Why I won’t be sustainability shamed (and you shouldn’t either)

Why I won’t be sustainability shamed (and you shouldn’t either)

Last night I posted on Instagram about “green guilt” and the shocking statistics that show how many people are exaggerating how eco-friendly they are to maintain a “green social status”.

I have to say I was initially surprised at how high the figures are (26% of people surveyed admitted to it but I’m sure it’s probably even more common than that – we’re just ashamed to say).

My post resonated with a lot of people and encouraged them to share their thoughts, own experiences and advice on how we can fight back against the “green police”. In fact, sustainable lifestyle blogger Making Roots even shared her personal experiences in a response post which is well worth a read if you need a bit of extra strength against the pressure – even conservationists struggle with this!

I’ve shared my experiences of this before – and I’m often getting into lengthy social media debates about it. My personal ethos is “guilt free sustainability” and Ethical Hour is founded on this belief, driven by the desire to provide advice, celebrate small steps and empower people to be more ethical and sustainable in their own way.

Fortunately we don’t see much green shaming in our community (and it would be tackled head on if we did because it’s just not part of our values) – but it’s not uncommon elsewhere online and I’ve previously written about my own struggles with green shaming and criticism here.

In the ethical community, we’re driven by our values. We’re all trying to align our lifestyle to what we believe is right or wrong – which is really difficult sometimes! But because we’re working with often black and white views and strong opinions, we forget that ethical living and sustainability is complicated.

Doing the “right thing” often means compromising one value for another – which is why my advice to anyone starting their journey is to get really clear on which values matter most to you. That doesn’t mean you should feel guilty for caring less about the others, it’s just that everyone’s different and has different personal priorities.

For example, I’ve recently spoken out against the straw ban – an odd stance to take for someone who champions sustainability, no? I’ve faced quite a bit of stick for it on social media but personally I don’t believe that campaigning for the ban was the most effective course of action.

Firstly, it’s allowed major brands to take the easy way out and benefit from a lot of good PR whilst still leaving the majority of the pressure on the consumer to recycle properly when they’re finished with the product (read this post for more on this topic).

But more importantly (to me), there is a massive accessibility issue around banning straws and I believe that many of the campaigns have ignored disabled people’s needs in favour of a move that is going to have a relatively small impact on the environment in the long run, because it’s simply not a big enough change.

I see the point that it’s a step in the right direction and that it’s raised awareness, but if we exclude disabled people’s voices from the conversation then we’re never going to achieve sustainability for everyone, and we’re opening up space for green guilt and sustainability shaming on those who do need straws.

Another common debate that divides opinion is around meat and dairy. I was shocked to learn the impacts of these industries when I watched the ‘Cowspiracy’ documentary and have since worked hard to cut down the amount of meat in my diet (as Making Roots points out – cutting 50% of meat from your diet can reduce your greenhouse gas emissions by 19%) – but I’ve received a lot of criticism on social media saying that this isn’t enough.

I really admire and support my vegan friends and I enjoy sharing vegan food with them. However, personally I struggle with a long term health condition that often means my diet is a struggle to manage and food can be a particularly difficult area for me (something I don’t talk about online) – so while I eat a mostly vegetarian diet, and talk openly about my ethical food choices,

I have been on the receiving end of ‘vegan shaming’ for “not doing enough” when I’m just trying to do the best I can in the situation I’m in.

This also came to a head recently when I shared a video of our local dairy and their milk float, which allows you to fill up your glass milk bottle any time of the day or night with fresh, locally produced milk.

For me, supporting a local small business (who I know look after their animals well) and reducing plastic where I can is important – but again I faced criticism for drinking milk at all – with a lot of people rolling out the statistics about the carbon footprint of animal agriculture as a stick to metaphorically beat me with. (Although it’s worth noting that many plant based milk alternatives have a high carbon footprint and environmental impact too).

It’s important that with these complicated ethical and sustainable issues we encourage healthy debate and provide all the facts so that people can make informed decisions that work for them, their lifestyle needs and their values – and that we don’t shame them for doing so. But it’s also important to remember that people don’t share their whole lives online and you don’t know what offline restrictions and challenges they’re working with.

If conscious consumerism is going to save the world, we need to work together to make it happen. Educations is an important part of this journey, so it’s good to share facts, statistics and opinions, but this should be done in a way that empowers others, rather than shaming them.

As I’ve said before in this post:

“Respect everyone’s journey, even your own. People within the community are not the enemy. We all share the same goals – we’re just trying to get there in different ways. You may be ahead of others – if so, support them. You may be behind others – in that case, seek their support.”

There’s no room for sustainability shaming here.

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7 Comments
  • Aisling
    Posted at 13:14h, 25 July Reply

    I would describe my diet as a pescetarian/vegan hybrid, I don’t have meat or dairy although I do occasionally have fish as I have an eating disorder and when I initially tried full veganism it was too restrictive. Maybe one day I’ll get to 100% vegan but my current diet is the best for my health and as ethical as I can get it. I try to make up for it in other areas like being cruelty free, having reusable coffee and water cups, and buying bamboo products where possible, but being shamed by vegans and surprisingly non-vegans who feel threatened by my diet choices (despite the fact that I never shame people for what they eat) is exhausting

  • Heather Calver
    Posted at 20:46h, 27 July Reply

    Absolutely fantastic post. I try to be as honest as I can on social media but because it this type of shaming I often think twice about certain comments for fear of a backlash. I am honest and open but it’s not always easy. Thanks for sharing xx

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    Posted at 06:00h, 05 August Reply

    […] There’s no room for sustainability sharing.  Hear […]

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    […] There’s no room for sustainability shaming.  Hear […]

  • Sarah Dean
    Posted at 16:20h, 08 August Reply

    100% agree with this post! I’m not a fan of the “all or nothing” approach some people take and think it often does more harm than good for a cause. If people are constantly shamed, attacked, or told they’re not doing enough, they may think it’s all too hard and just not bother at all.

    Yet if everyone made small changes in their own lives, it would add up to big changes overall.

    Yes, perhaps we could all do a little bit more but to me it’s about doing the best you can within your means. That will always be different to someone else’s “best” and there’s no shame in that.

  • Lii
    Posted at 10:24h, 18 August Reply

    Great post, Sian! It is so important, even in environmentalism and sustainability, to see the bigger picture and put things into a perspective. Vegan and eco-shaming makes me often angry! I would think that people who are vegan and ecological would have enough information not to be ignorant about the other end of the spectrum, but often it seems it isn’t so. There are also statistics about how when people are shamed or guilted into being ethical, vegan or doing good in any other way, they do the opposite. So shaming, in reality, doesn’t help the person, but it also doesn’t help the cause. I am glad that there are a lot of people still who see that moving towards more mindful consumption with support is the best way forward 🙂

  • Elizabeth Forbes
    Posted at 11:46h, 23 August Reply

    Thank you for your sensible view. The “shamers” don’t seem to be able to accept that everything, yes everything, including breathing! affects the environment and they seem to see their choices as a competition to be the best at saving the planet or whatever their goal is and then use their choices as a sick to beat others with. We have to make choices and there is no guarantee that your choices are the “right” ones, tomorrow’s research could prove something thought of as good today is a disaster in reality. Its complicated, as they say.

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