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  • Elizabeth Marney

How to free ourselves from the Climate-Class Caricature

This piece explores class stereotypes within the sustainability movement, pushing for individuals to explore their conceptions of others and sustainability itself.

Household sustainability is often painted as a middle-class hobby. If we were to take the caricature of the sustainable household, we’d see a well-off white woman, probably with a husband, two kids, and a golden retriever. The kid’s lunch boxes, probably the bento-style ones with a pretty pattern, feature beeswax wrapped sandwiches. The bread is probably wholemeal, the lunchbox is balanced, because of the peculiar assumption that to be sustainable one must be healthy. All the cleaning supplies have the words ‘pure’ or ‘natural’ on them. The pasta and rice from the nearest zero-waste farm shop is decanted into mason jars, a price premium surely paid for the premium brand. Everything is tidy, clean, pretty.

Now, let’s think about the caricature painted within conversations on sustainability of lower income families. Microwave dinners in single use plastic containers. Recycling? Can’t be bothered. Cheap reconstituted meat, packed with preservatives and a massive carbon footprint to match. Sometimes said outright, sometimes implied: we are the problem. If you google class and sustainability, you’ll find a plethora of articles on how to get working class people involved. Most with a lovely condescending tone, a sense of othering, and a superiority complex. Which is strange, considering a lot of working-class habits are naturally sustainable, and even stranger, considering that most community led environmental projects are founded and implemented by working class people.

So, what are these sustainable habits? What can the movement learn from the working-class? You don’t often hear people talk about the intersection between class and gardening, which is fair enough because it doesn’t make for the most eye-catching headline or enlightening pub conversation. But it does reveal some interesting things. As early as the 16th century, lower income households were cultivating home grown produce, alongside decorative flowers for their own consumption. Looking at our earlier stereotypes, the notion of lack of house-pride within the working class is historically untrue. The ordinary gardeners used to compete on the best produce and the most appealing gardens. Gardens also served as a source of homegrown medicine – raw onion works wonders on burns. Everything found in the garden is something that didn’t have to be bought, and most likely something naturally decomposable.

There are undeniable links between lower income families and greater self-sufficiency. Similar links can be found in the type of food eaten. My granddad often remarked that he only ate what came from the garden or the greengrocers. Seasonable, local produce has the benefit of being better for the environment (less air miles) as well as cost effective. And so, a lot of working-class families eat that way. Reusing containers is one of the first swaps people tend to make when embarking on a sustainable lifestyle. Whilst mason jars are sturdy and aesthetically pleasing, and by all means a good swap to make, how about reusing something that you already have next time you pop into your local Scoop store to top up on pasta? Butter tubs, coffee jars, take-away boxes. Upcycle them, by all means, but why spend money when you could use what you already have. None of this is to say that these traits are exclusive to lower income families, just that a lot of these habits originated and are sustained through the working class, despite stereotypes pushing to the contrary.

The above examples all refer to an almost accidental sustainability. Another massive stereotype is that the intentional, moral choice to be sustainable is a middle-class trait, whilst for lower-income families it is a happy side-effect. Whilst a lot of sustainable swaps are more cost effective, and so often more appealing to lower income families, intentional working-class environmentalism is often ignored by the media due to being smaller scale. As researched by Karen Bell, a working-class environmental justice academic, a lot of working-class people are put off engaging with mainstream environmentalism due to negative experiences based on their perceived class. Yet, visit any predominantly working-class area, and you’ll see plenty of local campaigns to protect greenfield land, plant trees, reduce light pollution, and resist toxic developments. Local battles on environmentalism often stay a part of the working-class’ hidden history; the people involved tend not to have connection to the media or government in the same way. Is it shocking that the people who tend to live and work in the most hazardous environments are more likely to find or demand solutions? The vested interest in achieving sustainability is ever-present, and working-class environmentalism is alive and well. It just doesn’t hit the news in the same way a Planet Patrol or Extinction Rebellion might.

Upholding these caricatures on both sides is harmful. It ignores how entrenched the history of sustainability is in the working-class and trivialises and demeans the efforts of everybody else as a silly little hobby. So, how do we do better? Think about reusing what you already have, rather than buying the latest sustainable fad. Grab your empty coffee jar and head to Scoop. Pick apart how you picture people from different wage brackets, and what habits you think they may have. And remember that just because something is marketed as environmentally friendly doesn’t necessarily mean it is! Untangling ourselves from centuries worth of prejudice is certainly tricky and might not always come naturally, but here is as good a place to start as any. Get involved, make little swaps, and remember it's okay not to get it right the first time. It’s better to be a work in progress than not to do the work at all!

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