Why “Sustainability” Was Never In My Vocabulary Growing Up

December 17, 2020 By Jessica Garcia

Personal essay by Jessica Garcia.

Growing up there was no such thing as “sustainability” in my vocabulary. Everything in my house revolved around budgeting. So if we were helping out the environment by reusing grocery bags, recycling, and passing down our clothes to our younger cousins, it was because it saved us money, not because we were trying to save the earth. Similarly, if we were living an unsustainable lifestyle, it wasn’t because we intended to. It was because there was a lack of time or money or both. When my mom does all of her Christmas shopping at big chain stores, it doesn’t come with the awareness that fast fashion is responsible for a lot of synthetic clothing which is derived from fossil fuels. The only thing she sees is the big and bold letters that say “60% OFF!”

As far as I remember, we could never afford to live the sustainable “bougie” lifestyles I remember seeing back when I would join my mom to clean houses in the stunning Malibu hills. Having solar panels installed, shopping at the local farmer’s market, and having access to a mental health therapist always seemed like a luxury only rich folks could afford. Perhaps that’s why I never learned about sustainability until recently. 

Now, the question is, how do we make sustainable lifestyles accessible to all communities despite wealth, location, and level of education? First, it comes down to recognizing the privilege.

One example is food privilege. 

Credit: @servingsofnutrition | Instagram

In addition to one’s level of income, there are several other factors such as time, transportation, and accessibility that play a role in one’s overall nutrition. Sadly, the current pandemic of COVID-19 has led to a parallel increase in both job insecurity and food insecurity amongst several communities. This is why, now more than ever, it’s important to check our own privilege and figure out small ways to help communities in need. For example, back in September, two friends used their Instagram accounts to help out the homeless in Los Angeles. For the full story, click here.

Also in relation to food is what’s called mainstream veganism.

Credit: @sisoyvegan | Instagram
Credit: @sisoyvegan | Instagram

Growing up I never knew what vegan was until later in high school. The more I learned about it through the internet or through word of mouth, the more I saw it as a “white thing”. In front of every animal cruelty ad or video was a white person, so that’s all I knew. Also in front of every animal cruelty ad or video was a reprimanding message. With those two things combined, I never saw myself ever being vegan. 

So the question here is, how do we get non-white communities to feel welcomed rather than judged by the vegan community. Here are some tips from plant-based Guatemalteca Debbie Morales: 

Credit: @sisoyvegan | Instagram

At the end of the day, it’s all about inclusion, representation, and self-reflection. So instead of an eye-roll and the common “Why do you have to make everything about race?”, I think it’s worth reflecting on the image of veganism that has been portrayed for several years. 

The more I see people of color sharing their vegan journeys in a non-judgmental way, the more welcomed and encouraged I feel to reduce the number of animal products I intake. Take for example the talented Ms. Lizzo, who has been very open about her vegan journey this year. To see what she’s been sharing, go here.

Aside from veganism, sustainability, in general, has also felt quite unwelcoming and it might have to do with the perfectionism of it all.

Credit: @climateincolour | Instagram

What I mean by perfectionism is that often it feels like sustainability is placed on this un-reachable pedestal. And if you’re not living that perfect sustainable lifestyle, then you’re doing it wrong and don’t belong. 

Here’s a breakdown of what environmental perfectionism looks like: 

Credit: @climatecolour | Instagram

No one likes being in a room with that one person who thinks they are right about everything and are always finding ways to correct you. It’s exhausting and annoying, to be honest. 

This is what it feels like for folks who are trying to live a more sustainable life but are then criticized for lacking in other areas of what a “true” sustainable lifestyle is supposed to look like. Consequently, this makes people feel unappreciated for the work they do put in. 

So, what’s the solution? Instead of focusing on everything people are doing wrong, let’s acknowledge what they’re doing right. Not everyone has the privilege to live the perfect sustainable lifestyle, but everyone does have the right to try their best. 

So if the only thing my mom can afford right now is re-usable grocery bags and re-purposed butter containers to store food, I’d say that’s good enough for me. Hope it’s good enough for you too.