Sustainability Is Still for the Privileged Few

Close up photograph of a woman carrying a shopping basket full of groceries in a supermarket. Is sustainability still just for a privileged few?

Sustainability always seemed out of reach to me, elitist even. Growing up, my immigrant parents were scrappy, innovative small business owners who operated a shoe store, followed by a photo development shop, and then restaurants. A lot of evenings, my brother and I would do our homework on our own, assemble leftovers of Korean banchan from the fridge, and fall asleep without seeing our parents, who didn’t come home until after 10 p.m. I don’t think we had it harder than most immigrants’ kids, but our struggle for survival—which involved fending off racist bullies, getting through a fairly rough middle school plagued by violence, cutting the checks for the utilities bills, filling out our own school forms, and making good grades despite it all—didn’t leave much time for eschewing plastic packaging or taking recycling seminars. 

Now I’m an adult in a dual-income household working for a sustainability-focused company, and I still struggle with the barriers to going zero-waste and lowering my carbon footprint. The barriers for me have been both structural and psychological, from the lack of affordable sustainability initiatives, to elitist marketing of sustainability style.

Photo shows a young woman shopping in a zero-waste store from large containers of loose grains and pulses. Much of modern sustainability is built around consumer culture, which requires privilege.
Modern sustainability is frequently marketed around consumption. | AzmanL/Getty

When I landed as a naive 17-year-old at my elite liberal arts university, strapped with a motherlode of scholarships, grants and loans, I didn’t even know the word “sustainability,” much less what it meant. This lushly green, artificially-manicured campus was where I first witnessed the cultural tendency of elites to value performative sustainability over invisible-yet-powerful incremental change. 

Blending in took adjustment, since being crunchy meant wearing a $200 Patagonia jacket your parents bought you, joining the Outdoor Club, and majoring in Environmental Studies—actions my survival-oriented, first-generation immigrant parents strictly forbade me from “wasting my time” on. My view of sustainability as elitist was reinforced by the lack of diversity in environmental conservation leadership in the 90s and aughts, from Greenpeace to the Audubon Society—an issue that persists today. (Now I know better—and that Indigenous environmental activists, like Winona LaDuke and LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, have defended the land we live on for many generations, before modern non-profits claimed the mantle of sustainability.)

The truth is, living a truly sustainable lifestyle takes hard work, time, and money. Acknowledging this road block is an important first step to inviting more people in, and creating lasting change.

That image of sustainability still plays in my head today, where I sometimes envision a marketing-influenced reel in my head of wealthy folks frolicking like Snow White across natural woodlands in organic linen dresses hand-sewn by their eco-fashion designer friends. They store all their locally-farmed, heirloom tomato salads in $25 glass containers and sip kombucha from $50 stainless steel bottles. They incur no greenhouse gases, because they don’t have jobs to drive to. They purchase carbon credits for each flight and donate millions to the Environmental Defense Fund every year, easily lightening the load of their consciences. At night, they lay their organically-moisturized heads to rest upon sustainable bamboo pillowcases. For fun, they rock climb, hike national parks, and ski and snowboard. 

There’s nothing inherently bad about these visions—or even the real-life people who live versions of this life in my town of Los Angeles—but it’s simply not realistic for most of us. Media and advertising create this image that if you just buy the right things—a luxury in itself—you’re on your way to sustainability. The truth is, living a truly sustainable lifestyle takes hard work, time, and money. Acknowledging this road block is an important first step to inviting more people in, and creating lasting change.

My feeling of outsiderness came from being raised in an immigrant, working-class family on a scarcity mindset, but actually, many of the things we did were sustainable. From organic home gardening, to foraging, to making our own reusable dishcloths, our thrifty homesteading lives were naturally easier on the earth—yet the glamorous framing of sustainability didn’t congratulate everyday folks who performed small actions like this, away from the limelight. And since we were always worried about how close we were to breaking the bank, we bought the cheapest clothes and laundry detergent, not the eco versions. 

