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We Need To Address The Privilege In The Sustainability Movement

It’s time to have a conversation about sustainability and privilege.

It’s no secret that the world is… well… on fire. News headlines air every day about a recent California wildfire, odd weather patterns in Texas, floating piles of trash in the Pacific, and more. When it seems like the next major disaster is looming right around the corner, it’s easy to feel helpless. As noted by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, just 20 large fossil fuel companies account for around one third of the world’s carbon emissions, which are contributing to the climate change that we see and feel constantly. But even though we alone aren’t able to enact grand-scale climate corporate action, individual sustainability strategies are still extremely important.

But is being eco-friendly a privilege? A lot of companies are capitalizing on our empathy and desire to help. For example, greenwashing is a huge issue. Brands will add leaf drawings, green labels, the term “eco-friendly” and whatever else they can in order to make you pick up their product. These symbols make many people willing to shell out a few more dollars for “green” products, but we need to face the truth: Many parts of the sustainability movement are made for the privileged and wealthy.

For a couple of months, I had the chance to work in a refill shop, or a store where shoppers bring their own empty containers to stock up on items like shampoo and hand soap to avoid purchasing more single-use plastic containers. While there, I learned a lot that changed my worldview on sustainability. On an almost daily basis, rich — and often white — people would come in and spend a ton of money on green products. Sometimes, it was in excess, like buying multiple pan scrubbers or reusable bags. I often heard these customers use the phrase “trendy.” It was then I realized that, yes, sustainability is a trend — and I was selling it.

Who drives the sustainability movement?

Many of the people making decisions about sustainable marketing and opening “sustainable-centric” businesses do not represent a diverse array of citizens, as reported by i-D. When you have the same type of privileged person (majority rich and white individuals) driving the same industry, messages don’t translate across a diverse group of people who want their actions to truly help motivate change. Thus, sustainability in its capitalistic sense becomes a sort of club that you are only invited into if you can pay the high prices. And that’s true regardless of whether or not a product is actually sourced well and is sustainable, or just has the right marketing to back it up.

Of course, with capitalism comes the issue of overconsumption. We are pushed to buy certain clothes, houseware items, appliances and more for the sake of “sustainability.” However, a 2020 study published in Nature Communications discusses how affluence is hurting the environment. The researchers noted how more money means you buy more products that, in turn, bring you a higher social status or standing because sustainability is trendy. Euro News summarizes the researchers’ findings by noting that consumers need to buy less in general, rather than load up on everything that claims it is “sustainable.” 

Some environmentalists and sustainable bloggers will argue that investments in an expensive set of Un-paper towels or Madewell jeans are worth it because they last a long time. Unfortunately, some people never have the disposable income to lay out $35 to $150 on products upfront. Living paycheck to paycheck is an unfortunate reality that many young people face today. In 2015 and 2016, the Urban Institute conducted research detailing that the middle-earning full-time independent student gains less than $15,000 a year, while dependent students often earn less than $4,000. Clearly, there is little space to spend extra money on non-necessities. With an underwhelming minimum wage and the fact that close to one third of American students face college debt, as reported by Investopedia, it’s fair to say that truly sustainable products are not made for everyone.

Let’s compare product pricing

Take into consideration a few products that may be in regular use in a college household. When shopping at Target, buying the brand-name Lysol multi-purpose cleaner costs you $2.69 for 32 oz. Also available at Target is the “earth-friendly” brand Mrs. Meyers, who has a 16 oz. multi-purpose cleaner retailing for $3.89. Without even calculating exact ounce prices, Lysol gives you double the amount for less, and that is a steal for students. 

Beyond this, a sustainable alternative to facial tissues can be found on Grove. One box of their bamboo tissues holds 75 sheets and costs $2.95. When shopping at Target, the store’s up & up brand sells 70 facial tissues per box for $1.59. Therefore, when it comes to paying bills, rent, gas, books, etc., most college students will opt for the cheaper option even if it’s not sustainable, which is good and necessary. 

