I, and others like me, like to sell sustainable fashion and ethical living in general as an easy swap. Instead of shopping at X, shop at Y. Don’t buy lots of A, just invest in one B, etc etc etc. And a lot of the time this is true. Not going into a shop to spend £30 on two sale items you don’t need, for example, is as easy as, well, just not going into a shop. Sticking a reusable coffee cup in your bag is easy. Wearing what you already own couldn’t be easier; you just pull them off the coat hanger and put them on. Many parts of ethical living are genuinely pretty simple and straight forward.
However, many of them aren’t. Alongside the easy swaps and the common sense decisions lie lots of tricky details and points to be researched and considered. Deciding whether or not to buy second hand animal products is one example. Deciding whether or not to donate your clothes and possibly add to an already saturated African market is another. Should I buy a garment made from recycled water bottles to support a company trying to put our devastating plastic waste to good use or will I only add to another problem when I wash it and it inevitably sheds microfibres? Should I buy second hand high street clothes and run the risk of inadvertently promoting fast fashion when I wear them? Should I buy online from a sustainable retailer and be responsible for the carbon footprint of the delivery?
Every decision, it seems, comes with a set of trade-offs which must be balanced and justified. One scenario leads to another which leads to another and often it’s the case of choosing the best balance of them all. Unless we’re living off the land and carefully and considerately self-sustaining, it’s going to be difficult to make choices that are ethical from top to bottom. I know this and yet I still tie myself in knots over the minutiae; thinking and rethinking and percolating over whether I could make a better decision. But it’s not just the decisions that are time consuming, the logistics of living ethically can be too.
Over the weekend, my boyfriend and I were passing a local branch of Asda, so we popped in to grab some ingredients for the curry we wanted to make that night. On the list was garlic, an onion and green chillies but we couldn’t find a single one of them not wrapped in plastic. So we had to turn on our heels and trek to the nearest market-style shop we knew of to stock up on veg in a less wasteful manner. Going from shop to shop, scouring the back of every label for palm oil, researching every brand I buy from, asking questions, reading environmental studies, washing and separating the recycling, making natural scrubs, making things from scratch to avoid packaging; it all takes time. And dedication. And determination.
I could whip around a supermarket in half an hour and buy everything I need. I could stick pre-cut veg in a frying pan (some people rely on this option and shouldn’t be judged or denigrated for taking it), cover it with sauce from a plastic packet and have it for lunch along with a drink from a plastic bottle. I could buy cheap clothes from my nearest high street without taking a second look at the label or the brand’s conduct. I could take my makeup off with face wipes. I could throw everything in the bin in one big bag. I could do all of those things and it would save a lot of time but I’m not willing to.
Despite the fact that I choose to spend the extra time doing all those things to ensure the way I act aligns with what I stand for, it doesn’t make it any less exhausting. The whole deal can be, and often is, completely exhausting. Not just the time and energy I have to throw into the thinking each detail over, the shopping and everything else, but the doubts too. Wondering if I’m even making a difference and wondering why it can’t just be a bit fucking easier. And it should be, shouldn’t it?
I shouldn’t have to go out of my way to find veg that isn’t wrapped up in plastic or clothes that aren’t made off the back of dangerous labour or environmentally damaging practices. It should be right there waiting for me; the easiest and most obvious option. But in lieu of the big brands or government stepping up and facilitating that, the consumer is expected to pick up the slack. The pressure is on us to hunt down plastic-free alternatives or to find an appropriate recycling facility when our waste (which we’re already working hard to reduce) can’t be left at the kerbside. It’s our responsibility to avoid synthetic fibres, check up on which factories fashion brands are using and remember to say ‘no straw please’ when we order a drink.
While it’s necessary, we absolutely should – and must – do all of those things. But we mustn’t forget that when the onus is put on the consumer and society at large, it very much takes it off the shoulders of big business and government. Why should we buy Guppy Friends and natural fibres while the Trump administration is rolling back water pollution protections and high street giants are sub-contracting factories which spew out untreated waste water directly into their local rivers? Why should we painstakingly scrub and separate our tins and jars while the Tories push back against EU recycling targets? Why should we beat ourselves up when we forget our reusable water bottles when Coca Cola increased their production of plastic bottles by a billion last year? Why are we shouldering the majority of the burden?
We’re swimming against the tide and expected to be our own life raft. It’s a symptom of the encroaching creep of neo-liberalism; putting the average person at once on the back foot and in a position of complete culpability. Yes, we can fight for change and ‘vote with our wallets’ (a notion that comes with its own issues, which I’ll cover another time) but we shouldn’t be responsible for mopping up the mess of those who ultimately have more power to make changes.
We need sanctions, levies and accountability. Damaging our planet, harming its inhabitants and threatening the viability of future generations shouldn’t be the easiest or the cheapest option. In fact, it shouldn’t be an option at all. The structure needs to change from the top down and it needs to change now because I’m exhausted and I’m sure you are too.
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