Is the Sustainable Lifestyle Too Exclusive?
As the world attempts to reverse the impact of climate change, a greater emphasis has been put on a sustainable way of living. Governments and environmental organisations encourage us to change our lifestyles so that we can reduce our carbon footprint. Buy organic produce, shop second-hand, use public transport… These are just some changes we are told to make that will better our planet.
Whilst this all sounds great in theory, in practice, a sustainable lifestyle isn’t sustainable for everyone. Governments and corporations have placed the burden of environmental responsibility on the consumer without considering that not all consumers are in an equal situation. Organic food remains costly, many second-hand shops are short on bargains, and public transport is both expensive and unreliable.
Additionally, the UK Government is still heavily investing in sectors that damage the environment. The production of and reliance on single-use plastics remains a problem and a high percentage of government subsidies go towards the meat and dairy sector. Currently, the Government’s environmental ambitions are not aligned with their actions, and without the Government’s support, a greener lifestyle will remain out-of-reach for millions of working-class UK citizens. The current sustainable lifestyle is an expensive and exclusive one.
The cost of organic food
It’s no secret that organic food is more expensive. Its production costs are higher, supply is limited, and marketing and distribution for organic food chains is less efficient due to its smaller market and quantity. In the UK, a study of everyday organic food items at five of the UK’s biggest supermarket chains revealed that organic items are on average 89% more expensive than non-organic products. This equates to an annual additional cost of £870 per person per year.
This is a luxury millions of UK citizens simply can’t afford. A significant portion of working-class people struggle to survive on their current wages, with many sacrificing meals just to get by. In 2020/21, approximately 2.5 million people used a foodbank in the UK, an increase of 600,000 on the previous year. The price of organic food isn’t aligned with the current state of the UK economy.
In addition, both the Government and the private sector remain loyal to the profitable yet damaging environmental practices. The UK Government continues to invest in the meat and dairy sector, despite its well-documented environmental issues. Most major supermarkets are full of offers and deals that push the consumer away from eco-friendly options and towards unhealthy, convenient produce. Walk into your local supermarket and you are guaranteed to find price reductions and offers on takeaway pizzas, crisps and fizzy drinks. A lack of investment in organic produce results in consistently high prices - prices that are out of reach for a large portion of the UK population.
The gentrification of charity shops
For many of the older generation, the increasing popularity of thrift shopping was a surprise. Second-hand clothes were only for the poorest of families and were not considered ‘cool’. Only in recent years has it become on trend to wear second-hand outfits. For many, charity shops were, and still are, a necessity. In the past, they provided people with a cheap replacement and, occasionally, a shopper could find high-end designer items for an affordable price.
However, at some point, charity shops evolved into something trendy. Your average consumer is now a member of the middle-class shopping for sport rather than a working-class family shopping for survival. As more and more affluent shoppers flocked to their nearest charity shop, the cost of clothing increased - the natural economic impact of increased demand within a market. The gentrification of charity shops and thrift stores has therefore pushed people with lower incomes into the arms of private corporations who offer cheaper alternatives at the expense of environmentally friendly practices.
Zero-waste living is an ambitious idea that few, if any, can achieve. It is something that poses a challenge for all, including the privileged. Therefore, it is important to first look at the challenge it poses to all classes and then outline why it’s even more difficult for the non-privileged.
Adopting a zero-waste lifestyle is especially difficult because waste is a societal problem. Our daily lives are reliant on single-use plastics, they are a part of our daily rituals and have been for decades. They are ingrained in our actions and behaviours. In the UK it is estimated that five million tonnes of plastics are used every year, nearly half of which is packaging. Plastic waste does not decompose, instead it pollutes soil, rivers and harms wildlife. All facets of our life involve plastic, including transportation, packaging, consumer products and even buildings. It’s unrealistic to expect any individual to give up plastic entirely. To do so, they would have to uproot their entire approach to living. But more than that, a complete change of the system would be required to support the public’s shift to a greener lifestyle. It would be unrealistic to expect a person to give up plastic if their wider society remains reliant on it.
However, those committed to zero-waste living are faced with a number of obstacles. To give up single-use plastic is costly and requires free time and available access to alternatives.
Plastic-free businesses are still a rarity in the UK, with just over 100 spread across the country. Consumers are often required to travel considerable distances to shop in an environmentally conscious way, an additional expense the working class can’t afford. Zero-waste shops are more expensive due to their rejection of cost-effective plastics and their ethically sourced ingredients. They take a holistic approach to conscious consumerism that includes paying farmers a fair wage and transporting goods in the greenest way possible.
The problem with public transport
The UK is a society reliant on cars to get around, with an estimated 35 million on UK roads. This dependency contributes to increasing levels of CO2 and NO2 emissions, gases that are detrimental to the environment and public health. Therefore, UK citizens are encouraged to take advantage of public transport and invest in more sustainable ways of travel. Trains, buses and cycling are just some of the greener modes of transport.
However, there are a number of problems facing the UK when it comes to sustainable transport. The first is infrastructure. Despite being one of the wealthiest countries in the world, Britain ranks 11th in the world in infrastructure quality. Outside of major cities, those living in more rural areas are victims of limited and poor infrastructure. Therefore, they are restricted with how they get around. An estimated 11.5 million people live in predominantly rural areas where trains and buses are infrequent. Although an issue for people of all classes, it disproportionately affects the working class people who occupy towns and smaller cities with little government investment.
"An estimated 11.5 million people live in predominantly rural areas where trains and buses are infrequent"
Things aren’t that much better in the bigger cities, where the quality of roads seemingly worsens year by year. Inefficient government spending on UK infrastructure means the country lacks the sustainable transport seen in other European nations like Germany and the Netherlands. Trams, cycle routes and electric scooters are just some environmentally beneficial modes of transport seen across Europe.
The second problem is cost. UK trains have a diabolical reputation, and it is easy to see why. They are the most expensive in Europe, averaging 55 pence per mile. Travelling around the UK is often pricier than a flight to a European city. Logically, one would assume that UK citizens are paying for quality, but a reported 12% of UK trains arrive late - amongst the highest rates in Europe. Regular train travel is something only the privileged can afford. To fully take advantage of sustainable UK transport, you’re required to live in a major city, where living costs are significantly higher than most rural areas, and be willing to part with a small fortune in the process.
How do we address the problem?
Seemingly unaware of their own hypocrisy, the UK Government burdens the consumer with saving the world whilst actively support an ecologically damaging system. As part of a global effort to address climate change, the Government outlined ambitious proposals and targets that might convince the average bystander of their seriousness in combating climate change. But dig deeper and you will notice these aspirations aren’t backed by effective action. Current policies remain insufficient, and the Government continues to economically and politically support sectors that actively worsen our environment. They currently subsidise the meat and dairy industry which only fuels climate change. This isn’t to say to government should only support a vegan lifestyle. Instead, UK leaders could redirect some financial aid to the organic produce sector, where production is significantly better for the planet. This would make it more accessible for more people.
Lastly, it’s possible that a sustainable lifestyle could be afforded by all if only the current system worked for the many, not just the few. Providing affordable housing, regulating the private rented sector, introducing a basic universal income; these are all possibilities the government should consider in order to improve the living standards of the working-class and create disposable income. Easing the burden of the day-to-day lifestyle gives people the opportunity and the resources to invest in a greener way of living.
For more information on this section, head over to our dedicated section on the Climate Crisis.
Edited by Caoimhe Glover