Sustainability Has Gone Mainstream: Let’s Discuss

August 31, 2018
Sustainability Has Gone Mainstream: Let’s Discuss
Sustainability has, without a doubt, entered the mainstream. ELLE just released their sustainability issue, being seen with a plastic straw is on a level with striking a small child and the Zero Waste Week hashtag just passed four million impressions before the week in question has even begun.

We’re witnessing a shift. If you’re seen wandering along the beach picking up litter, people might actually join you instead of steering their family in the other direction. If you tell someone you bought something second hand (not vintage, second hand), they’ll probably ask you where your favourite charity shop is rather than whether you’re worried if someone might have died in your dress. If you forget a shopping bag, your mate won’t tell you to ‘just get a plastic bag, it’s just one plastic bag, it doesn’t make a difference’, no, they’ll produce a tote from their handbag and lend you it.

Sustainability has had a glow up. It’s the Neville Longbottom of environmental movements. You can’t move for journalists telling us how they ‘survived’ without plastic for a week or bloggers recommending the best reusable water bottles. David Attenborough spoke, and we listened.

But, as with all movements that reach the mainstream – body positivity and feminism come to mind – the message shifts. It becomes performative and the most difficult-to-swallow tenets are swept aside. Just as a certain breed of size 8 white women don’t like being told that their side by side Instagram posts are changing literally nothing, your average person doesn’t want to hear that they should eat less meat or that their shopping hauls are symptomatic of a wider issue that’s sending humanity to an early mass grave. Why? Because the path of least resistance is always the most appealing. It’s easy to share a photo of an aluminium straw and tag it #plasticfree. It’s easy to carry a cute tote bag.

But I don’t blame anyone for participating in that manner because that’s how it’s being sold to us. It’s the same logic that convinced Changing Rooms-era dads that they could eat shit all day long, drink a Yakult every morning and be the picture of good health. If we’re told something can be easy and that it comes with minimal lifestyle changes, you better believe we’re doing it the easy way.

Undoubtedly, sustainability entering the mainstream discourse is positive in a multitude of ways. As habits change, so too do our expectations and that provokes change down the line. However, let’s take a look at the shape mainstream sustainability is taking and be unafraid of being critical.

Over consumption is fanning the flames of climate change and yet, what are the solutions that brands, magazines, bloggers and celebrities are promoting? Buy this water bottle. Buy these designer straws. Buy this t-shirt. Buy this tote. And the reason that we think we can buy our way out of this thing is because, in entering the mainstream, sustainability has been redrawn in the image of capitalism.

Who’s setting the rules of sustainability? Is it us? No. It’s brands. Fashion giant Kering has positioned itself as an industry authority on sustainability. Fast fashion brand and literal burner of clothes H&M adds its voice to studies intended to secure a more sustainable future for the fashion industry. Starbucks, Coca Cola and a host of huge mega corporations are all stepping up to control the conversation and set the boundaries.

On the surface, it looks great. Look at all these amazing promises they’re making! Plastic-free by 2020, 100% recycled products by 2030, nothing but organic cotton within ten years; it all sounds very impressive.

Big brands play up to the fact that these schemes are voluntary because it makes it seem as though they’re choosing to do good. What it actually means is that they’re self regulating. They’re setting the rules and making them comfortably achievable and, importantly, optional. When they’re faced with legal parameters? They reject them.

Alongside these schemes and targets, they’re encouraging us, their customers, to be green by way of buying their ostensibly environmentally sound products. Spend your money and we’ll solve this problem. Just don’t check the small print, please.

Capitalist sustainability means releasing an ‘anti-plastic‘ collection that features faux fur (yes, literal plastic); it means companies that are responsible for millions, billions even, of pieces of single use plastic telling you to recycle more; it means influencers telling you to slow down before posting an #ad on their Instagram, paid for by their latest fast fashion sponsor. It’s a brand – part of the fashion industry, which is set to use 25% of the world’s carbon budget by 2050 – selling you a t-shirt with ‘There’s No Planet B’ emblazoned across the front.

Capitalist sustainability, as it currently exists, is a paradox. You don’t consume and produce your way to a healthier planet. They’re driving us off a cliff and selling us plasters.

If we’re talking, rethinking and adapting then sustainability’s shift over to the mainstream is a victory. But we need to be mindful of who’s steering the movement. Is it being done for the good of the planet and to protect our future or is it surface level performance for increased market share?

I’ve been trying desperately to find some profound final sentence, but what I’m trying to say, I suppose, is don’t let those fuckers fool you.

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