Photo shows a woman foraging for fresh food outdoors surrounded by plants and greenery. Are sustainable practices like foraging just for those with privilege?
Through her local foraging group, the author found that “sustainability was more than eco-shopping.” | SolStock/Getty

I carried those unsustainable preferences into my early adulthood. Hustling to keep up with my exorbitant San Francisco rent at age 27, I was working three part-time jobs. I could barely keep up with furnishing my place with the cheapest IKEA furniture, affording beers with my friends, and getting new sneakers to bike to work in, so I figured it was fine that sustainability wasn’t my vibe—even though I was working at a sustainably-focused science museum. Though I cared very much about the welfare of the whales and penguins depicted in our museum, it was a stretch for me to purchase $20 reef-safe sunscreen. And so I continued purchasing the generic toiletries from Walgreens and the low-priced, sweatshop-made clothes from fast-fashion shops like Forever 21, while packing my lunch in disposable plastic Ziploc bags. “I’ll be sustainable when I make a lot of money someday,” I mused, while wondering why more ethical products were priced out of budget for my minimum-wage life. (I didn’t realize the larger system working against working-class folks until later in life.)

It took the birth of a hyperlocal regifting group called Buy Nothing for me to do a 180. Pregnant and unemployed due to a mass COVID layoff, I didn’t know how we would afford everything for my baby. Luckily, not only did my family and my husband’s family step in to support us in every way they could (and we are so lucky to have that support), but my Buy Nothing community provided everything from a bassinet to a stroller and toys for our little one. 

Soon after, I joined a local foraging group, where I learned that sustainability was more than eco-shopping: it was community, education, and Indigenous land protection. We learned how to forage respectfully so that plants could sustainably grow back, and refrained from foraging sacred Indigenous ceremonial plants like sage, unless it was growing abundantly in our own backyards. Together, we shared food and celebrated how bountiful nature could be if you knew how to look.

It shouldn’t take privilege to be more sustainable, and governments need to radically reframe sustainability, making small victories more accessible to people of all socioeconomic backgrounds.

When I found these regifting and foraging resources that opened up channels for sharing in abundance, my entire psychology changed. My feelings of desperation and scarcity started to evaporate. I started to feel more self-confident, believing that my community would provide for me if I had the courage to raise my voice and ask (something privileged folks often feel more comfortable doing). I started to feel confident enough to purchase more expensive, long-term-focused items, from glass containers to low-VOC paint for my walls. 

Also vital to my sustainability conversion was the availability of more time to research. I was working full-time and had day care—and with it the luxury of researching my purchases. I bought a hybrid vehicle to lower my carbon footprint only after I had time to comparison shop (it actually lowered my bills overall). I researched the best deals on organic strawberries and biodegradable laundry detergent, and learned how to compost at home. To be clear, it takes privilege to do these things, but it shouldn’t take privilege to be more sustainable, and governments need to radically reframe sustainability, making small victories more accessible to people of all socioeconomic backgrounds.

Making sustainability a part of community-building gave me complete ownership over my contribution to the earth.

Volunteering in my community also helped alter my scarcity mindset and break down my mental barriers to access a sustainable lifestyle. Because suddenly, I felt that I had more to offer than just capitalist goods. I was of value to my community. I could teach basic gardening skills or loan out my grain mill for folks to mill locally-grown grain for bread. I could take turns picking up food for neighbors at the farmers’ markets. I could volunteer my time, including cooking delicious $5 vegetarian meals for an elderly neighbor who underwent surgery and a family who had just welcomed twins. Making sustainability a part of community-building gave me complete ownership over my contribution to the earth. Sustainability wasn’t just a serious task to be performed alone—it could be joyful and communal.

Sustainability isn’t just about purchases. It’s not just buying eco detergent or organic vegan meat. It’s about being part of a community garden or choosing to fly less. It’s about cooking stem-to-root, making and freezing stock, repurposing stale bread, using carrot tops, jamming your fruits, and fermenting seasonal veggies, just like your grandmother did. Even more importantly, it’s about being an active citizen and pressuring our leaders at COP26 (and every local election) to set bigger, bolder goals for climate change—like phasing out, not phasing down, coal power. It’s about small actions that make a big impact—something every one of us can do.

The views expressed in opinion pieces are those of the author(s) and do not represent the policy or position of LIVEKINDLY.