What It Really Means To Be an Environmentalist

I admit, I am a self-proclaimed environmentalist. I carry my reusable water bottle and cutlery with me to the dining hall and get frustrated when I leave and see the trash cans full of plastic. I limit my fast-fashion clothing consumption and refresh my closet with thrift store finds. My friends can attest that one off-hand comment about food waste or carbon footprints will send me into a lively rant about my frustrations regarding our society’s respect, and lack thereof, towards the environment.

Over the past few years, I have seen environmentalism become more widely accepted as a concept. The VSCO girls, vegans and Bill Nye have all made it “trendy.” And don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for the growing attention given to planet Earth as she falls deeper into the dangers of global warming. Making the planet a better place is about everyone—people and corporations—taking the small but significant steps in the right direction; unfortunately, we can’t save the world with a handful of zero waste bloggers. What worries me is that the current path of environmentalism is dangerously close to the consumerist habits it preaches against.

Environmentalism in America is elitist. Social media shows how easy it is to be environmentally friendly. With the click of a mouse and a 16-digit number, you can buy everything you need to save the planet. Maybe it’s a reusable straw (with a cleaner and a case!) or a Hydro Flask. Maybe it's a $70 T-shirt with a lifetime guarantee. Maybe it’s a set of beautiful glass jars to store your leftovers and kitchen essentials. There’s nothing wrong with any of these items, and if they help you achieve your goals of using less plastic or limiting clothing consumption, then they can be a great purchase. Just be mindful if you ordered it all on Amazon with one-day shipping...but that’s a story for a different day.

What the media does not portray is that caring for the environment does not have to mean buying the more expensive item. Sometimes, it's about not buying the item at all; people do this all the time out of choice, but also out of necessity. Take, for example, the little plastic dishes from your favorite take-out restaurant. Some people recycle those immediately and store their leftovers in a cute glass jar. Other people will rinse and reuse those containers to store food until they’re falling apart, and then put them in the craft bin for their kids to paint later on. Is one person more eco-friendly than the other? Or, take clothing. Is a walk-in closet full of the most sustainably sourced items really better than a dresser with a few give-away t-shirts that have been worn hundreds of times? We cannot be convinced that any item is necessary to purchase to be sustainable, when often, refraining from a purchase and using what you already have is just as good of an option, if not better. 

In the end, it is everyone’s individual choice as to how they live their lives and how their lifestyles affect the health and well-being of the world as a whole. I know that not everyone holds the same values that I do, but I will continue to educate myself and the people around me about the importance of basic respect to the planet we live on. There are so many ways that individuals can practice sustainability. What matters most is that we are each conscious of the issues the earth faces and willing to make the extra step to help.