Environmental Impacts are Best Predicted by People’s Income Level

August 13, 2019
Environmental Impacts are Best Predicted by People’s Income Level

The aforementioned dress

I imagine I seem, to an outsider, quite eco-friendly. I don’t buy fast fashion, I buy second hand, I don’t shop a lot, I buy unwrapped veg at markets, I’ve started growing my own, I use refillable options as opposed to buying new packaging wherever possible, I’m vegan, I shop with and promote ethical labels. The list goes on. I try my very best.

But let’s look at my last significant sustainable purchase. It was a dress that cost around £135. It was made fairly from organic cotton but it was new. Precious resources had been used to make it. Where did I buy the dress? At a shop in Amsterdam, a city that I’d flown to. According to an online calculator, my footprint for that round trip was around 0.8 metric tonnes of CO2. That’s more than the average person in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cambodia and whole lot more countries emits per year. PER YEAR.

I feel more eco-friendly than I was, say, ten years ago because of all the steps I’ve taken to act as such, and the direction my career has taken, but ten years ago I couldn’t afford to go on holiday. Ten years ago my boyfriend and I didn’t have a car because we couldn’t dream of being able to afford one. Ten years ago we lived in a one bedroom flat, not a 3 bedroom house. While we use the car as little as possible, don’t fly every year and try to be efficient in our home choices, are we – am I – actually more eco-friendly now? It’s difficult to say definitively but I’d imagine the answer overall, in terms of carbon emissions, might just be no and it’s all because I have a bit more money.

While I don’t earn huge amounts as a freelancer, I’m a diligent saver and budgeter, I live in a dual-income household and I have no children. My boyfriend and I also have a fairly simple lifestyle that is cheap to maintain. Because of all this (and myriad hidden societal factors), I have a disposable income to enjoy and I’m sure that that fact alone means that my environmental impact is bigger now than when I was terminally skint. 

I’m sure of it because study after study has proven that people’s income is the biggest predictor of their environmental impact. On top of that, a 2017 study found that even when people’s ‘self-identity’ as an eco-friendly individual comes into play, income is still the more significant indicator. The results showed that, “environmental self-identity played an ambiguous role in predicting actual environmental impacts. Instead, environmental impacts were best predicted by people’s income level.”

In addition to that finding, the paper also states, “Our results show that individuals with high pro-environmental self-identity intend to behave in an ecologically responsible way, but they typically emphasize actions that have relatively small ecological benefits. In other words, they have good intentions but only achieve minimal results in terms of overall environmental impact.” So I might recycle or buy ethical dresses but the impact of those actions are small relative to the other actions I take because of having a dispsoable income.

The indivuals behind the study, Stephanie Moser and Silke Kleinhückelkotten, also found that “people with higher incomes hold more positive levels of environmental self-identity”, a fact that perhaps isn’t surprising when so much of sustainable living and environmentalism is often hinged on buying superior, more expensive products. We’ve decided that the more we spend, the better and greener we are but it’s just not true. While people with higher incomes might like to think they’re the most eco-friendly, they’re simply not. In fact, according to Oxfam, the world’s richest 10% produce half of all carbon emmissions, while the poorest 3.5 billion people account for just a tenth.

Even if the wealthy are buying organic, cutting out meat and using LED lightbulbs, if they’re driving big cars, air conditioning their enormous homes, flying in private jets, heating swimming pools, and consuming relative to their income then they simply cannot be eco-friendly. While I’m certainly not amongst the ranks of the mega rich, or even the slightly rich, it would be wrong of me to assume that I’m better than someone who buys their veg wrapped in plastic but who hasn’t flown or used anything but public transport for the last decade. 

We’re not going to solve this problem without real self-reflection and honesty (as well as a shit load of collective action, of course) and if that means realising that I’m not as eco-friendly as I might like to think and exposing myself as such, then that’s just what’s got to happen. And others would do well to do the same, too. 

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Wendy Ward August 14, 2019 - 10:28 PM

As I thought Sophie, you’ve hit the nail on the head yet again. Great piece that will hopefully prompt some soul searching and tough self questioning. I get so frustrated at the posts on social media from people celebrating their plastic free shopping followed by posts of their overseas holidays and city breaks a few months down the line.

sophiebenson August 23, 2019 - 1:18 PM

Thanks so much Wendy, glad you enjoyed it!


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