Approximately once every six seconds, a writer or an influencer or a stranger in the street will tell you to buy a reusable coffee cup. This is good advice because single use coffee cups are pollution-in-waiting. We’re using 16 billion of the fuckers each year globally and most of them are ending up either in landfill or the sea because they’re notoriously difficult to recycle (less than 1% of the 2.5 billion we use in the UK get recycled).
On top of this, you’d better buy a tote bag and carry it with you 24 hours a day and I swear to god, bitch, if you use a plastic straw you will be cast out from society. If you buy veg in plastic packaging a zero waste vlogger is legally allowed to cut you and is that a plastic water bottle that you’re drinking from? Your children will be taken from you and sent to an organic farm in Kent. You are bad and you are destroying the planet. We are going to burn, all of the famous dogs on Instagram are going to die and you – yes you – are responsible.
This is pretty much the tone of sustainability discourse at current. Take individual action, demonise anyone who isn’t. It’s certainly got us somewhere but I’d rather we moved on from quite such a myopic view.
If you read this blog regularly, follow me on Twitter or Instagram or read my articles, you might notice that I’m pretty much always banging on about structural or top-down changes, government action, legislation and sanctions. Basically, I want the people at the top to start doing some (most) of the work and start taking some (most) of the blame.
It was the people at the top with the most power and resources, after all, who kicked off the industrial revolution and look where that got us. It engendered unskilled, precarious work forces, mass production, urbanisation, a rise in population and industrial pollution. That all sounds quite familiar and current doesn’t it? (I absolutely 100% know it was a turning point in innovation and human history too before you @ me.) And still now, it’s the people at the top with the most power and resources who continue to hold the shape and future of society and humanity in their hands.
By addressing sustainability from this angle, some take that to mean that I don’t take any personal action, that I just sit back waiting for others to make big reforms. Those people clearly haven’t seen me leaving the house laden with a million different reusable receptacles or diligently separating my recycling.
Others have told me that I’m not holding individuals to account enough. To them I say, people can only do so much within the system we find ourselves in. And then I would add, come back in a few weeks when I tackle that subject in another post.
In a serendipitous turn of events, as I was wondering for the millionth time how I can illustrate the individual versus structural action point, an enlightening set of statistics popped up in a documentary I was watching about the impending water crisis:
We’re using water like it’s never going to run out. But it is. Fresh, drinking water is anyway. Our first instinct might be take shorter showers and turn off the garden sprinklers. That’s not a bad idea. In fact, doing so brought the residents of Cape Town back from the brink of ‘Day Zero’, the day when dam levels would be so low, the city would be forced to turn the taps off.
Their collective effort averted disaster, for now. But Capetonians, still limited to using 50 litres a day, aren’t home free and the city could still well run dry in the near future.
Now, let’s have a look at the breakdown of our global water usage:
8% personal, 22% industry, 70% agriculture.
Why are we taking 2 minute showers and filing our cisterns with used dishwater if agriculture is spunking 70% of the world’s freshwater supply on irrigating thirsty crops grown in desert areas for profit?
Yes, we could all cut our personal water usage in half but wouldn’t it make more sense for us to take a look at how we could cut agricultural water usage in half? The potential for change when you get the main offenders involved is enormous.
Let’s go back to coffee cups. 16 billion per year. That’s recent data. We could ask everyone on earth who likes a hot drink on the go to buy a reusable cup. But some people flat out won’t want to, some are lazy, some are ambivalent, some can’t afford it. Imagine, though, if we did what the Environmental Audit Committee suggested and banned them outright if targets aren’t met by 2023. That’s a firm solution. If they’re not being produced, they’re not turning to waste. A government led decision could solve the problem in one fell swoop.
The same logic can be applied to clothes. Slowly, people are coming round to the idea of sustainable fashion. There’s more open discussion about it and people know the facts. Yet still, profits for the likes of Boohoo and H&M are up. We might be re-posting Fashion Revolution stats on Instagram but we’re still buying too much, buying too cheap, buying unethically. Again, we have to consider cost, class, need and accessibility in this rather than simply saying people who are buying from unethical or unsustainable brands are bad people.
As long as it’s available, people are going to buy the stuff, for a multitude of reasons, so instead of huffing and puffing about that, why don’t we demand the government sets carbon targets for clothes manufacturers? Or that they get serious about cracking down on modern slavery in the supply chain? Or that they implement a heavy tax when a brand manufactures above a certain threshold? Our government could set targets for waste and recycling, water and pollution. There is so much that could be done that goes so far beyond simply not shopping somewhere and it would have a far bigger impact.
If you were me, right this second, you might be thinking about the recent – incredible – school climate strikes and wondering why I’m talking bullshit about people power not working. Look at them all! Having power! As people! But rather than holding placards telling their peers to carry a water bottle with them or say no to straws, these bold young people are demanding government and industry listen to them. They want world leaders to take this issue seriously. They want MPs to actually fucking turn up to a debate on climate change. They’re making a racket so that those who can make the changes will listen.
As individuals, we can certainly create a storm but we need the people in power to take that energy and turn it into real, sweeping change.
Click here to subscribe to my monthly newsletter.