Is Sustainability Too Expensive?

Last week, I asked the question “Is sustainability too expensive?” on Instagram. I’ll be honest, I was venting. I’d just refilled a bottle of shower gel at my local zero waste shop, and was charged over £8 for the privilege.

To me, £8 is too much to pay for a shower gel refill. It was quadruple what I’d pay for the same quantity that comes in plastic, straight from the supermarket just next door. And compared to soap? Around eight times what I’d pay!

However, upon posting, I saw a spike in comments. Clearly, you wanted to vent too. Some of you felt priced-out, while others said it was just about going back to basics. Either way: I knew I needed to do more research!

And so, in this deep dive, I’ll be looking at whether sustainability is expensive, as well as ways to make sustainability cheaper…

Does Living Sustainably Cost More?

Purchasing sustainable items does seem to be more expensive compared to mainstream alternatives. It’s the same story across most items: fashion, food, beauty. However, my £8 shower gel felt almost predatory, and left me wondering how many people have come away from zero waste stores, sustainable shops, or beauty counters, and fallen back into the arms of cheaper brands and products based on price.

Some of you said just that – you shared my hot-cold-flush at the checkout when you realised how much more money your sustainable shopping cost. And I’ll admit, I’ve done it a few times. I’ve bought tote bags costing £20, jumpers costing £100+, and yes, my £8 shower gel, because I was too embarrassed to say “Sorry I actually can’t afford that” at the till. 

However, does living sustainably actually have to cost more?

Myth: Sustainability Always Costs More

If we go right back to our basic human needs, sustainability actually comes pretty cheap. Our planet gives us a lot of what we need – materials to build homes, food grown from plants, fresh water from rushing streams. For social connection, we have each other. And the planet even provides some of our more modern conveniences, such as renewable energy for electricity.

The cost of being self-sustaining is actually quite low, so long as there is arable land, water, shelter, and community. (If you’re interested in pursuing this way of life, you’re probably on the wrong blog – head to Low Cost Living instead!)

However, personally I’m not going to run off and live in the woods just yet. I quite like my little flat, scrolling Instagram, and going for brunch. And that’s kind of the point of this blog in the first place – to find more sustainable alternatives to mainstream products, that require little to no sacrifice on my part. I refuse to believe that sustainability has to involve becoming a hippy.

Fact: Sustainable Alternatives To Mainstream Products Cost More (& 3 Reasons Why)

With that being said, I now recognise that sustainability costs more if we apply it to mainstream living; if we still want to live without too much disruption, sacrifice, or change.

If you’re looking to purchase like-for-like sustainable equivalents of the stuff you usually buy, the chances are that you’ll spend a whole lot more. In my opinion, there are three main reasons why sustainable alternatives cost more:

  1. The manufacturers’ additional cost of labour, materials, and governance,
  2. Items are not made to fail, and instead require an early investment that provides cost savings in the long-run
  3. The current market opportunity in sustainable products attracts businesses who greenwash and inflate prices

1. The Additional Cost Of Sustainability

The main reason I expect a price increase with sustainable items is the additional investment required in supply chains. It costs additional money to pay people fairly, invest in higher quality materials, get certifications, etc. In this case, if you ask “is sustainability too expensive?” the answer is no, we’re just used to the cheapness of unsustainable alternatives.

This indicates the main issue of industry today: so much of what we enjoy is made in ways that are harmful to people and to our planet.

Let’s take Boohoo as a current example: they shouldn’t have been breaking the law by paying UK staff £3.50 per hour. But they were, and to rectify it, they were permitted to commission and pay for their own ‘independent’ review that reads like a love letter to Boohoo. The worst part: they were allowed to continue without consequence.

So, it seems that so long as this kind of illegal activity is kept thinly veiled, it’s ok with customers and shareholders alike.

2. The False Economy Of Mainstream Goods

On top of the unsustainable nature of most of today’s industries, there’s also the false economy of modern day products. In Tara Button’s book, A Life Less Throwaway*, she highlights that many of today’s products are built to break. Products are of such a low quality that there’s an initial cost-saving for the shopper AND the brand, plus shoppers will be replacing the item in no time. Tara goes on to define a few different forms of this too, such as phasing out older models of items, like Apple is so good at doing.

3. The Market Opportunity Of Sustainability

Finally, there is also a common understanding that people will pay more for sustainable products. While this is true – and needed – it’s led to plenty of greenwashing campaigns, and even entire businesses designed to price-gouge the conscious consumer. This list of business news articles excitedly highlighting the market opportunity says it all:

Ecosia results showing people will pay more for sustainable products

Finally, I wanted to add in my recent intersectional environmentalist learnings: the Global North’s approach to sustainability is problematic in its own way:

  1. Exploit people and planet
  2. Get very, very rich
  3. Do performative environmental philanthropy to excuse the above

So, when it comes to questioning “is sustainability too expensive?”, we have more to do than simply looking at the price tags.

The Five Costs of Sustainability

I spent some time reviewing all of the above information, and believe there’s more to the ‘cost of sustainability’ than my simple outrage at an £8 shower gel refill. In my opinion, the cost of sustainability comes in five forms:

  1. Money. Lower prices often come at the expense of people and planet.
  2. Time. Convenience often comes at the expense of sustainable options.
  3. Access. There are barriers to understanding and prioritising sustainability.
  4. Willingness To Make Sacrifices. Certain products and services will be negatively affected to make them more sustainable.
  5. Activism. Certain industries won’t be sustainable without external critics, activism, policy, regulation, or disinvestment altogether.

Across these five ‘costs’, we each have to identify what is realistic for us to commit to. Yes, I know I’m falling into the trap of inDiViduAl acTiOn SoLVing thE cLimAtE CriSiS, but I truly believe that these costs also pave the way for some level of collective action too. Activism and education go hand-in-hand with our individual purchasing power and citizenship in this capitalist system.

We must also recognise that some of us may be unable to commit to any of the above, therefore if you personally can take on some of these commitments, know that you are also acting on their behalf, rather than pointing fingers.

How To Make Sustainability Less Expensive

So, how do we address these five costs, and lessen the overall cost of sustainability? On the basis of the shaky theorem I just created, here are a few ideas that may support reducing the cost of sustainability for you, and for everyone.

(Please note: all of this advice is here for you to pick and choose from, or ignore completely if you’re unable to take on additional commitment at this time.)

1. Money: Skill Up Financially

Did you ever learn how to save money in school? No, me neither. Fortunately, I have a very money-savvy mum, who was keen to teach me how to be financially independent from a young age. To this day, I owe her for showing me how to save: the coins I put in my piggybank have now transitioned into a percentage of my monthly earnings that I put into a savings account.

I truly believe financial education is vital for everyone, and can support social sustainability by reducing poverty rates. It can also enable more people to move away from impulsive, low-cost, high-impact purchases, to buying less and buying better.

The fact that the cost of living is higher for those on the breadline is an issue in itself, and one that takes precedent over tackling the environmental impact of our purchases.

Sustainable Items That Save Money (In The Long Run)

To demonstrate my point, I made a quick list of items that have saved me money over time, but took an initial investment that would have been impossible without savings:

  1. My (beloved) bicycle
  2. My menstrual cup
  3. Wax food wrap
  4. A refurbished phone (vs phones on monthly contract)

As AlterEko said on my original IG post: “Being able to invest in re-usables is a privilegeI find a lot of what I now buy with personal care and household items last longer, but the initial outlay is by far higher.

And I agree. For example, my menstrual cup was £20. Based on my flow, it took four months to pay this off, but a cup can be used for years, so it was worth that investment. At the same time, when I was in university, I used to have £25 to live off each week, so there was no way I’d be able to feasibly invest in a cup.

2. Time: Learn Time Management (But Don’t Expect Miracles)

For much of my life, I’ve wished I had Hermione’s time-turner, or if you’re a 90’s kid like me, something far more powerful than a time-turner: Bernard’s watch. What I’m trying to say is, I could do with more time. I see it as almost as valuable as money, especially working as a freelancer: I quite literally have an hourly rate and a day rate.

However, if you can manage your time well, the chances are you can also manage to prepare certain things in advance of when you need them. This skill is crucial to many sustainable practices, such as:

  • Cooking meals or even batch meals (vs fast food)
  • Making lunch for work (vs buying plastic-wrapped sandwiches)
  • Mending your clothes and belongings (vs buying new)
  • Scrolling or sifting rails for second-hand clothes (vs buying new)

Time investments can make way for a more sustainable way of life, but today’s lifestyles are time-poor. This is especially true of most jobs, which take up the vast majority of our most productive waking hours.

In tackling this, I can see three options:

  • Campaign for better pay and less hours
  • Save more, work less, see financial education above
  • Skill up in time management

Out of these three, time management is the only one that’s instantly actionable.

Personally, I manage my time with a super organised calendar, and daily to-do lists. One of my best lists is my pre-written shopping list, where I can check off items that I need to buy each week, rather than writing from scratch.

However, I’m yet to make my own deodorant, so clearly I could still do with more time…

3. Access: Share Sustainable Education & Check Who’s In The Room

Do you ever get annoyed that even when the climate crisis is mentioned in media or at school, it’s usually accompanied by a picture of Greta Thunberg or David Attenborough and some sentiment that future generations will save us? Yeah, me too.

It is our shared responsibility to tackle the climate crisis.

And in saying that, it is our shared responsibility to make education around sustainability accessible to all.

I genuinely believe that’s why Blue Planet II struck such a chord in 2017. As a popular televised show, it reached millions of Brits, and was later linked to so much progress in sustainability: the 5p bag charge, the ban on microbeads, even the Queen getting more sustainable.

And while we can’t all commission a BBC show, we can all talk about sustainability. Tell a friend, tell a colleague, tell your parents. If you’re online, share it on social media. Become an Ethical Influencer (hey, it’s free!)

If you’re already talking, check who you’re talking to, and who you’re talking alongside. Check who’s on the panels you’re on. When diversity is lacking, invite others in, or pass the microphone.

I would also encourage you to actively stay involved in education around sustainability. We can all learn more. Here’s a few great resources:

One thing I would note is that sustainability is not always a comfortable subject to talk about. I’ve had some hard talks with my friends, my parents, my siblings. I’m still seen as quite “out there”. And that’s only when I talk about the basics, like moving your money out of nasty fossil fuel funding banks.

4. Willingness To Make Sacrifices: Just Buy Less Stuff

Buying stuff feels like the pay-off for hard work. It feels empowering to wield a plastic card and buy whatever I want. For a hot second, that serotonin-hit is totally worth it.

But I have some bad news for us all: buying stuff is something we need to collectively cut down on.

If we just look at fashion, in the UK we buy more clothes per person than any other country in Europe. That equates to an average monthly spend of £80, or two suitcases’ worth of clothes per person each year.

I think part of that is because of that psychological high. When you feel sad: Treat yourself! You’re worth it! When you feel happy: Treat yourself! You’re worth it!

Something has to give.

Previously, I used to be adamant that I would not sacrifice on sustainability, and would only choose items that I knew had a lower impact, or came from ethical labour. But that mindset made me feel so frustrated (and financially drained) that I also ended up venting online about eco-perfectionism. It’s just not possible to buy everything sustainably. We all make an impact. And that’s ok.

But what we can all do, is buy less stuff. And if you need to buy something, see if you can get it second-hand first, therefore reducing waste, as well as reducing demand for virgin materials and more labour.

5. Activism: Raise Your Voice (For You & Others)

Here’s one thing I can definitely say I do: raise my voice. I mean, you’ve just read almost 2,000 of my words – you’re still here, right?!

I used to see raising my voice as the last resort. My broadband cut out? Call the hotline. My train is late? Take to Twitter. But the value of raising your voice, and feeding back to the businesses and organisations to whom you are a stakeholder is vital.

This includes:

  • Contacting industry regulators
  • Signing and sharing petitions
  • Voting in elections
  • Writing to your political representatives

…As well as directly messaging brands, or as I like to do, asking them a whole load of uncomfortable questions that I never get a response to (!)

If you are fortunate to have a voice, be recognised for your voice, and have the time to use it, please, raise your voice. And do it for you, but also do it on behalf of others who may not have those same privileges.

A few petitions you may want to sign now:

  • Ella Daish’s End Period Plastic Petition, calling for period manufacturers to go back to cardboard applicators.
  • Ethical Hour’s #COP26 Petition, calling for female representatives to be included on the UK board for the UN’s Climate Summit.
  • Greenpeace’s #BreakTheChain Petition, calling for the defunding of deforestation linked to meat.
  • Remake Our World’s #PayUp Petition, calling for the payment of garment factory workers by the world’s largest fashion brands who broke contracts.

So, Is Sustainability Too Expensive?

In a round-about way, yes, sustainability is too expensive. I mean that both in monetary terms, and in terms of time and energy. And sadly, I believe sustainability will be too expensive for a long time to come.

But, I’d like to offer a final twist in the tale: we’re all not paid enough. And I mean this in the monetary sense, but also the value of our time and energy too. That’s the real crux of it. The value of all labour is undervalued, and underpaid, while the governing class gleans more profit out of their ventures, out of us as working people, and out of the planet’s natural, free resources.

I mean, Boohoo got away with paying UK staff £3.50 per hour! And yes I’m still angry about it!

Businesses should make their investments in people and planet as important as their profit. But as it stands, there’s no incentive to do that, other than, well, human decency.

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2 Comments

  1. October 7, 2020 / 9:29 am

    This is without doubt one of the best pieces I’ve ever read on this subject. So many truths – cheap is expensive and we should all seek items that are “buy it for life”. But for me the best part is that you acknowledge that the capitalist system we live in funnels most of the money away to the few so there’s not enough left for the majority to participate in sustainability and make better choices.
    Thank you for the many hours you clearly spent researching and writing this.

    • besma
      Author
      October 7, 2020 / 1:29 pm

      Thank you for the wonderful words and appreciation! It’s taken me a long time to realise that there’s a greater problem with making sustainability the norm or affordable, and while I’ll continue on my journey to find kinder ways to live and dress, we have to call for system change on a grand scale too!

      B x

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