OPINION: The talk about sustainability needs to be inclusive

Sustainability+isn%27t+about+buying+new+things+or+being+perfect%2C+it%27s+about+doing+what+you+can+to+help+others+and+the+planet.

Hannah Nguyen

Sustainability isn’t about buying new things or being perfect, it’s about doing what you can to help others and the planet.

I used to think that buying sustainable products was better for the planet, but I found that it was counterproductive. I also found that it was unrealistic for most people.

I didn’t realize that my ability to purchase new things to replace the wasteful things I used to own was a privilege. I never thought about how I could use that money for other things like paying the bills or buying groceries for the family, but it was because I never had to. The only time I ever thought about the price of something was when I had to compare the prices of two reusable bags I wanted to purchase because one was better looking, but the other one was cheaper. Thinking back, that was probably one of the most ridiculous dilemmas I’ve ever had.

I didn’t realize how much of a privilege it was to even care about the environment. Most people don’t care about it because they either don’t believe in climate change or they have more important things to care about like monthly bills or figuring out how to get through the week.

I used to get angry when people were being wasteful—I admit that even now I still get slightly annoyed, but I’ve gotten better; however, I never took the time to think about why they weren’t making the “better” choice: is it financially inconvenient? Is this the only method that works for them? Do they just not care? Do they just not know?

There are many factors to consider as to why someone is doing anything, and to get mad at it makes me insensitive.

ZERO-WASTE GROCERY SHOPPING

I never realized how lucky I am to be surrounded by multiple grocery stores. The fact that I have options makes me more privileged than people who live in food deserts. A food desert is an area, often inhabited by low-income residents, that has limited access to fresh food like meats, fruits, or vegetables in contrast to a food oasis which is an area where people have a higher access to supermarkets or fresh produce stores. Instead, people living in a food desert typically rely on corner stores or have to travel far just to get groceries. In many cases, it varies depending on the specific location and how dense the population is.

Ultimately, the chances of people bringing reusable jars for groceries in bulk or purchasing produce that’s in season is unlikely. They rarely get healthy food. Many people get to choose whatever they want to buy, but many people don’t. The expectation to do “zero-waste” grocery shopping is set too high.

SUSTAINABLE PERIODS

People suffer from period poverty, so the expectation for those who deal with a menstrual cycle to purchase menstrual cups or organic pads or tampons is unreasonable. Sure, it’s a one time purchase that can save you thousands of dollars in the long run because they’re reusable, but it’s a one time purchase that people cannot afford. Regular period products can be expensive as is, and it doesn’t make sense to expect people to buy sustainable period products that are worth $30-$40 when they can barely afford regular ones in the first place. Until we help people properly care for their periods by getting them better period products at an affordable price, we could start talking about the next step.

SUSTAINABILITY DOESN’T MEAN NEW

I used to think I had to buy reusable cutlery to bring around with me wherever I went to reduce my chances of using plastic. I didn’t even think that I could use what I already had. I bought metal straws because of the trend, but I haven’t used it for months—I just carry it around in case other people need it. I thought I had to buy clothes from sustainable brands, which are extremely expensive, so I wouldn’t contribute to fast fashion. Thrifting wasn’t my first option at first, and now, it’s my favorite way to get clothes.

I was convinced that I had to replace all of my wasteful items for something new or “better.” In reality, it was my biggest mistake trying to be more environmentally conscious. People can’t even afford to think about what I get to think about. They purchase what they can, and sometimes, it’s wasteful or unhealthy. It’s not the best thing in the world, but it’s the best that they can do.

I live in a house where both of my parents are immigrants, so we reuse everything. The container that used to hold cookies now has sewing supplies. All of our old jars are used to store spices that were in bulk or vegetables that are being pickled. My older sister passed down all of her old clothes to me.

Despite how much we already do, we’re still not perfect. But that’s okay. It’s the effort that we put in. I would get angry at my family for not being better, but I didn’t realize how all the things that I care about are not the same as all the things they care about. My parents have to focus on how to provide for my siblings and me. They have to focus on paying the bills or taking care of our dogs. They have to focus on being parents. And that comes first.

We can’t expect people to install solar panels or buy electric cars when they financially can’t afford it. We can’t expect people to do what we can do because we don’t understand the things that they are going through. As long as people are trying their best, that’s all that matters.

Although people are limited to doing most things, they’re not limited to everything. There are ways that you can improve, despite whatever situation you may be in. Instead of completely supporting fast fashion, buy only what’s necessary. Don’t buy that cheap sweater because you think it’s cute, buy it if you are in desperate need of one. If you’re able to, shop for clothes second hand or support sustainable brands. If you are lucky enough to buy things from bulk stores, buy things in bulk even if they have plastic, so you wouldn’t have to constantly purchase things and create waste every time. Make small changes like using a reusable bag whenever you can or turn off the lights when you’re not using them or taking shorter showers. Perfection is unnecessary. If our focus is to be perfect, we won’t ever get anything done.

The fight against climate change or the fight to be more sustainable doesn’t involve just the environment, it involves fighting for human rights. If we are talking about sustainability, we have to acknowledge people in low-income communities, people of color, or people suffering from horrible working conditions in third world countries, and understand that achieving a better world involves fighting for each other. No change can happen if we do it alone.