From a young age, kids are typically primed to care about the Earth (think: recycling is good; littering is bad). But somewhere along the way of growing up, that willingness to participate in advocacy and protection initiatives for the Earth gets disrupted—and for many people, largely back-burnered—often only revisited out of convenience or for improved optics. That disconnect is exactly what mobilized me in the beginning of my career as a sustainability activist—and it's a disconnect that every person has the power to heal for themselves.
On an industry level, I too often see sustainability efforts take shape as a tradeoff, meaning the initiatives are more about neutralizing environmentally damaging effects than promoting positive ones. For instance, when I previously worked in the fashion space, I saw what happens when sustainability efforts and capitalism clash: Teams of buyers crunch a few numbers in spreadsheets that will result in the use of toxic chemicals and textiles to create garments that will ultimately contribute toxic waste to the Earth at one desk, while at another desk, the latest “sustainably grown” materials for an upcoming collection get explored. These two tasks in tandem are not reflective of a company showing an activist dedication to the betterment of the planet.
On an industry level, I too often see sustainability efforts take shape as a tradeoff, meaning the initiatives are more about neutralizing environmentally damaging effects than promoting positive ones. For instance, when I previously worked in the fashion space, I saw what happens when sustainability efforts and capitalism clash: Fashion buying teams crunch a few numbers in Excel spreadsheets that would result in the toxic burning of thousands of units of designer clothing at one desk, while the latest “sustainably grown” materials for an upcoming collection were being explored at another. Now, one can certainly hold space for the intentions surrounding any given shift towards sustainability as inherently positive, but holding extraction in one hand and progress in the other, and justifying them as mathematical tradeoffs keeps something vital out of the environmentalism conversation.
Progressive innovation and strategy developments unfolding across industries (including but not limited to fashion) may continue to evolve, but I've never seen this growth translate to a shift toward a sustainable lifestyle for the masses. And that's a problem because the foundation of meaningful stewardship for the health of the planet is widespread support on a cultural level.
Culture plays a critical role in how and why we learn to care about the way people consume things and ideas around sustainability, environmental justice, and what leads to action and change.
Don’t get me wrong: We very much do need top-down change from an industry level in order to learn how to be better stewards for the Earth (and to guide us to correct the ways we haven’t been). What I've learned, though, is that culture plays a critical role in how and why we learn to care about the way people consume things and ideas around sustainability, environmental justice, and what leads to action and change. And culture changes start from the individual and individual choices.
Culture helps us unpack why certain environmental programs do and don’t resonate with certain groups of people. This is why it’s important that we address that Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) voices have been silenced—or at the very least, not prioritized—in the mainstream environmental movement for so long. We cannot thrive as a whole global population if we focus solely on the ways one single group thrives—and too often, that's what's happening, leaving out BIPOC folks and other marginalized communities.
Centering BIPOC voices in the environmental movement helps our communities heal from our ancestors' severed ties to the lands and oceans we now inhabit, and this reconnection can lead to activation and change. That’s why shifting the narrative of the environmental movement from being an errant thought or something to buy into to a personal priority for each person to embrace is a form of activism. And this sustainability activism is something we can accomplish in part through everyday actions.
Every time we make small daily choices—from the food we eat and the garments we wear to the home products we use—we can remind ourselves that each intentional action holds the activist power to make an impact. We can change our personal habits and then influence the wider culture towards a more sustainable path.
For example, Gather is a documentary that, per its website, creates space for “Native Americans to reclaim their spiritual, political, and cultural identities through food sovereignty.” It explores how a culturally informed relationship to food can connect communities to the land and empower people to identify with their role on the Earth. All people can honor cultural foods with an activist mindset to understand how the planet nourishes all communities. So in being mindful of our relationship with food, we can make sustainable choices that are simultaneously rooted in activism.
In fact, being intentional in all choices is itself a form of sustainability activism. I work to be mindful of my actions in a way that will allow for increased activism through the lens of sustainability. That might mean educating myself on the connection between the plastics in my clothes and ocean pollution or it might mean buying from and supporting local businesses rather than large multinational brands that are contributing to the destruction of the environment, or it might mean any number of other choices I make with my commitment to being a sustainability activist in mind. This month, with the help of Planet Hope's content, you too can learn how to embrace sustainability activism in a number of ways, whether by learning what certain buzzwords really mean, why it's so imperative you work to change certain personal habits, how you can hold corporations accountable for the eco-friendly promises they make, and more.
While many corporations are busy trying to find innovative solutions, few if any are unpacking why our connection to the planet (or lack thereof) has created this issue to begin with. In order for us to create a sustainable planet, we, as a collective, have to start listening to Mother Earth. We must rediscover that deep-seated connection that allows us to truly care for the planet and its people. And act on it.
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