Updated: Sep 15, 2021
Earlier this year, I began to notice that the mainstream media was increasingly focussing on the ‘plastic-free’ narrative, frequently discussing the lives of both families and individuals who had decided to ditch disposables. Numerous articles emphasised that aspects of this change were easy – for instance, those rejecting plastic would replace their shop-bought milk with milk in glass bottles, delivered by a milkman, or use reusable beeswax wraps rather than single-use sandwich bags for packed lunches. They would then discuss the more challenging swaps, such as replacing plastic-wrapped supermarket vegetables with trips to the local greengrocer, or crafting items such as deodorant and hand soap at home. These are, of course, laudable achievements; any movement by individuals to live more sustainably, however small, is commendable.
However, the phrasing of these articles struck me. The same words reappeared: swap, make, switch. These are all words of action, and action requires choice. It occurred to me that by emphasising the ability to have such a choice, a section of our society was being ignored: the working class. Climate-crisis journalism consistently focuses on climate change’s unfairly distributed impacts: on the injustice of how the most marginalised, the world’s poorest, will be most adversely affected. Yet this is not merely a global inequality, but a local one too. Within the UK, the most marginalised members of our society — those who already lack a political voice — are most often the ones left behind and forgotten in climate discourse.
For many in the UK, making such visible and impressive sustainable choices is simply not possible, due to a lack of means and money, a lack of choice in local shops, and a lack of disposable time. By colouring sustainable living as a series of personal choices involving the investment of both time and money, we present it as something of a fashion choice, and, all too often, a competition for likes on Instagram. This attitude towards sustainability glamourises one form of personal climate action and ignores less-visible climate-friendly choices: choices which are not really choices at all, but are instead found in the very absence of choice.
The UK’s working class have, for a long time, been living sustainable lives. For example, if you simply cannot afford to buy new clothes, you cannot participate in fast fashion. If you cannot afford to light and heat your house, you will use less fossil fuels. If you cannot afford to waste food, you will not. As a society, we need to be more aware of these social realities. When climate action is so regularly glamourised in the media, it is made increasingly inaccessible to the poorer segments of our society. As the contributions of this group of people are pushed further out of the mainstream narrative, they become further disenfranchised. This is especially true of movements which encourage users to buy new things in order to be sustainable - for example, by buying a reusable cup to purchase takeaway coffee. For the poorest members of our society, buying a takeaway coffee, let alone a reusable coffee cup, would never even be an option. Instead of inspiring people to take individual action against climate change, such advice can seem patronising and unachievable, breeding a sense of frustration which ultimately discourages any kind of action at all. Above all, it demonstrates a complete ignorance of the fact that the poor have for so long been living relatively sustainable lives, merely by force of necessity.
This ignorance is demonstrated not only by the lack of attention working class sustainability receives in the media, but also by the disdain historically associated with actions taken out of necessity - which are now celebrated when better-off people make them out of choice. When I was growing up, charity shopping was frowned upon as something only the poor did, precisely because it was necessary as the only affordable clothes shopping option available. Consequently, it was something that you kept secret: a pre-loved jumper from Cancer Research was not seen as a trendy fashion statement. Currently, journalism from both mainstream and alternative media sources seems to present shopping for clothing at charity shops or other second-hand sources as a fun, fashionable, and responsible way to shop. In many ways, of course, it is extremely positive that this critical perception of charity-shopping has changed. As it becomes a more socially acceptable activity, many more people are learning to participate in an action which very efficiently and effectively reduces fast fashion, with no stigma to surround their choice. However, it is important that this is not treated as a new and revolutionary phenomenon: in doing this, we would be ignoring the historically sustainable habits of the working class.
Similarly, the measures which working class families have gone to all of their lives to save money and energy have long been viewed with disdain, and yet, by contrast, the constant consumption of the wealthy has been celebrated. Watching someone wash out a plastic bag so that they can reuse it multiple times still strikes me with a sense of sadness – but why should it? This is one way of confronting the disposable nature of plastic: by using it over and over again. Is this so different from buying a plastic keep-cup, knowing that its purpose is to be a multiple-use plastic item? For many in the UK, such money- and energy-saving actions have long been a necessary part of life. Celebrating these actions now that they have become more visible in certain circles and yet ignoring the past actions and lived experiences of the working class only serves to disenfranchise these members of society. By only advocating expensive, long-haul approaches in the media we are not only leaving segments of society behind, but we are also failing to affirmatively recognise that the working class has often been better at living with sustainable values than other groups of society.
