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Sustainability: Shame the System, Not Individual Consumer Choices

In the midst of a climate crisis, it’s only natural that people start to become more environmentally conscious and want to do their part to protect the environment. It’s fantastic that so many people are committed to doing everything in their power to protect the environment, given that our survival depends on the health of the Earth. However, many people fail to acknowledge the role that corporations play in destroying the environment and put too much focus on individual responsibility. 

The University of California, Los Angeles charter defines sustainability as “the integration of environmental health, social equity and economic vitality in order to create thriving, healthy, diverse and resilient communities for this generation and generations to come. The practice of sustainability recognizes how these issues are interconnected and requires a systems approach and an acknowledgment of complexity.”

In conversations about sustainability, it is quite common for people to place the blame of environmental issues on individuals instead of on the systems that are truly responsible. Expecting people to be environmentally conscious and shop sustainably may sound reasonable, but what most people fail to realize is that not everyone has access to sustainable clothing. Depending on your income, location and body type, it may be extremely difficult for you to find affordable clothing that is sustainable.

The reason that fast fashion companies get so many customers is that they know a large number of consumers cannot afford expensive clothing and need inexpensive options. Most sustainable clothing brands are expensive, and some members of lower-income communities cannot afford to purchase those clothing items. 

Some people might wonder why these people couldn’t just buy from thrift stores then instead of fast fashion companies, and the answer is that many thrift stores are not as inexpensive as they used to be. With people from middle and upper-class communities becoming more environmentally conscious, thrift stores and other second-hand clothing stores have started to appeal to a different consumer base. This means that their clothing is increasing in price, and ultimately the selection of clothes is more limited given that they have more customers. 

Thrift store
Photo by Nilay Sozbir from Unsplash

The selection is even more limited given that it has become a trend for people to buy clothing that is bigger than the size that they need from thrift stores to create other pieces of clothing. Individuals that are plus-size already have difficulty finding clothing that fits them at mainstream clothing stores, and the selection is even worse at secondhand stores, given that its selection depends on what items are surrendered. So when people take plus-size clothing items when they don’t need them, it does not leave low-income people that need larger sizes with many options. 

We have to recognize that things like capitalism and white supremacy play a role in the environmental issues that we face today. Some low-income people that purchase from fast fashion brands are people of color that as a result of systemic racism, have been deprived of the opportunity to obtain wealth. They have to buy what they can afford and prioritize items that they need to survive, which means that they may have to buy items that aren’t sustainable. They do not have the privilege of being able to be more conscious of their consumer behavior. 

It’s also important to realize that the system of capitalism has its flaws and is at the root of our environmental issues. Capitalism thrives on exploitation and prioritizes making money over the well-being of society. This capitalistic mindset is what allows corporations to harm the environment without thinking about the ways in which it may harm communities, particularly low-income minority communities.

Instead of trying to place blame on individuals without considering what their circumstances may be, we should be holding the corporations accountable that are largely responsible for the current state of our environment. According to a 2017 Carbon Majors Report, 100 corporate and state producing entities account for 71% of global industrial emissions. 

We cannot place the responsibility of saving our environment on the shoulders of individuals; we have to tackle these issues on a systemic level. If you as an individual are in a position where you can shop sustainably, that is great, and I encourage you to do so. But it’s not your place to shame other people for their consumer choices when you are not fully aware of their background or personal circumstances.

One person choosing to buy from a fast-fashion company is not the reason that we are at risk of climate disaster. Corporations are the source of most of the emissions, so dedicate your time and energy to ensuring they reduce their carbon footprint. 

Britney Simmons is a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University who is majoring in Mass Communications with a Concentration in Print/Online Journalism. She has loved reading and writing since she was a child, and is an animal lover. She loves to travel whenever possible, and you can usually find her binging some new series or napping.
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