Are low income families being priced out of progress?

This week in class we focused on how to work sustainability into our culture.  We must be working towards sustainability both actively, and passively. Every single day people are making the active choice to be more sustainable, but the positive impact of those choices can be negatively outweighed by the passive choices we make each day. There are a ton of tiny decisions we make when we aren’t considering the impact, and some of those can be very harmful. One of the resources used to help us understand the gravity of these small decisions was the Leyla Acaroglu TedTalk. Leyla discusses our tiny choices, and how large the impact can be. While watching her discuss the impact everyone overfilling their tea kettle just a little can have on environmental resources in the long term, I tried to reflect on the passive choices I make in a day and how each of them may be making an impact. The hardest part wasn’t figuring out the impact or coming up with solutions, it was trying to pinpoint what things I may be doing unconsciously. For example, I have transitioned out of using plastic straws and switched to a reusable coffee cup that I take out with me, but how many times have I overfilled the coffee maker or used plastic “K-cups” out of convenience? If I, someone who has the resources to make sustainable choices, can be causing harm with my unconscious actions, how large of an impact is made by people who don’t have as many opportunities as I do?

The reading for this week builds on that idea, arguing that poverty contributes quite a bit to environmental degradation. People in low-income households often center their priorities around making an income and maintaining life, leaving less time and money to focus on sustainable problem-solving. In the Leyla TedTalk, she mentions the importance of designing products that help eliminate some of our harmful passive decisions, but I also know that innovation usually comes at a price. If low-income communities are the ones who are more likely to hurt the environment, going forward, items designed to encourage sustainability and environmental good can only have a profound impact if they are appropriately priced for lower-income demographics.

If individual consumers do not have the time or resources necessary, then some of the responsibility needs to fall on the companies selling to them. The work that the RILA is doing to assist companies with environmental compliance is an important step to holding these companies accountable. While I do think that it’s great that the RILA focuses on making warehouse facilities incorporate green standards and that the EPA Smartway system promotes supply chain efficiency and minimizes environmental footprints, I do not think it is enough anymore for large companies to focus on compliance. Environmental impact needs to be a priority at every level of business. Product designers should be working with sustainability in mind, and the environmental impact of production needs to be considered from the start. When sustainable products are created, they need to be made accessible to lower-income demographics – both through adequate marketing and fair pricing. If this week taught us anything, it is that the places where we aren’t thinking about sustainability are where we are doing the most harm. Compliance may help us maintain the status quo, until we start considering our environmental impact in every step of the process, we won’t be helping fix anything. 

Going forward, I plan to start looking more closely at my passive actions and finding ways to eliminate wasteful behaviors to see how the little changes add up. Right now, it may only be influencing my daily routine, but learning how to be more mindful of my environmental impact can hopefully help me influence change on a larger scale in the future.

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