I want to start this article by saying that I am a white, middle-class, cis female. I will never be able to understand the challenges, brutality, and barriers faced by Black and POC individuals. But if the mission of this blog is to create an approachable space within sustainability, I need to intentionally create room for those who have been systematically excluded from the movement. This means acknowledging the problematic and elitist structure of sustainability while putting thought into how I can make sustainability more accessible for all.
Without representation within this community—racial, size, gender, or otherwise—sustainability will only be able to progress so far. We’ve seen it happen in the feminist movement and within political parties. When one privileged group, no matter what their intentions, speaks for those beyond themselves, invaluable perspectives are lost and people are left behind.
So, how and where do we start as creators? I’m not sure there’s one “right” answer. But below are the strategies I believe can be used to accept our mistakes while putting those learnings into action to welcome the perspectives sustainability needs to be a truly inclusive movement.
Promote sustainable content created by non-white influencers
If you have an IG you use primarily for business, you know the value of engaging and sharing content. By supporting sustainability-oriented accounts made by Black and POC creators, you’re using the algorithm to expose your followers to perspectives they may relate to or be completely unaware of. It’s not the job of POC individuals to educate white people. But in my opinion, it is the job of those with the inherent privilege to listen to and support underrepresented groups within this community. This could look like IG takeovers, IG Live chats, or weekly content sharing the work of non-white people in the sustainability space. The important element in all these acts is to let the content speak for itself. You don’t always need to throw in your own commentary over a story or in a conversation. Know when adding your own thoughts may be taking away from someone else’s voice instead of amplifying it and be thoughtful in how you share these perspectives.
Don’t make assumptions
Composting is so easy! Being vegan is something everyone can do. Sustainability is your responsibility. I’ve said some of these things. At the time, they felt like a fair declaration. But after watching Teanna Empower’s video on elitism in the sustainability & zero-waste movements, I know better. Assumptions like these may seem harmless, but when you take a closer look, you’ll see they’re actually a great example of why the sustainability movement is overwhelmingly white and middle class.
Assumptions of any kind exacerbate barriers people with privilege can’t often see. If you haven’t experienced a food desert, you don’t know just how hard it can be to find even basic necessities nearby. If you don’t live meal-to-meal, don’t assume that buying a $32 stainless steel water bottle is a realistic choice for everyone. Learn to think broadly and lead with facts. Percentages. Statistical trends. Any and all solid evidence. From there, you’ll be more likely to draw justified opinions instead of unfounded assumptions.
Stay away from “should”
‘Should’ is a nasty little word. I learned from my therapist that when you use the word ‘should’, you put unwarranted pressure on yourself and others. In sustainability, the word is yet another tool used to separate the “haves” from the “have nots”. And when applied to groups that have been excluded from the sustainability movement, ‘should’ basically says, “Pull yourself up by your bootstrings,” when many people don’t have boots, strings—or even feet (metaphorically speaking).
When writing or speaking, choose your language wisely and steer clear of opportunities to reiterate someone’s ‘otherness’. Rather, find different ways to illuminate the options available versus creating a noninclusive script you assume everyone can follow.
Give credit where it’s is due
If you wouldn’t plagiarize, why would you take credit for an idea or technique that isn’t yours? Sustainability is an idea that started with indigenous peoples. Period. When you depend on the earth for your food, shelter, and stability, it’s only natural that you develop a deep understanding and appreciation for how climates, waterways, and seasons work. Indigenous traditions labeled “primitive” by colonizers were in fact what held the world in balance and prevented many of the natural and manmade disasters that impact all of us today.
While we all have a right to participate in sustainability, we do not have a right to take credit for something that is not truly our own. When creating, be sure to cite sources, do interviews, and make sure your content is a reflection of the rich backgrounds and origins within this community.
Offer free events & make essential content accessible to all
There are ways to open up your platform to more people, both now during the global pandemic as well as afterwards. Start by making all your essential content free. If you have brand guides or heavily researched studies, make that information available to anyone and everyone. Because not everyone has access to the Internet, it’s also helpful to think beyond the screen to postings in public spaces, free in-person events, and phone services. Try to meet people where they are and make yourself available as a resource during every stage of their sustainability journey.
Open yourself up to feedback
Again, when it comes to systemic racism, people of color don’t owe white folks education or feedback. But if you can find ways to make yourself available without being presumptive, your platform will be more inclusive for it. You could create a survey and send it out to your blog contact list. Instagram polls are another great way for people to pipe in on their own accord and react to results. Regardless of how you go about it, remember that even though you may hear things that don’t make you feel good in the moment, having that honest feedback and revising yourself accordingly will help make you a greater ally.
Go beyond your platform
Fundraise. Rally. Protest. Get up and put your words and money where your post is. Showing up in person says that you acknowledge the impact of systemic racism, even if those problems don’t affect you personally. Whether you see it clearly or not, racism connects many social issues. The killing of innocent Black men. Epicenters of poverty. Lack of representation in the workplace. Wage gaps. Sexual exploitation. Food deserts & insecurity. Child labor. The list goes on. Black and POC peoples did not create any of these issues. White people did. Therefore, I and my fellow white creators must play an active and consistent role in the solution going forward.