Planet earth with many different people joining their forces
Sustainable life

Is sustainability inclusive?

“Yeah, what you’re saying is great. I’d really love to use this green alternative, but at the moment it’s just too expensive and I can’t buy it.”

“Would you mind if I don’t use a vaginal cup? I’ve already tried it, but just don’t feel like it. I prefer reusable pants”.

“Can I take part in the climate strike even though I’m not vegan?”

And so on and so forth. 

Over the years, I’ve heard and read many statements like these and I’ve realised two main things: first, I hadn’t properly taken into consideration each and every perspective of people who might negatively be impacted by our green choices. My bad, we never stop learning.

Second, as far as I’ve understood, many people feel excluded from living a more environment-friendly life and, even worse, they felt judged because of this.

It looks like sustainability is an exclusive club.

Goodness. I’ve never considered myself a sustainability elitist: I’ve always thought that even one small green action is better than nothing at all and I’ve tried to make people understand that living a more sustainable life is for everybody according to their resources. 

That’s why it came as a shock to me that, apparently, sustainability and environmentalism advocates and activists sometimes leave people behind without realising it.

Yup, unfortunately, it happens.

And it usually happens when we see reality with a black or white approach without understanding that, actually, our reality is made of the intersections of many different layers.

Indeed, that’s why I prefer talking and raising awareness about intersectional sustainability, as for me if we really want to safeguard the planet, we need to address every single aspect of our life.

What is intersectional sustainability?

Intersectional sustainability is an integrated approach to living sustainably that intersects different dimensions of our life. 

Indeed, sustainability doesn’t only pertain to the environment, but also to the social, economic and cultural dimensions of our societies. 

It means that we need to look at the bigger picture – global, local and individual challenges are interconnected and can’t be mutually exclusive.

In other words, sustainability cannot be exclusive.

What is inclusion?

Inclusion can be defined as the act of making a person part of a group where each member is afforded the same rights and opportunities

It has an impact on whether people feel a sense of belonging, feel heard, and feel safe to express themselves authentically. Therefore, it is possible to state that inclusion is also the policy or practice of making sure that everyone in society has access to resources and opportunities.

Why is inclusion important to sustainability?

Inclusion is important to implement sustainability because otherwise no real change can be achieved. Indeed, for this to occur we need to adopt an intersectional approach to life, which would lead us to inclusive sustainability.

This can be done both in strategic terms – i.e. Corporate social responsibility – and in literal terms – a sense of belonging, acceptance and safety humanly created within a given environment.

This must occur because there can’t be any environmental justice without social justice. And there can’t be any of them if we don’t try and change the whole system we live in.

In other words, we can’t protect, for example, a piece of land by not taking care of the marginalised people living there.

We could temporarily succeed in protecting the land, yet those people will still be marginalised and might as well do anything in their power to try and improve their life with the means at their disposal, which aren’t usually that sustainable.

We could therefore help those people get out of the social, economic and psychological traps they live in by accepting the difficulties they’re experiencing and not cutting them out of the movement or whatever only because they don’t meet our personal criteria on how an activist should look like.

So this leads us to another question…

Are we sure sustainability includes everyone?

Well, to some extent.

To another extent, mmm. Not sure.

As a matter of fact, sustainability strategies still need to address certain types of discrimination occurring within its ranks, such as racism, ableism and ageism to name but a few.

Such attitudes usually emerge when we forget that we all are different and experience difficulties at different levels.

We assume that our solution will automatically fit any situation and if someone approaches us claiming that perhaps for some people another solution would be ideal, we feel personally attacked and tune into the defensive, there-can’t-be-any-compromise mode.

In so doing, we exclude any other form of dialogue. We make exclusions.

For example, people with disabilities often find themselves at disadvantage, which makes them vulnerable to the disruptive impacts of climate change. To make matters worse, some activists haven’t yet understood that not all the solutions they advocate for can be used by people with disabilities, as they might have other needs. Therefore, if the only thing we can suggest is a “deal-with-it” approach, we’ll obviously exclude people with disabilities from certain sustainability strategies.

Zero points for social and environmental sustainability.

So let’s remind ourselves about this whenever we try to approach individuals whose support is important but whose balance is somehow unstable: if we talk to them with an “it’s either this or nothing at all” approach, our sustainability strategy won’t be inclusive and failure is likely to occur. 

Why must sustainability be inclusive?

If we really want to achieve a long-lasting, positive impact, we need to be inclusive. 

We literally cannot leave anyone behind. 

Of course, I’m aware that everybody’s got some kind of bias and any good-natured movement will likely have its Achilles’ heel, but this doesn’t mean that we must turn a blind eye to such behaviour. It’s something that could potentially hurt our goal.

Just as we – advocates, activists, and volunteers – have trained ourselves to fight others’ biases and bad habits, we must also train ourselves to fight our own biases and bad habits.

We need to understand that there are different perspectives and conditions in the world, even within the movement we adhere to or somehow idolise.

We can’t marginalise and exclude those people who don’t comply 100% with our vision of what a perfect world should look like. Maybe they agree by 80% and that’s okay, because we’re on the same page, so let’s try and listen to what that 20% is really about: are they raising awareness about economic conditions? Or is it physical health issues? Maybe mental health issues? Other types of disparities? And so on.

Each of us has a different background and we all act starting from that background. As such, some of us are more privileged than others, that’s a fact. What do we do with that? 

We must come to terms with the fact that there are privileges even within movements for social and environmental justice, and we need to recognise and address them accordingly.

We must start by working on our own privileges, biases and difficulties.

Studies and practical experiences have shown us that if a sustainable approach to life isn’t inclusive, then we can’t reach the goals we yearn for. We would only get temporary fake goals which would lead to other problems almost immediately.

If we don’t take others’ difficulties into account, if we downsize others’ difficulties by labelling them as “lazy” or “ignorant” without suggesting other valid options that might better fit their situation, if we lock ourselves in our ivory tower, then people won’t listen

And even if they would like to give it a try, perhaps out of curiosity, and perceive any kind of one-sided approach, they could decide not to listen on purpose.

And we’d lose a precious opportunity.

So, in conclusion, we should develop a sustainable approach to communication: let’s try and work on our listening, empathy and communication skills. We already have the means to do it, we should only apply them to ourselves first.


Food for thought

McKinsey (2021), Our future lives and livelihoods: Sustainable and inclusive and growing, available here.

BusinessWiz (2021), Sustainability & Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, available here.

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