Safe-guarding our beautiful environment, landscapes and nature is something that I have long been passionate about. So, anyone who knows me, knows that I try my best to live my life as sustainably as possible. This is simply a reflection of someone trying to lead a lifestyle aligned with their values (and I’m definitely not alone on that!)
It’s definitely no surprise then, that when July rolled around, I thought I would try the Plastic Free July challenge. Since 2011, the challenge calls upon people globally to facilitate behaviour change and avoid all use of disposable plastics in the month of July.
One week into the challenge, though, I was left feeling a bit jaded about the whole experience.
I popped into my local grocery store on the first weekend of July, calico bags tucked in my pocket. But as I proceeded to work my way down my usual grocery list, sans plastics, things started getting a bit stressful as I watched the cost of my weekly grocery shop creep upwards. Purchasing non-packaged vegetables, grains and nuts meant significant per kilo increases in price. Saying no to pre-packaged body-wash and purchasing organic free-standing soap-bars? That too leaves just a slight, but noticeable, dent in the bank account. And let’s not even get started on buying ethically-made and environmentally-friendly clothing that don’t use polymers.
One of the main reasons I was eager to give a month of going plastic-free a shot, was because I was hoping that it would further challenge my lifestyle habits and give me new insights into how I could minimise my carbon footprint and have an eco-friendly approach to life! As someone who already owns one too many recyclable calico bags, purchases the majority of clothing from second-hand stores, commutes only via bike and public transport already it’s clear that I was a willing subject. But it quickly became apparent to me that changes beyond that seem to be for people with an income to support it.
My attempt at the challenge affirmed for me that, to an extent, sustainability and sustainable living can sometimes end up being a rich person’s hobby. Beyond the basics of recycling, composting, reduced car usage and the likes… the next stages of living a green and earth-friendly lifestyle seemed to get pretty expensive. Buying organic and non-packaged produce. Purchasing ethically-made and sustainable products and clothing. Driving electrically-powered vehicles instead of gas…
Sometimes these are only once-off upfront costs. But it’s still pretty lame if you, like me, live the #studentlyf. And, as a result, those who have less disposable incomes can become inadvertently priced out of the sustainable and ethical market!
Of course, that is not to say that initiatives like Plastic Free July are defunct and useless. Awareness-raising campaigns focused on social behavioural and attitudinal shifts most certainly have their place in the social change process (especially in the environment sector). Nor is it to say that you need all the cash dollars to truly make an impact on your carbon footprint. Every little bit counts, if not just for yourself, but to influence your peers and those around you. But for me, I felt like once I’d reached a certain point of doing this, the next step just seemed beyond my current income bracket.
So it turns out I did learn a lot by doing the Plastic Free July challenge. And that was that it’s more important than ever for us to talk about social impact with systems changes.
What’s that, you ask?
Systems change is about addressing the driving root and causal factors of social challenges. The challenges of leading a plastic-free and minimised carbon footprint lifestyle does not necessarily derive from a lack of individual responsibility or interest in living ethically. But it is instead a reflection on an amalgam of social consumer factors, the political economy and corporate attitudes that can impede individual efforts and – more importantly – contribute much more significantly to environmental degradation.
Recognising that one of the key challenges to living a sustainable and plastic-free lifestyle is the lack of opportunities available, and being inadvertently priced out of the market, undercuts common misconceived conceptions that consumers are ignorant and/or apathetic. It depicts a fundamental injustice that eco-friendly lifestyles and ethical consumerism can often only be accessed by the wealthier demographic. And, most importantly, it demonstrates that achieving a socially-aware and sustainable society is an ideal that will be limited in reach until there are fundamental shifts in our consumerist markets and society. This places other actors – such as corporations and mass-supermarkets – at the forefront of the discussion and highlights for transparency in the sustainable and ethical production processes.
Systems change is, of course, no easy feat! We are all just one cog in a machinery of mechanisms and networks. And my individual experience at trying to be a responsible global citizen is a perfect demonstration of that. Just as it is so important that every individual plays their role in contributing towards a better society, it is also important to reflect on where our efforts are best placed. And if we want to generate an actual impact, maybe along with taking our reusable bags to the supermarket and learning how to recycle properly, understanding systems and underpinning driving factors is key to this.