This Earth Day – Let’s Pledge to End Sustainablity-Shaming

By Kate | Featured
Posted Apr 20, 2017

Here it comes: Earth Day. A time to reflect on our relationship with (and impact on) the planet. It’s the time of year when we get inundated with stories about: brands lessening their impact; tips on ‘how to [insert some daily habit here] greener’; and ads for sales on a myriad of ‘eco’ and ‘green’ products. Jumbled into the mix, will be some ‘sustainability-shaming’.  You know, that moralistic, judgey headline that implies you are somehow ‘less’ for doing ‘x’.

This Earth Day, let’s all pledge to stop being so preachy about three topics: bottled water, eating meat and using conventional beauty products. I’m not saying those aren’t areas that most of us could make some improvement (and impact) on. What I’m saying is those changes and solutions are not universal, and we need to use caution when we make  proclamations and sustainability-shaming statements. Sustainability is not a ‘one size fits all’ solution, my friends.

People who drink bottled water disgust me.

Bottled Water. There’s lots to hate about bottle water: it takes triple the amount inside to manufacture the bottle (3L of water to produce 1L) ; only 30 percent of plastic bottles get recycled; and this is an industry that shows no sign of stopping (global consumption increases by ten percent each year).

Americans will drink 103 liters of bottled water this year (Italians lead the pack at 184 liters per person). And while it might feel fine and moralistic to poo-poo the ‘habit’ if you live in a town or city where tap water is clean or go to a school that still has working water fountains, but a vast number of North Americans lack accessibility to clean, safe drinking water. In the US, according to the EPA, only nine U.S. states are reporting safe levels of lead in their water supply. In Canada, there are 158 similar drinking water advisories in 114 First Nation communities.

Before we sustainability-shame ‘everyone’ who uses bottled water, we need to recognize the differences in audience between those who can and those who cannot survive without bottled water. And perhaps our “disgust” with the bottle should be directed towards the biggest U.S. bottled-water companies — Nestle Waters, Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo Inc. and Dr Pepper Snapple Group, who profit who not only from our desire for convenience, but also from those in real need (read about Nestle in California).

Ways to combat the problem:

Meat eaters are barbarians.

Eating Meat. According to the Guardian, the number of vegans in the UK has risen by 350% in the past decade. This is great news for the planet. A widely cited 2006 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Livestock’s Long Shadow, estimates that 18 percent of annual worldwide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are attributable to cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, camels, pigs, and poultry. But a more recent Worldwatch Report proposed that livestock and their byproducts account for closer to 51 percent of annual worldwide GHG emissions. Regardless of which report you prefer, it’s clear: the mass-production of livestock is dreadful for the planet. Hence the need for a growing movement to reduce meat consumption.

However, the problem lies in assuming that all meat-eaters partake in (or from) factory farming (the industry outlined by those reports above). Like bottled water shamers, anti-meat eating shamers malign people for whom there is little else, like populations in the far north, for example. According to the Arctic Human Development Report, about 4 million people live in arctic areas. Sustainability-shaming this population for being hunters and meat-eaters (where a head of cabbage can cost $28 CAD) shows a lack of understanding of local food systems.

And what of the world’s more than 570 million farms that are small and family-run, a way of life that has both a small footprint and is very sustainable.

Want to combat the problem, reduce your own consumption of meat. Here are some ways to start:

  • Participate in Meatless Monday (a global campaign to reduce meat consumption)
  • Go one step further and pledge to only eat vegetarian (meat-less) meals either at home or when dining out
  • Purchase meat from small producers and avoid mass producers (for whom animal and human well-being is suspect)

Yes- organic beauty is more expensive, but last we heard, so is cancer

Clean Beauty Products. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) the average adult uses nine personal care products each day, with 126 unique chemical ingredients, most which have never been tested for safety. With so many products we use containing both unlisted ingredients (I’m talking about you, fragrance) or listed known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, there’s reason to be concerned. Add to that rising incidences of cancer, which accounts for 22 percent of female deaths and kills almost 270,000 women in the United States each year, and we have cause for real fear.

But, unfortunately, with exposure to so many chemicals in our everyday life; from personal care products, clothing, things we have in our homes, even the air, it’s unfair to suggest that someone is ‘causing’ cancer through their choice of personal products. There are simply too many carcinogens in our everyday lives to be able to point fingers at the beauty industry (alone).

Take, for example, methylparaben. Research shows the presence of this paraben (intact) in breast cancer tumours. But, this paraben is used as a preservative in everything from cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals to food (I’ve seen it listed on the tortilla package at my local supermarket).

So to sustainability shame people with rhetoric about ‘choices’ completely diminishes the environmental jeopardy we all face. And yes, life choices might make a (small) difference but they need not be expensive and, in some cases, cutting products from your life can be the cheapest alternative of all (have I told you how I stopped wearing deodorant).

Want to combat the problem, reduce your own exposure to everyday chemicals. Start with the biggest areas:

  • Petition your government for better safeguards on your protection against chemicals. In the US, lend your voice to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, and in Canada join Environmental Defence in asking Canada to Improve Toxic Chemical Regulation
  • Improve air pollution in your home by: reducing use of conventional cleaning products; keeping windows slightly open; being vigilant about cleaning black dust and buying a few plants
  • Quit dry cleaning: not only is it toxic, but then you bring those chemicals home to (usually) your bedroom
  • When it comes to personal care: stop using products you don’t truly need and, since the skin is the largest organ, start with a switch to a nontoxic body wash (like Dr. Bronners Castille soap)

This Earth Day, as you’re doing your part for the planet, I urge you to hold back on the sustainability-shaming and just focus on what YOU can do.  Be the change you want to see in the world.

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