpretations. An article on the importance of sustainability defines it as using the Earth’s resources “without causing detriment to society or compromising future generations”. Living sustainably, when talking about environmental impact, often influences the economic and social sector too. 

Sustainability’s correlation with the global economy

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In 1980, the U.N. created the Brundtland Commission (or World Commission on Environment and Development) to research sustainability and its direct link to economic development and social equity. Their report found that energy sources, food security and natural resources needed to be protected to ensure global socio-economic stability. They also proposed “the idea that technology and social organization imposes limits on the ability of the environment to provide for the world’s present and future needs.” In other words, global industries and technology organizations were deemed a big threat to the environment. With that in mind, tech and produce organizations began to incorporate the “green” mentality into their business model.

Many companies have already incorporated sustainable practices into their manufacturing. The Swedish furniture store, IKEA, recycles 91 percent of their materials to make reusable energy. Estee Lauder, a cosmetics brand, recycles their products and “sends zero waste to landfills”. Apple uses aluminum to create iPhones in order to produce lower carbon emissions. On a local level, Whole Foods was the first grocery store to ban plastic bags from their stores in 2008. It seems all big corporations are doing their part to help the environment. But when it gets to the regular consumer, there is still reluctance to participate in sustainability. Here are some reasons why:

The price of “going green”

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Many shoppers do not want to buy their groceries at Whole Foods because of their elevated prices. We have a food market doing many things right to help people live more sustainably, but for the lower income population, it’s not a smart option for their wallets.

From a financial perspective, organic food, while healthier than regular produce, is seen as a luxury rather than the logical choice. Rachel Brenan, a finance writer for GoodRX, attributes organic food’s high cost to government regulation.

“Getting your farm and produce organic certified can cost anywhere between $750 to $1,250 for the first year, and farmers must pay yearly inspection and recertification fees,” Brenan explained in her article

She also included specialized farming, small scale production leading to low supply and demand, as another reason organic food is more expensive. 

It’s not all about the high cost of eco-friendly alternatives. When it comes to sustainable energy, especially with electric vehicles, the notion that e-cars are a more expensive option could be due to lack of information. This barrier for sustainability identifies that 48 percent of people do not have enough information about sustainable options or do not bother to look for it. The cheapest electric car is priced at approximately $27,000, which is no less than the cheapest option at any dealership for a gas alternative. In fact, an Atlas Policy analysis concluded, in comparing several car models, that while electric cars can have a higher initial purchase price — not always — gas cars have a higher cost of maintenance. A study from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute said “the average cost to fuel an electric car was $485 a year, compared to $1,117 for a gas-powered vehicle.” Essentially, electric cars might have high initial cost, but are cheaper in the long run. The problem is for minimum wage workers to be able to afford that initial price.

The same principle goes for the most natural energy resource, the sun. According to research, every second the sun produces enough energy to provide the Earth with power for 500,000 years. So, why do solar panels still amount to only 1.6 percent of U.S. electricity sources? It might all have to do with installing those panels in the first place.

Photo by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash

Installing a solar panel in America can cost as low as $5,000 and as high as $12,000. After installment, you can save up to $80 a month and $1000 a year with solar energy, but getting the initial installation is too high a price for the average citizen. Just like e-cars, the problem is not what you can save, but how to get there in the first place.

Greenwashing: lack of trust

Reluctance to go green also has to do with lack of trust due to “greenwashing”. The term refers to a company advertising their environmental friendliness to boost popularity and build a reputable stance in the sustainability industry. Many companies use this form of rebranding as a business strategy, but have been accused of misleading the public by exaggerating their efforts to help the environment. Forbes recently reported Coca-Cola was being sued for falsely advertising their eco-friendly measures, when in reality, the company has been named the number one source for plastic pollution since 2018. 

Going green, regardless if true or not, seems to be corporations’ way to increase popularity due to the general population becoming more environmentally conscious in recent years. In fact, an IBM study found 70 percent of consumers would pay more for brands that help the environment and are committed to sustainability. This leads to companies exaggerating their stance on sustainability, and all this does is makes the public more skeptical of sustainable practices within the market, even if some of these companies are honest about their sustainable practices.

Sustainability as a luxury

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So, is sustainability a luxury? It definitely can be. There are small affordable sustainability practices you can do from home, such as being mindful of over-using your heater, using a recycle trash can or buying more energy-efficient light bulbs.  However, when looking at the bigger picture, understanding sustainability combined with finding companies that implement these measures truthfully in their products is a hard job. As mentioned, sustainability faces two challenges. Sustainability usually costs more than the middle to lower class can afford, and even when the price is achievable, people don’t have enough information, or sometimes don’t even care. 

While many sources agree that more people going green is the solution, corporations must provide affordable options for people to make a smooth transition. 

The Alliance To End Plastic Waste published an article challenging companies to make sustainability affordable. The article listed solutions and measures to decrease the price of sustainable products. One of them suggested “Government and industry regulation—including financial incentives and support to go green—plus transparency and trust for consumers.” While more solutions are being implemented everyday, the reality comes down to more awareness, transparency from companies and realistic, affordable options for the common person.

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