A question I’ve been grappling with is whether to show a life is to sell a lifestyle.
While she’s talking about the food industry, I feel like this is true of many fields, including a lot of sustainability. Would zero waste have taken off if Bea Johnson didn’t have a beautiful home? If her zero waste looked like my zero waste: reusing shoe boxes and random cardboard boxes for storage, mismatched bulk food storage jars, and hand-me-down furnishings?
A lot of the zero waste lifestyle feels performative — the jar of trash ffs! — and competitive, with questionable ROI for the environment when it comes to time and money. It’s become a bougie class signal, that you have time to swim against broken systems, using affluence of money or time to claim moral superiority.
But we can’t escape wanting to look at nice things, fancy things, extravagant things. We want our lives, lived and depicted, to be desirable. The question of the late-capitalist climate change age is, can we tame these desires? Can we make what is sustainable and real desirable instead?
Zero waste should be about making do with what you have and what you can get secondhand. I hosted a zero waste workshop through my old work, and I wanted to interrupt the speaker when she started down the rabbit hole of things you could buy so you don’t have plastic in your house. No! Keeping what you already have is the best for the environment, not replacing it when it still works! That’s the zero waste / minimalist aesthetic, not the practice. It makes people feel good about themselves while having little impact. It becomes absorbed into their identity so they feel obligated to, for example, recycle everything they personally can, even if it doesn’t make a real difference.
I went through the Taco Bell drive-thru the other day, and they had a promotion for TerraCycle, a dubiously effective program that lets people mail in their trash “recyclable” sauce packets and other commercial packaging not viable to recycle curbside — passing the responsibility from the producer to the consumer, and letting Taco Bell greenwash their single-use waste.
This focus on minutiae and individual action / personal choices has siphoned off a lot of energy from more productive environmental efforts. There is no sense in shaming people for using a straw in their cocktail — or, lauding them for skipping one if they got to the restaurant in an SUV. People want cookies for making these visible choices, then decline to consider the individual changes that would really make a difference: switching from a car to a bike or the bus, moving closer to work and into a smaller home, installing insulation and swapping gas appliances for electric, and buying less stuff period. Yes, those kinds of changes are hard and expensive — which is why most people’s energy would be put to better use pursuing advocacy for systemic change and holding corporations accountable.
This is a tough topic because I too want to live sustainably, and in accordance with my values. I work on environmental behavior change programs! (More feelings there but that’s for another day.)
I’m getting better about not feeling guilt for waste that isn’t my fault. This weekend I threw away a ton of single use utensils that have been cluttering up a precious kitchen drawer. I didn’t ask for them, I don’t have a use for them, and we have no system for reusing or redistributing unused single-use items. Better to instead support enforcement of Washington’s law that businesses are supposed to ask if you want a utensil before giving it to you. My individual item is much less important than the scale of the utensils the restaurant distributes to every one of their customers, every day.