Well, this week has certainly seen some interesting developments in the environmental community. Here’s a brief TLDR If you missed the online drama in the zero waste world: Package Free Shop, a zero waste shop run by Lauren Singer from Trash is for Tossers, stated on Instagram that anyone can go zero waste. Some followers questioned this assertion politely, and were promptly blocked and had their comments deleted. Now I’m not usually one to weigh in on things such as this, but I did feel like I wanted to write something about this as it symbolises a much larger issue that I believe we need to maintain awareness of and sensitivity to. Intersectionality.
You may have never heard this term before, and if you have you’ve probably heard it in relation to the feminist movement. Well today let’s take a closer look at what intersectionality actually is, why it’s important, and why it’s vital that the environmental movement is intersectional (and yes, we’ll be returning to the Package Free Insta-drama in this discussion).
What is intersectionality?
While the theory of intersectionality was officially created in the 1980s (by the amazing civil rights advocate and scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw – watch her TED talk here), the concept has existed since at least the 1800s, and its core idea it pretty simple. Intersectionality argues that there are multiple aspects to humanity including race, gender, class, sexual orientation, age, body type and many more, and these aspects don’t exist separately from each other. They are inextricably linked, meaning that individuals whose identities overlap with a number of these minority classes will face many more threats of discrimination in their life. For example, I experience oppression because I’m a woman, but I also don’t experience many other forms of oppression because I’m privileged in other areas of my life. I’m white, cisgender, heterosexual, able bodied and pretty middle class, which means there are a whole ton of ways that my life and experiences are much easier than those of many others.
Essentially, it can be simplified down to the following: everyone has multiple, overlapping aspects of their identities, and all of these connect together to shape how we experience the world and are treated within it. For many, this means that multiple forms of discrimination intersect, and we have to address all of them to create true change.
Seems pretty easy right, where’s the problem?
Well, we start getting issues as soon as we disregard complex thinking. To be honest, often the people at the forefront of justice movements tend to be a variation of me – white, able bodied, cisgender etc – because it’s easier for us to get our voices heard in society. Yes I may have had some barriers as a woman, but I also have more access to technology, finances, education and societal acceptance that have made it much easier for me to have a voice than say, a disabled woman of colour. This doesn’t invalidate my personal struggle in any way, but simply recognises that there are certain elements that are more accessible to me than others. But if the majority of people fronting a movement, whatever it may be, are in a similar spot to me, it’s also very easy to disregard all the other elements that are at play for everyone else. Because I’ve never been personally affected by certain considerations, it would be incredibly easy for it to never even occur to me to think about trans people, older people, disabled people, queer people or immigrants (to name a few), when I’m talking about justice and progress in the world.
Why white feminism sucks
And this is where we often end up with white feminism. Check out this video, which breaks down the concept simply and easily:
So if you’re white and a feminist, that isn’t a bad thing, not all white people are white feminists. We do, however, have a problem when someone’s activism ignores intersectionality. Often times this is unintentional (because, hello, we live in a society created to favour the privileged) but, if we don’t identify it and work to change our activism, we do serious damage. Not only do huge numbers of people feel completely excluded from activist movements, but these movements strive for goals that only help white, cis and straight people. Activists may think they’re moving towards important social change, but they’re really only creating progress for a very small, very limited number of people.
If your activism isn’t intersectional, you aren’t actually doing good in the world. You’re just helping those who already hold privilege.
Why white environmentalism is also a problem
You may say that’s all well and good when it comes to feminism, but what has this got to do with trying to protect the planet? Well, more than you might think. Let’s break it down:
Firstly, the people who are most adversely affected by environmental problems are usually those that hold less privilege. Globally poorer nations, that don’t have the infrastructure in place to protect themselves against natural disasters, are often the worst hit by climate change’s disastrous effects, but it happens closer to home too. Look at Hurricane Katrina, look at Puerto Rico, look at Flint, Michigan. It’s impossible to look at these issues and ignore the fact that race, poverty and other elements have to be taken into account, especially when it comes to how issues are dealt with and how motivated people/companies are to change (FYI: it’s not very much if it isn’t hurting white people). Intersectionality is vital to environmental activism, because we have to be aware of how environmental issues affect people across the world and across the identity spectrum if we want real, solid change.
Intersectionality often focuses on fighting for the rights of people across the identity spectrum, people who have multiple intersecting forms of discrimination facing them. But we also have to remember that sometimes it’s these same multiple oppressions that prevent people from participating in activist movements, and we cannot shame them for that.
And this is where we get back to the Package Free Shop debacle. The thing is, I think PFS actually started off with no bad intentions, it was their response that was the problem. The (now deleted) Instagram post was attributed to Lauren Singer, and read as follows:
‘No matter who you are, where you come from, what your background is, how much money you have, every single person can make changes in their everyday life to have a positive impact’
So on some level there are elements to this statement that I agree with, because I think I can understand what they/Lauren were trying to get at. Hey, even in my own about page I used talk about wanting to equip and inspire people in any circumstance. But we all gotta check our privilege! (I’ve since changed the wording on my about page to a variety of circumstances instead). I think the real sentiment they were trying to promote is that a lot of people can make changes in their everyday life, that it doesn’t have to be extremely exclusive and unattainable, even if it just looks like small changes it’s still something. Now there are other issues people have found here, such as making this statement when apparently PFS’s products are very expensive, but today I’m just going to focus on the intersectionality bit. Yes, a lot of people can make changes, but we have to recognise that these people often hold some level of privilege that allows them to do so. As Hannah Thiesen argued so well, most of the responsibility of ethical living has to be the responsibility of the global 1%, because there are a whole variety of people who are just living pay check to pay check, struggling to get by day to day, often due to a combination of factors like race, gender and class. These things are linked, and not everyone is able to participate as fully as others.
At the same time, Alden from Ecocult also added another important element to the conversation, we have to think globally and politically. In her words:
‘Did you know that North America produces less than 1% of ocean plastic? Most of it comes from low-income countries in Asia and Latin America. Multinationals like @kraft_brand, @nestle, @generalmills, @cocacola, @dannon, @pepsi, @mondelez_international, @unileverusa are aggressively marketing disposable junk food and plastic products to the underprivileged in these countries, where there is no infrastructure or cultural know-how to properly handle the waste. Instagrams from we influencers in the US are useless to fight this wave of trash. Our individual actions will have NO effect unless we start thinking globally! Zero waste bloggers like @going.zero.waste are so important for getting people to think about waste (and Kathryn keeps accessibility at the core of her message – you should follow her!) but it’s just a start. We need to be political activists and question why these companies are allowed to dump this crap on developing countries, in a neocolonialist marketing strategy. Why is it the responsibility of us or the Guna or Indonesians or Indians to “do our part” when multinationals are profiting off this egregious behavior? Google “extended producer responsibility” and ask your representative if they support it. Saying “no straw please” is just the beginning’
The problem is that when people started pointing these things out to Package Free Shop, they point blank started deleting their comments and blocking them both from their Instagram page and Trash is for Tossers’ Instagram page.
This, my friends, is white environmentalism in action.
This type of activism not only ignores intersectionality, it sees it, dismisses it and in this case literally erases it. Instead of being open to correction and conversation, Package Free Shop/Trash is for Tossers shut down any types of conversation that they didn’t want to have. In behaving this way they run the risk not only of making the zero waste movement more exclusive (when their Instagram post was trying to argue the opposite) and only of benefit to the privileged, but they also ignore the very pressing need for collective action and policy change to fight against waste on a global level. If your environmentalism isn’t intersectional, it seriously damages the actual work you can do to help the environment.
So what do we do now?
Well, I’m not sure. In relation to this specific instance I know many people are now choosing to shop from smaller zero waste stores instead, but these are choices that are up to each individual. On a more general level I would suggest:
- Read up on intersectionality and examine the privileges in our own lives
- Surround ourselves with diverse voices so that we can understand and hear the experiences of others
- Be quick to listen, and approach people with compassion if they live differently to us
- Continue to make individual choices, but also look at how we can get involved in collective action and lobbying for better environmental policy
- Understand that the more privilege we hold in society, the more power we have to make it better
- Be open and willing to have conversations, even if they make you uncomfortable sometimes
Let’s work together to be more intersectional, and achieve change that truly benefits everyone.