(This is not a post about living with 100 items or re-using kitchen waste)
I have recently come across a really interesting exchange of opinions between a few Instagram influencers in my home country. One of them, who is not particularly close to zero waste ideas, raised several important points concerning potential exclusivism of zero waste sympathizers. Another one, perceived rather as a zero waste icon, responded to those concerns and defended the philosophy of the movement. Few other observers commented via Insta Stories on the debate, taking sides of one or the other. The whole discussion was also partially tackling the issue of minimalism, which I think was justified. It happens quite often that those who live according to zero waste rules, live minimalistic as well.
Neither am I a zero waste freak or a complete minimalist, nor would I like to condemn any of these movements / philosophies, but I would like to touch upon this topic here especially because of this exclusivist potential, raised in the debate. It opened my eyes for a completely new problem somewhere where till recently I haven’t seen much problem at all.
I will list here several points which were heavily discussed in this online exchange.
Social exclusion is not only money-related
This concern has two sides. On the one hand it may relate to the fact that “bio” or “eco” products preferred by zero waste sympathizers are (sometimes) more expensive than the standard ones. This directly links with the fact that simply those who earn more money may potentially get more of those products, which are preferred according to the rules of the zero waste philosophy.
On the other hand – which is not so obvious – nowadays among the desired goods we should not only place money but also time. It is maybe hard to think about time in a similar way as we think of a car or an iPhone as a desired good. Nevertheless we could all agree that having more time becomes a luxury. Those who can quit work, become a freelancer and manage their time as freely as they can, are definitely perceived as well-off.
How does it relate to zero waste?
In order for us to get these “preferred” products (without plastic, home-made or produced by local producers, wrapped in natural products or simply not wrapped at all) we would rather not go to a random supermarket on our way home. We could find some of these things that we are looking for (e.g. an apple or a carrot without plastic bag) but not all of them (e.g. a plastic free organic shampoo cube, additionally vegan and sulphate free, cruelty free and free from palm oil). In order to get some of those products we need to do a decent online search. Alternatively, in case of many “bio” and “eco” products we need to go to the street market and find a particular stall, selling these particular apples/carrots without pesticides, picked in the home garden. This requires time. You do not have time, you may not be so perfectly zero waste as you “should be”.
Being zero waste / minimalist as an indicator of your social status
Summing up the above part, zero waste might be perceived as an activity designed for a slightly better-off people, who have money, time or both. If you do want to buy products that are according to zero waste rules even without spending too much money, you still need to do some research and literally go to get those products from the fair trade and eco-friendly producers (or buy them online, which requires searching for them, paying for them and waiting for them – again: time and money).
If you neither have time nor money and still want to be in the zero waste club, you do need to make some extra effort. Observed from this perspective, the zero waste movement / philosophy starts to become a way to exclude significant groups of people from belonging to this movement / philosophy.
I hope you see a warning light here.
Living according to zero waste rules usually goes hand in hand with reducing stuff that you do not need and that is not “preferred” according to the rules of this philosophy. The same applies for fair trade and minimalism fans, which for this particular theoretical exercise are all lumped together.
If you are able to get rid of all your clothes and accessories that contain elements of natural leather because you think that you should not participate in the suffering of animals or because killing animals is not eco-friendly, this means that you had those clothes and accessories in the first place.
If you can get rid of your TV because having such a gadget seems to be against the rules of minimalism, that you are trying to apply in your life, this means you had a TV in the first place.
If you had fancy plastic bags or plastic baskets for shopping and now you would like to get rid of them because they are against zero waste rules, this means you had those bags and those baskets in the first place.
What does that mean? That means that you can get rid of things for the sake of philosophy XYZ only when you possessed them in the first place. If you have more goods or gadgets you can throw them away more easily than another person who has very little. If you have lots of goods and you throw some of them away, you will probably not be hurt by lack of those things. But if you have very little, getting rid of one piece or another may significantly impact the quality of your life.
Same applies for preventing yourself from buying stuff that is not in line with philosophy XYZ. If you have money for a “good A” but you do not buy this “good A” for the sake of minimalism or zero waste, you are still better off than another person who is poor and cannot even dream of this “good A”.
That is another way in which zero waste, minimalism & Co. may potentially have an exclusivist dimension.
“I still do not think that I am exclusive just because I am a zero waste / minimalist fan”
You may very well argue that you are not hurting anyone just because you apply minimalist, fair trade or zero waste philosophy in your life. And this might be true for you. The problem is that the influencers promoting these kinds of movements / philosophies become 1) very popular 2) very arrogant with time.
The fact that they become very popular means that they appear very often online. If you are a poor person or a person living really modestly and you constantly come across those internet stars you may simply feel bad that you are not as good for the world as they are.
The fact that they become arrogant means that (in some cases – not all!) they start to make (not funny) jokes about those who are not following the rules of the philosophy they are preaching. When I see an Instagram influencer posting really weird jokes about the differences of followers of their beloved philosophy and those who are not following this philosophy then I really start to worry. They are doing maybe no harm to the first group, but they are definitely unpleasant to the second group.
Additionally I am really worried about the teenagers observing this kind of online stars. If I see an influencer getting read of his / her WHOLE wardrobe because he / she would like to replace his / her clothes with something “more fair trade” or “more minimalistic”, then I immediately think about those young boys and girls watching this. What if they do the same just to be the same as this influencer? Maybe clothes in their wardrobes were bought by parents who are struggling to make ends meet and now these parents are put in a situation when their children have nothing to wear and they need to buy new clothes?
Same happens when I see an influencer announcing proudly that they haven’t eaten during the whole go-out or a party with friends because there was nothing vegan / no-meat / eco, etc. that they coul eat. Here again I immediately think of the young audience. What if they do the same just to be the same as this influencer and they will be so extreme in refusing to eat products that are against the rules of philosophy XYZ? Eating at their age is supper important!
But what annoys me most is…
I hope you see now that I am not only talking about zero waste but rather as this philosophy being an example of a trend with an exclusivist potential. But… I started from zero waste and I will end with zero waste.
One of the rules that followers of this trend are repeating really often is that it is not about a few people living 100% according to zero waste rules but rather about thousands and millions doing anything for the world and the nature. In many cases (not all!) it is hypocritical in two ways. First, they do present themselves as doing everything 100% according to the rules. Second, because of their own perfection combined with making fun of those who are “worse” in this matter, they do not attracting any new people to this philosophy and – as a result – they are doing not so much good for the world.
What is the conclusion?
I do not want this article to sound as if I am against any of the above-named movements. I do believe that some of them have a great potential and are definitely making a difference for the world and for the humanity. Nevertheless, same as with any other philosophy or ideology, they also have a potential to go to extreme.
They might go to extreme when they deprive new followers from joining them just because of setting high conditions for membership.
Secondly, they might go to extreme when they present themselves in a perfect light and diminish the value of others, just because of the fact that these others may not like the idea or may not follow this idea in “a proper way”.
Finally, they might go to extreme by misrepresenting their own rules or putting them wrongly in practice.
Just be mindful of this when following any of the new and trendy philosophies!