Calling people out for not doing enough to reduce their environmental impact isn’t the way to make change

Tabitha Whiting
May 25 · 5 min read
Photo by Mert Guller on Unsplash

The shaming of public figures is now the norm. Initially it was tabloid newspapers like The Sun and The Daily Mail, making ‘news’ stories out of body-shaming celebrities. Now the huge growth of social media and the rise of so-called influencers has brought with it the rise of online trolls and negative comments. It’s pretty much expected that a post from a public figure will initiate judgmental comments.

Nowadays, I mostly follow sustainable brands and environmentally-focused influencers on social media. I want my Instagram feed to be positive, inspiring, interesting and reflective of reality. I avoid ‘perfect’ zero waste accounts with reels of photos of an idealised kitchen cupboard stacked high with newly purchased Kilner jars. I want to see photos that reflect the reality of sustainability: second-hand, reused, and repurposed jars.

Recently I’ve started to see those negative, shaming comments seep into my Instagram feed, criticising the accounts that I follow for their every move. And not in terms of their appearance as is usual, but based on their personal efforts in environmental sustainability.

One such account is Madeleine Olivia, a YouTuber and Instagrammer who shares vegan recipes and tips on being low waste and minimalist. She does talk about her frustrations with plastic pollution, but never claims to be zero waste herself, and talks openly about how difficult it can be to shop plastic-free. Recently she posted this on her Instagram story:

It’s a screenshot from a YouTube video she had recently posted, with a comment claiming she couldn’t be a ‘real vegan’ because of the plastic packaging on items she had bought in the video.

Then I saw another post from Zanna van Dijk. Like Madeleine Olivia she’s a YouTuber and Instagrammer who talks openly about environmental issues, eats mostly plant-based, and has started a business producing sustainable swimwear from recycled ocean plastic, called Stay Wild Swim. Alongside these, efforts, though, she does regularly travel, meaning that she makes several flights each year. Obviously this is not ideal in terms of sustainability.

The post starts with ‘let’s address the elephant in the room’, and describes the hate she had been receiving from followers in her comments and direct messages because of her travelling.

“The hate which I have received over the past week about this has honestly broken me. It has been the most extreme I’ve ever had. It made me anxious to go on social media and not want to talk about sustainability at all, for fear of another onslaught. Please, remember that I am just a human with good intentions. Aggression won’t lead to change, kindness will.”

She goes on to justify herself, explaining that she makes every effort to combat this, carbon offsetting every flight she takes, working with eco-resorts where possible, and taking part in environmental programs (beach cleans, coral replanting etc) in the locations she visits. The fact that she feels the need to justify and explain herself at all is saddening.

A third instance was during the Extinction Rebellion protests in London during April. Actress Emma Thompson attended the protest, but was quickly branded a ‘hypocrite’ by several news outlets after she flew from Los Angeles to London to take part. A selection of headlines I saw about this (you can probably guess the publications) include:

  • Emma Thompson: First-Class Hypocrite
  • Actress Emma Thompson spotted on carbon-spewing BA plane jetting to New York
  • Emma Thompson takes gas-guzzling flight after joining Extinction Rebellion in London
  • Emma Thompson takes gas-guzzling flight after joining Extinction Rebellion in London
  • Emma Thompson racking up air miles while preaching about the environment

We need to stop sustainability shaming.

It’s easy to write a judgmental article or comment online. We can be anonymous. We don’t see how that person reacts, or how the comment affects them. It’s unkind. And it’s also incredibly unproductive.

We should be applauding people for their efforts, not shouting them down and shaming them for not doing enough. They’re doing something, and that’s a start. Yes, in an ideal world we’d all be perfect, sustainable, carbon neutral beings. But that isn’t realistic, and it isn’t going to happen overnight.

At the moment, being an environmentalist undeniably relies on a level of privilege. Opting for vegan alternatives is more expensive and less accessible than buying cheap meat and dairy products. Shopping in a zero waste shop instead of a supermarket is more expensive, and they simply don’t exist in most towns and cities. Travelling by trains instead of flying is more expensive (even though that literally makes no sense). These things are also costly in terms of time, and having time to spare is a privilege too.

It is possible to be sustainable on a budget, but we do need to realise that not everyone is in the position to make that choice. Aside from money, people may also be affected by illnesses or eating disorders which effect the food choices they make. They might have family pressures or cultural traditions which mean they have to shop or travel a certain way. We’re all at different stages when it comes to being sustainable.

When we put pressure on people to do more and to be more sustainable, we only cause them to feel anger, guilt, or stress. It’s only going to make being eco-friendly harder for them, and give the impression that this community is a negative space to be in. It will push them away from making changes.

I get that trying to be sustainable can be frustrating. We have the science, but still governments subsidise the fossil fuel industry. And that’s where your frustration should be: with the policy-makers, big business executives, and oil millionaires who value economic growth over the sustainability of life. Not with the individuals who are trying to drive change, in whatever way they can. If someone has a platform and is using it to talk about climate change, that’s a good thing. It isn’t a reason to chastise them.

Instead, we should try to be as inclusive and inviting as possible in the community. We should show others a positive vision of what living sustainably can look like. That’s what will bring more people into the community. That’s what will make others more likely to make behavioural changes in their own lives too.

We really need to stop sustainability shaming.

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Tabitha Whiting

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Ramblings on communication and our climate crisis🌱

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +514K people. Follow to join our community.

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