Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Earth Day 2014 - Why women should fight consumerism

Somewhat appropriately timed to fall right after the orgy of excess food, cheap chocolate and plastic wrapping that characterises the modern celebration of Easter, today we mark a newer annual tradition: Earth Day. Instigated in 1970 by a United States senator as a day of environmental education, the event spread worldwide by the 1990s. Now individuals and organisations all around the globe stop and pause for a moment, consider the impact they are having on the Earth’s delicate ecosystem, and use this moment - when the fickle mind of the world’s media is briefly focused on environmental issues - to promote awareness, start and accelerate campaigns ranging from tree-planting to eating less meat, and generally pledge to focus less on themselves and more on the future of the planet.

If you happen to be in possession of a vagina, chances are that the way in which you are usually asked to ‘do your bit’ to help the environment is to consume. That sounds odd I know, but bear with me. Aside from a few revolutionary products which, after a one-off purchase, are designed to actually reduce consumption, such as the Mooncup, or more traditional reusable items like linen nappies, women are often informed that in order to be ‘green’ they should purchase more, not less. Products such as the Mooncup or reusable nappies are often treated in the media with kneejerk squeamishness and tarnished with an unmerited ‘ewww’ factor that prevents consumers from gaining meaningful information about the use of these products and mainstream discussion of alternatives to the disposable sanitary products that have been internalised as the norm. While these products are dismissed as environmentalism ‘gone too far’ or even ridiculed, what has been embraced, in contrast, is the idea that women shouldn’t stop buying things, heavens no, instead they should replace their bad, unsustainable wardrobes with ‘good’, ethically produced and ‘green’ products and somehow, magically, the world will be saved. From ‘green’ clothing ranges to ‘green’ beauty products, the answer to the problem of climate change given to women seems to be not the more obvious ‘don’t buy so much’, but ‘buy this instead’.

This is not to say that environmentally friendly clothing and products are a bad thing, on the contrary, they are categorically a GOOD THING, and the ultimate hope must be that one day in the not too distant future ALL products and clothes will be environmentally friendly, or at least less environmentally damaging than the vast majority are at present. The problem is rather that the growing provision of green fashion and green beauty products has not been accompanied by overt challenges to the predominant narrative of perfectionism and the attendant required consumption with which women are bombarded in the modern world. There is little suggestion that women should not worry so much about maintaining a perfectly stylish and fashionable wardrobe at all times, or indeed about spending a sizeable proportion of their salaries on beautifying products to live up to the image of groomed female beauty. These requirements are the necessary ones; being green in the pursuit of these is more optional.

To be clear, the subtext here is not that to truly ‘care’ about being green, women should renounce all worldly goods, stop caring about buying clothes that they like or indulgent products that make them feel good. This would just represent a throwback to the old stereotype of environmentalists as hemp and sandal-wearing, strange-smelling oddballs, and prevent the spread of green issues into our mainstream, daily consciousness which is to be unreservedly welcomed, and which stylish green brands should be praised for championing. Nevertheless, the recognition that being green does not mean exclusively attiring yourself in old potato sacks and replacing your facial moisturiser with mud from your back garden, should go hand in hand with an emphasis that not having clothes that match the latest trends or the latest ‘must-have’ alphabet-based make-up (here’s looking at you, ‘CC’ creams) is not actually that important in the scheme of things. I am as guilty as any woman of succumbing to the niggling suggestion of adverts and media, and have gone through stages of being perfectly happy with my wardrobe, feeling that I have all the clothes I could possibly need for every eventuality, from paint-balling to the reading of wills, only to have this rare moment of consumption satiety shattered by an article on a new style of shoe which I suddenly wonder if I might need for the office, as we are heading into summer after all...

Some of the new ‘eco-lifestyle’ brands replicate the fundamentally non-green (brown?) idea portrayed by lifestyle brands in general - that to live up to some idea of what life should be like and what you should be like as a woman, you must possess more and more things, rather than focus on your achievements or interests. On top of which, they are (by dint of more ethical production) usually much more expensive than their non-eco counterparts. For instance, a standard T-shirt from Primark costs a maximum of £4 (and usually goes for about half that), whereas a quick search of available environmentally-friendly wear on the internet finds the cheapest going for £10.95. Now that might not seem like much of a jump for those on decent salaries and in secure employment, but for those on minimum wage, in short-term contracts, or even students, it is a price hike that all too often you cannot afford. Women are still told that they should buy the new shirt style for the season, and those who can’t afford to buy the green version of this are given one extra thing to feel guilty and inadequate about, alongside their appearance, wardrobe, figure, social life, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum. The divide that is becoming more pronounced between rich and poor in areas of physical and mental health, rates of obesity and life expectancy risks is just being replicated in the area of ‘environmental health’. We do not want to entrench a situation in which only the rich can afford a low carbon footprint, in effect by purchasing one to order.

It is of course not realistic for those companies that have (rightly) prioritised ethics and sustainability to attempt to replicate the ridiculously cheap prices of shops specialising in fast, throwaway fashion (and dubious manufacturing and employment practices). And of course, those who have the funds should categorically buy from these green brands rather than other more wasteful luxury brands. But we should also take more of a leaf (figurative, of course, leave that valuable plant-based eco-system alone) from the way that men can have, say, one suit, and it is perfectly acceptable to wear said suit to work, to family occasions, on evenings out for years and years, rather than having the disquieting feeling that wearing the same dress to two events in a row somehow means ‘giving up’ on some elusive ideal of womanhood, on the mystique of the flawlessly attired and turned out female. If we instead aim for a culture in which women are no longer made to feel so conscious of every imperfection and inadequacy, where it is no longer seen as somehow ‘brave’ to upload a photo of yourself to social media without make-up, we can recognise that perhaps we don’t need to buy a different type of moisturiser for every part of our face, whether or not the packaging is made exclusively from bamboo shoots that have been naturally felled by mountain winds. Then we would truly be able to change the terms of the debate from the perfectionist, consumption-fuelled economy that has been one of the biggest drivers of overuse of environmental resources.

In this manner more positive engagement with green issues could be felt by all women, across all income levels: a change in the prevailing terms on which women now engage with society would have the side effect of enabling them to focus more energy on the truly important issues like climate change and economic sustainability. In the meantime, alternative methods which mean that we don’t have to go the other extreme of an ascetic and wholly self-denying lifestyle and are still able to enjoy the self-expression that experimenting with clothes, make-up and other happily indulgent products represents (when not part of a pressure to look a certain way), are thankfully gaining ground. ‘Freeganism’, ‘upcycling’, the excellent Freecycle networks, clothes swapping parties and other eco-friendly grassroots campaigns are becoming more and more popular and mean that we can continue to try new things, change up our wardrobes, try new beauty treatments by re-using or repurposing unwanted or no longer needed items, neither breaking the bank nor continuing the cycle of endless demand for new products, no matter how virtuous these may be in themselves. In short, we as women are in a position to have our cake and eat it too; we can challenge the treadmill of consumption that damages both our own sense of worth and our planet. We can champion the environment and in so doing champion ourselves.


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