Why is Social Engagement Lagging in the Sustainability Sector?

November 15, 2023

In the global dialogue about climate change, the importance of a unified, worldwide approach cannot be overstated. However, this ideal can often clash with the realities faced by individuals in developing nations. Many rightly question their involvement, especially when wealthier nations are perceived as the main culprits behind environmental degradation. Expecting these less developed countries to fully commit their limited time and resources without the leadership of developed nations might seem impractical and unfair.

Moreover, our focus on sustainability must also turn inward. Within our own developed nations, there are segments of society struggling to keep up, lacking the means to adopt sustainable lifestyles. The harsh reality is that even in prosperous countries, people might not prioritize sustainability until their basic needs are met. While the vision is to make sustainability accessible to all, it's crucial to acknowledge the disparities, understanding that certain aspects of sustainability are far more attainable for those with financial resources. Addressing these complexities is essential in our collective pursuit for a greener, more equitable world.

Forces Behind the Lag

Understanding the complexity of the issue can be difficult. Many people are not aware of the urgency of these problems or how they impact their lives. There's also an overload of information, making it hard to know where to start or whom to trust. Some lack access to information and opportunities to get involved due to education, resources, or advocacy platforms. For example, the UN estimates that about 2.9 billion people still lack access to essential information and communication services.

Further complicating the matter is the fact that sustainability and social impact have entirely different connotations depending on where you live. For example, sustainability in Europe, the Middle East and Africa is associated with a ‘fair price’ whilst in the Asia-Pacific areas it’s associated with ‘the environment’. Consequently, adapting sustainability strategies to align with the specific concerns of local populations can be a daunting task, especially when the collection of additional data is both financially and temporally burdensome. These challenges are exacerbated by the urgent need to address these issues quickly.

Then there is the fact that short-term needs, like economic pressures like rising inflation, job losses and the energy crisis or family concerns, often take precedence over sustainability. Perhaps the most pervasive detractor for sustainable action is that people feel that their individual efforts won't make a difference, this idea is fortified by the skepticism they encounter due to greenwashing. Political divisions and a lack of clear incentives can further discourage engagement. The overwhelming scale of these issues can lead to anxiety and disengagement resulting in lack of action.

It's easier to prioritize sustainability when you have the financial means. Why?

  • Upfront costs: Energy-efficient appliances, electric cars, solar panels can be more expensive than non-sustainable counterparts, making them less accessible to lower-income individuals. According to uswitch the average cost of an electric vehicle (EV) is 35% more than a new petrol or diesel equivalent - in monetary terms, an EV might cost £25,300 whilst a diesel car costs £17,000 and a petrol car costs £15,700. This means the upfront cost for a new EV is nearly £10,000 more - a cost not insignificant for most people.
  • Transportation challenges: arise from limited access to public transport and the financial constraints preventing the affordability of electric vehicles, depending on an individual's location and financial situation. A report by the APPG highlights that in 'left behind' neighborhoods, 67% of people commute to work by car or van, while only 16% use public transport. This underscores the impact of insufficient public transport connectivity on our ability to opt for sustainable travel choices.
  • Food options: Opting for sustainably sourced food often comes at a higher cost compared to conventional options. A study by Kearny found that green products can be 75-85% more expensive. For example, organic tomatoes are priced at EUR 6.85/kg, whereas non-organic ones cost EUR 5.43/kg. This means a 150g organic tomato is 79% pricier than its standard counterpart. Now, consider what it would be like if you were to exclusively purchase organic products and how that would stack up.
  • Education Gap: Wealthier individuals often have better access to education and information that promotes sustainability. One paper by the journal SSRN analyzing data on education and employment between 2000 to 2020 examined how sustainable development within the country was impacted by unequal opportunities. The research revealed a strong interconnection between education and the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals..
  • Policy Differences: Disparities in policy enforcement contribute to environmental hazards for low-income families. Regulations are often less strictly enforced in lower-income areas, exposing residents to increased risks like proximity to pollution sources such as factories or heavy traffic. Regions within the bottom 10% of the income distribution are disproportionately affected, facing higher pollution levels. Additionally, lenient zoning regulations in low-income neighborhoods may lead to the presence of landfills, exposing residents to hazardous waste materials. This prompts the question: Why should they prioritize sustainability when their health is compromised due to policy shortcomings?

With the above points in mind, it is clear that addressing sustainability in well-developed nations must take a multi-faceted approach. I propose that we start by:

  1. Addressing people's immediate concerns which usually center around affordability of sustainable life-style choices. Governments can provide financial incentives, tax breaks, or subsidies to make sustainable choices more affordable. This could include subsidies for electric vehicles, solar panels, or energy-efficient appliances. Financial institutions can offer low-interest loans for sustainable home improvements, such as installing solar panels or energy-efficient insulation.
  2. These governmental subsidies should extend to farmers adopting sustainable and organic farming practices, to help reduce the cost gap between conventional and sustainable food. We should leverage local marketing to encourage people to shop locally e.g., from local farmers or community gardens. Supporting local, sustainable food sources, not only reduces the environmental impact e.g., by decreasing carbon emissions but also makes food more accessible, affordable and provides local jobs.
  3. For those in the population who cannot afford an electric vehicle or for whom it’s not a viable transport option should have access to adequate public transportation. Therefore, funds should be invested in expanding the public transportation infrastructure to increase its accessibility for a larger portion of the population. Car-sharing initiatives can also reduce the need for personal vehicle ownership and make sustainable transportation more accessible.
  4. In terms of improving environmental quality and minimizing hazards, unbiased regulations should be implemented. Affected communities must be involved in policymaking for tailored solutions to foster a sense of collaboration and of ownership. Furthermore, we should ensure diverse socio-economic voices contribute to sustainability decisions, addressing unique community challenges.
  5. Collectively we should encourage investment into the research and development of affordable sustainable technologies e.g., renewable energy, energy storage and eco-friendly manufacturing processes. This will increase our collective access to sustainable choices.
  6. Sustainability should be incorporated into educational programs at all stages of life. These programs should be accessible to all socio-economic groups, promoting understanding and behavior change. Today, the best way to reach people across society is online so efforts should be concentrated on making information accessible digitally.
  7. Finally, emphasizing the health benefits of sustainable practices, particularly in areas with environmental risks, is crucial. Key advantages encompass improved air and water quality, healthier lifestyles, and enhanced community well-being. Sustainable lifestyle choices like walking or cycling, encourages connection to nature, promoting both individual fulfillment and communal well-being. Urging consumption sourced locally on a broader scale significantly reduces environmental costs linked to food transportation and refrigeration. Methods like communal gardens improve food security, create local jobs and engenders communal well-being through connection to each other and to nature. Recognizing these interconnections motivates widespread adoption of sustainable habits.

In essence, a comprehensive and inclusive approach that considers the economic, educational, and policy aspects of sustainability is crucial. To promote sustainability in well-developed nations, focus on affordability through government incentives, support for local and sustainable food sources and implementation of sustainability into education curriculum. By addressing the barriers that hinder widespread adoption of sustainable practices, well-developed countries can create the necessary traction to move the needle on climate change.


Author: Emily Tse, MbChb, MSc

Photo credit: Generated by Midjourney AI







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