Sustainability Guilt

Posted by on Oct 7, 2011 in Sustainable Living

I often find myself suffering from a guilty conscience when making day to day decisions about the purchase of food and other products. The (relatively modest) amount of knowledge I’ve gained over the last few years on my quest to understand what’s happening to our world has resulted in the realisation that there are many things I could still be doing a lot better.

The other day, I stood in the body aisle of the supermarket and stared at the range of shampoos and conditioners available. I’ve recently started buying an organic shampoo and conditioner, but they make my hair terrible, and I don’t want to pay the extreme (but most likely worth it) prices of good quality organic hair products. I ended up making a compromise and buying an organic shampoo, and a regular conditioner. The amount of time it took me to make this decision made me realise what a dilemma I’m in. Every consumer choice I have had to make lately results in either a purchase of something ‘green’ and the confident knowledge that I’ve done the right thing, or a purchase of something ