The problem with personal sustainability

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We have been sold the lie of sustainability.

It’s not surprising that in a capitalist nation such as the United States, sustainability often becomes conflated with shopping. Consumers are bombarded with advertisements for products that are greener, cleaner or any number of other greenwashed buzzword adjectives aimed at convincing consumers that our individual choices alone will preserve the planet. For sustainability to have success under our economic system, consumers must buy more products, for there is no money to be made in consuming less.

But is sustainability something we can — or should — buy? What does sustainability mean when it is co-opted, repackaged and sold back to consumers under the guise of personal responsibility, all while large corporations with the power to spur large-scale change continue to harm the environment?

At Health for Oakland’s People and Environment, or HOPE, Collaborative, we advocate for sustainability. But we also challenge who can and should be responsible for making the choices and changes that take care of our world.

Where should the line be drawn between encouraging personal responsibility and demanding corporate accountability?

It’s a complicated question to consider.

HOPE works to advance racial, economic and health equity in Oakland through community-driven food and neighborhood initiatives, striving to foster a vibrant city where historically marginalized communities can shape their neighborhoods’ futures, have equitable access to healthy food and safe community spaces and build community wealth. HOPE very strongly believes that community members must be the decision-makers in their own neighborhoods.

At the same time, we reject the idea that sustainability is a series of individual choices. On the surface, the idea that our individual choices impact the world we live in and the one we will leave behind doesn’t seem problematic. But when we consider that our individual choices are often limited by socioeconomic status — and also that consumer buying power varies by class and is still nominal compared to institutional buying power — placing the onus on individuals seems less like empowerment and more like scapegoating.

What level of personal responsibility do individuals have in a movement that requires monetary buy-in?

Often, participating in so-called sustainable practices is not simply a measure of ambivalence but also one of access. In the food movement, this is exemplified by the call to consumers to buy organic produce with little consideration for those who face financial or geographical barriers to purchasing that food. The greener, cleaner choice is not always the affordable choice, and making our own simple products requires time, money and knowledge that is not always accessible.

For businesses, the end goal will usually be profit, and it is important not to place blind faith in the goodwill of corporations. Even when companies market themselves as sustainable, we must evaluate to what extent they can claim to engage in sustainable practices while also continuing to externalize the cost of their products on the environment and human lives.

A sustainable future will not be the result of individual choice but a collective and organized effort that acknowledges the need to address sustainability beyond consumer choice. That’s why at HOPE Collaborative we work with community members to devise and implement tools such as the Healthy Development Guidelines as a way to ensure developers execute sustainable building projects within Oakland. Other holistic procurement policies, such as the Good Food Purchasing Policy, ask school districts, cities and other institutions to leverage their purchasing power to support fair labor, local economies, improved nutrition, animal welfare and the environment. Adhering to these five tenets would define concretely for industry leaders what sustainable food procurement policy looks like, while also ensuring that no node of the food system is compromised.

These projects and policies have grown from years of listening to the concerns of community members and they will help ensure access to safe environmental spaces and food for all members of our community.

The biggest impact we can have as individuals is to divest from solutions that only see us as consumers while supporting the various organized efforts to hold industry, institutions and investors accountable to equity-centered solutions for sustainability. Organizations understand the impact they have on our behavior and therefore also need to assume responsibility for the role they play in creating our future social, political and environmental landscape.

Asia Hampton and Elizabeth Esparza work with HOPE Collaborative in Oakland.