In Defence of the Working-Class Consumer

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Buy what you need and don't be wasteful - an ethos shared by environmentalists, anti-consumerists and low-income households alike. At surface level, the three groups would mix perfectly, right? Despite separate reasons for grievance, they all share a common target: large-scale corporations, often abusing their leverage to exploit the system from which they already benefit. This we know to be true - yet, even upon acknowledging the culprits and their intentions, "consumer culture" is scapegoated onto individual (low-earning) consumers. Discussion of fast fashion malpractice seems to be overshadowed by a rhetoric that's condescending at best and openly class-exclusionary at worst. Let me propose something radical: if someone with a different upbringing tells you that they can't afford something, please assume they know what they're talking about.

Let's say, hypothetically speaking, that poor people aren't destroying the planet through their packaged goods and purchases from Primark (once every so often, when they've got money tucked aside for essential clothing purchases). Let's also imagine that the "frugal lifestyle" you've recently co-opted has spanned decades and isn't always voluntary: if we re-use constantly, and consume next to nothing, our carbon footprint... actually... isn't the worst. It's less 'saving the world', more 'this will allow us enough money for the mortgage and food'. Meaning - wait for it! - that any money left over isn't quite enough scraped together for a high-quality, sustainably-sourced sweater that's closer to £100 than £10.

This is by no means a criticism of ethically-priced fashion (who could argue with fairly-paid and well-treated workers?). It's a simple plea for eco-activists to acknowledge that the fashion waste you rally against - yep, that 15.1 million tons of discarded textiles - is purchased from a plastic credit card, likely on a luxury shopping spree. Logistically, the active participants of consumerist culture are those with the money to consume. Every moral crisis involving Western capitalism (reading points: Nestlé, the Flint water crisis, everything modern retail stands for) summarises the ethics of worldwide industries: consumerism opposes all that environmentalism stands for. Excess, extravagance, abundance; self-care means living lavishly. More products. More space. More space on the landfill. Keep buying and you'll finally earn some Instagram cool points with that free cheeseburger. Nobody is going to tell them when they've got enough, because so long as their purchases are lining somebody's pockets, 'enough' doesn't exist. There appears to be an epidemic of vulnerability among the well-off, in which they're waiting for permission to stop the cycle. Minimalism hitting the mainstream, following some widespread promotion (already the case, due to a surge in YouTube content), is currently our best shot at waste reduction. Promoting the lifestyle may accelerate this: if not for the planet's sake, then for their own.

By all means, criticise the practices of Primark and H&M - all things considered, allowing them any reprieve is unthinkable - but acknowledge the socioeconomic context in which they exist. They capitalise on consumer vulnerability, branding themselves as a wallet-friendly go-to for low-earning households. Bearing in mind that for those in the minimum-wage bracket, clothes from any other retailer (I'm talking over £10 - £12 at most) barely fit into the budget. Discounting the likes of second-hand stores - in which there's less precision and more luck involved in finding specific items of need - were there a highly sustainable, equally priced retailer, please assume we'd use it.

Consider the amount of pressure and petition signatures needed to pass a legislation. So long as the vegan option is more highbrow, and the greenest areas in town are the most severely gentrified, the everyday consumer will view environmentalism as nothing more than a middle-class niche: look to modern-day social justice, and their focus on intersectionality. Knowing your audience, and expanding to accommodate, will work in your favour.

Too much? Let's review: better your understanding by researching poverty statistics and the link between consumerism and classism. (Actually, research classism, full stop.) Preface lifestyle-swap propositions with "if you can afford to," rather than deny the existence of everybody who can't. Better yet, kill two birds with one stone and initiate direct action: expose the companies, join pressure groups; keep dropping facts and statistics (about both textile waste and the sweatshop conditions). It holds more longevity than a series of witch hunts.

by Anonymous Activist fearing retribution from her employer

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