Waste Not, Want Not: Bridging the Gap between Social Justice and Environmentalism

Words by Hannah Blumhardt and Liam Prince

Hannah and Liam are our guest writers from The Rubbish Trip - a touring zero waste roadshow sharing knowledge about how individuals across Aotearoa can reduce their household rubbish. In this post, Hannah and Liam discuss how a zero waste lifestyle is not only for a privileged minority, but has real potential to advance social justice.

Sculpture by  Rachel Levit . Photography by  Tony Cenicola .

Sculpture by Rachel Levit. Photography by Tony Cenicola.

What does it mean for organisations supporting people in poverty to look beyond ‘basic needs’?

What can organisations do to enable people with lesser financial resources to encourage a desire to be loving towards the natural environment? Do organisations, albeit with the best intentions, undermine this need if their services are not environmentally sustainable?

The interrelationship between environmental and social justice issues is real, but can be skirted over or under-explored if groups and organisations target issues in isolation. Organisations who care about environmental and social justice issues ought to lead the way in uniting these two kaupapa. We are hugely supportive of the steps The Free Store is taking to make this a reality.

“… people whose basic needs are not met still experience other needs, ‘higher’ needs, and they experience these needs in various ways and not in a uniform manner.” - Krumer-Nevo, 2005

Recognising the Right to Care for the Environment

Poverty is not only about limited financial resources, it also entails social exclusion and a lack of choice and access to intangible goods or ‘higher needs’ that make life meaningful. ‘Higher needs’ might include things like self-esteem, fulfilling one’s potential, connecting with one’s identity, culture and spirituality, or living out one’s ethics and values. Alongside providing food, shelter and clothing, organisations should work with people in poverty to uncover their intrinsic aspirations and provide services to help realise them.

Actively caring about the environment is a ‘higher need’ too often afforded only to the well-off. It is easy to assume that people who are financially struggling have no time for environmental justice; too often, they are not included in conversations about environmental protection. In urban contexts, ‘green’, ‘sustainable consumption’ and other environmentally conscious lifestyles are generally marketed at the wealthy, priced accordingly, and become unattainable for people on lower incomes. This reinforces the view that environmentalism is only for the privileged and, most tragically, associates environmentally-conscious behaviour with ‘out-of-touch hipsters’.

Yet, concern for the mamae afflicting the natural world can be a source of solidarity for individuals impoverished by the same systemic issues that cause environmental degradation. While progressives bemoan the divide and rule approach to marginalised groups that populists exploit (for example between immigrants and the working class), similarly, implying that people in poverty have no business caring for our planet is an act of oppression that serves the capitalist machine.

Zero Waste as Environmental and Social

The zero waste movement demonstrates the interrelationship between environmentalism and social justice. Living zero waste means aspiring to send nothing to landfill by following the 5Rs hierarchy: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot (and only in that order). The lifestyle may seem environmentally oriented, but it has profound social dimensions too.

First, we genuinely believe that living a less wasteful life is not only for those with larger financial resources, nor should it be. The changes necessary for a low-waste lifestyle save money and they also grow self-sufficiency; for some people, it could be one means of making life both more affordable and independent. In fact, many people who are financially struggling are already highly resourceful and living less wasteful lives than those with larger financial resources, and have a lot of knowledge to share.

Second, the zero waste philosophy goes beyond simply avoiding packaging. It also encourages us to marshal our creativity and community to resist consumerist culture. Consumerism is a social justice issue because of its relationship to inequality. In The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, Wilkinson & Pickett demonstrate that societies riven by inequality are less resilient and cohesive, and consequently, more likely to be wastefully consumerist and less likely to undertake actions for the common good; i.e. recycling (Ch. 15).

Furthermore, the individualism common in unequal societies detaches us from our communities and diminishes our inclination to share and collaborate. Yet, sharing resources reduces high rates of individual ownership and consumption that fuel wasteful over-duplication of resources. Collaborative, sharing economies also expand access to higher-quality resources to people otherwise unable to afford them, while ameliorating social exclusion and dislocation.

Promoting Waste Reduction as a Social Justice Organisation

Any waste reduction strategy must consider the bigger picture and address social and economic inequalities, and breakdowns in social cohesion. For social justice organisations, the more immediate question is how the most vulnerable in society can be supported to live sustainably. The starting point is clearly to ask people what help they need.

One major barrier for reducing waste in the context of poverty is that people in poverty often depend on organisations and donations for at least some goods and services. So, their ability to fulfil environmental aspirations is partially dictated by organisations’ and donors’ priorities. For example, if foodbanks only offer excessively packaged products, what choice does a person have to turn that food down? The idea that people who are poor should be grateful for whatever they are given is implicit when we do not engage with the possibility that they might prefer sustainable services.

Social justice organisations carry huge burdens on incredibly small budgets; the mahi they undertake is nothing short of incredible. While daunting, we believe they can lead the way in finding ways to make environmentalism more down-to-earth, and untangle the association between environmental stewardship and privilege. Part of this task involves organisations considering their own sustainable practices, and promoting objectives with both an environmental and social justice element (sharing, collaborating, food rescue, resource recovery). But the most important task is to include people in poverty in the conversations about what organisations can do to help make environmental stewardship accessible and relevant to everyone in society.

All power to The Free Store for taking on the challenge!

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