How You Can Still Do Your Part

Being sustainable is not about the products you buy or the type of shampoo you use. Instead, it’s about how you live your life and the mindset you wake up with every day. Sarah, 26, a Master’s student at the University of Toledo who’s studying biology with a concentration in ecology, says it best: “It isn’t just about ditching the plastic straws or buying a reusable water bottle,” she tells Her Campus. “Yes, those aren’t necessarily bad choices, but who are you buying that product from? You don’t have to spend money to be sustainable, and in fact, oftentimes the expensive ‘sustainable’ products really aren’t that sustainable, because of how they’re produced or because the parent company is still some awful corporation that does horrible things. People need to think about the net sustainability.” 

For college women who don’t have their dream job or salary yet, there are myriad ways to be truly sustainable without spending a dime.

Reuse gift wrap and bags

Every time you give a gift, feel free to reuse your brown grocery bag or gift bags, save ribbons from holidays and art projects, use your university’s free newspapers and magazines. There’s no shortage of paper, bags, etc. that are free and just waiting to be used. If all else fails, just give the present without wrapping. 

use makeup products until they’re truly gone

No matter what brands you use, use every eyeliner, mascara, foundation, concealer, etc. to the last drop. Once you hit “the end” of a product, cut the top off and you’ll find more highlighter, face cream, etc. in the container. Grab a small eyeliner brush and dig into that lipgloss or concealer tube to get every drop of product. If you have pliers or strong tweezers, you can even take out the top of your tubes to find more makeup buried inside.

Meal plan

If you have a meal plan on campus, you can check out menus online before heading into the dining hall so you can foresee what you want to eat and not grab everything that looks appetizing. Many schools will let you get second helpings, but few will let you take leftovers back to your dorm. If you buy your own groceries, make a list. I know I may sound like your mom, but planning your three meals a day and only getting snacks you know you’ll eat will not only cut down on food waste, but it’ll save you money as well.

Delete your emails

Every time you get an unwanted message from your campus bookstore or from Chegg, delete it. It may be more tempting to just let it sit, but it’s definitely worth it to get rid of unwanted emails in your primary inbox, spam folder and trash folder because all of these messages create carbon emissions. According to The Good Planet, an average spam email is 0.3g CO2e, a standard email is 4g CO2e and an email with attachments is 50g CO2e. As you delete emails, especially those with PDFs and pictures, you can also unsubscribe from all those mailing lists you never find useful either.

Learn your community’s recycling guidelines

There is, unfortunately, no federal guideline or mandate regarding recycling. In fact, not only does it differ by state, but it differs from city to city. Find out how your campus recycles and research what the community around your school has in place as far as recycling programs. This way, you know you are sending in the right items and preparing them correctly. 2022 is the year we learn more about “wish-cycling” and put an end to it!

Keep educating yourself

If you want to learn any more tips and tricks about the sustainability movement that are realistic, feel free to check out Phil The Fixer and Sam Bentley on TikTok, as well as Aja Barber on Instagram, as a starting point. Scroll through hashtags across these platforms to find more bloggers and creators to connect with, too!

Cleveland State University’s Director of Campus Sustainability, Jennifer McMillin, weighs in on other great ways you can simply and effectively lead a truly earth-friendly lifestyle. “Easy ways to incorporate sustainable practices include turning off lights, programming your thermostat when out of the house, washing full loads of clothes, eating plant-based meals more frequently, and voting in local and national elections,” she says. All of these can be done without needing to shell out huge amounts of money for trendy sustainable products.

making meaningful change

Good luck on your journey to be sustainable — without getting roped into trendy campaigns that attempt to get us to buy stuff we don’t need. And don’t feel bad about single-use plastics including straws and water bottles! Use what you can afford.

“​​Sustainability means something different to everyone,” Sarah says. “We can’t all be zero-waste vegans, it just isn’t feasible. But we can all make little changes in our lives that are sustainable both in terms of our planet, and our lives; we need to make choices we can continue to make throughout our lives because that’s how meaningful change occurs.”


Jennifer McMillin, Cleveland State University Director Of Campus Sustainability


Heede, R. (2019). Revealed: the 20 firms behind a third of all carbon emissions. Climate Accountability Institute.

Wiedmann, T., et. al. (2020). Scientists’ warning on affluence. Nature Communications.

Urban Institute. (2017). Working During College. Understanding College Affordability.

In love with jokes, comprehensive sex ed and Stephen Colbert-- (Stephen, call me!) Kent State University Class of 2020, Current Freelance Journo Follow @MaSerra8 on Twitter and email mariaserra@hercampus.com for PR pitches!