What we actually need, to quote leading British environmentalist Tony Juniper, is a “just transition”. A just transition is one in which all levels of society are involved in discussion and decision-making, and thus an understanding of different needs occurs. This means that all members of society are included and listened to. Climate change is something which affects all communities at all social levels, and, consequently, effective action cannot occur if some segments of society are ignored. This notion is supported by Karen Bell, a senior lecturer in human geography and environmental justice at the University of West England, whose book, Working Class Environmentalism: an Agenda for a Just and Fair Transition to Sustainability, will be published in November. Writing for The Guardian, she argues that “if we want to build the broad-based support necessary for a radical transition to sustainability, we must recognise and build on all strands of environmentalism, especially that of the working class.”
Furthermore, the UK’s working class actually have a greater experience of environmental degradation than other social groups in the UK, and thus have much to offer climate change discourse. As Bell rightly suggests: “We have been both metaphorically and literally at the coal-face of environmental deterioration because we tend to work in the most hazardous environments, live in the unhealthiest neighbourhoods, and are the least able to find individual solutions such as changing jobs and homes […] we have a strong vested interest in achieving sustainability.” Ignoring the experiences of the UK’s working class: blinds decisionmakers to solutions that work, as well as to problems that have gone unaddressed.
However, in certain ways the working class are forced to participate in the single-use economy. I recently listened to a Reasons to be Cheerful podcast about the impact of the fast fashion industry on the climate crisis. The podcast advised consumers to buy one high-quality (and therefore more expensive) clothing item which would last for a long time, instead of multiple cheap items which would constantly need replacing. By choosing quality, the podcast argued, shoppers could reduce plastic and water wastage, as well as air miles and carbon emissions. This is good advice, no doubt – however, it is a very middle class solution. In the cycle of poverty, the working class consumer cannot afford to buy a high-quality, and therefore expensive, pair of boots, and so is forced to constantly and frequently buy and replace cheap pairs of boots. Furthermore, in my own experience, poorer members of society are more likely to not be able to afford a car and its associated costs, or even public transport, and so will walk more often, often over longer distances, meaning our cheap shoes are likely to wear out even more quickly. Buying more expensive, higher quality items is an investment that pays off both ecologically and economically - but people who don’t have the spare income to invest in higher quality items are stuck with an alternative that is worse for both their financial situation, forcing them further into the cycle of poverty, and for the planet. This forces the consumer to buy more products more often, forcing them further into the cycle of poverty – and inevitably increasing their climate impact.
Evidently, effective individual action can be complex to achieve. This is particularly true in areas of the UK which are predominantly working class - this is clear in the plastic-free movements in shops. For example, Waitrose Oxford, in a relatively well-off area of the UK, has recently begun a plastic-free section, something that would not even be considered by shops in my much poorer home area. This results in a ‘chicken-and-egg’ scenario in which local shops do not perceive consumer desire for plastic-free initiatives, because working class consumers do not have the choice to demonstrate this desire. Consequently, the working class are forced, in this way, to contribute to a wasteful use of resources, regardless of the ways in which they already live sustainably, and regardless of the ways in which they wish to live sustainably. Instead of pressuring individuals to change, we should recognise that they are often prevented from doing so by their circumstances. Instead, it is large corporations which need to change. The working class, however, are often unable to apply this pressure in their local areas - in a ‘just transition’, the climate change movement as a whole would work to apply this pressure, including all members of society in their work rather than just a privileged few.
There is a desperate need for a more nuanced understanding of social realities in the UK and their interaction with climate change. Many individual sustainable choices are unavailable to the poorest members of our society: this forcibly demonstrates the need for both government and corporation action. Individual action is undoubtedly important: it not only helps reduce cumulative impacts, but they can contribute to a sense of mental wellbeing and community, both of which are desperately needed in our modern society. However, individual action is not always possible, and the media’s focus on individual change shifts the blame onto consumers, distracting from the major damage being done by corporations and industries and the lack of government will to demand solutions. Regardless, individual action alone will not and cannot be enough to address climate change. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s October 2018 report, about the impacts of global warming by 1.5 °C in the near future, contained a clear message about the need for widespread “system transitions”, particularly in developed countries - that is, the need for widespread institutional and social change. While the mainstream media focuses on the individual, we are distracted from the real issues: the need for governmental, institutional, and corporate action. There is a need for radical social change. The report describes the next few years as the most important in our history - and yet, one year on, little has changed.
However, in the meantime, it should be everyone’s responsibility to be aware that the measures which are most often celebrated in the media are not accessible to all. Now that energy- and money-saving measures are no longer socially taboo, we should not forget the lived experience and positive impact of so much of our society over the past several decades. When celebrating or advocating for individual action, we should ensure that we include all members of British society, rather than just those with the resources and social position to be recognised in the mainstream media. The UK’s working class must not be forgotten and left behind; environmentalism must not be allowed to become another class issue.
Written by Abigail Allan.
This article is an online feature of Anthroposphere Issue V.
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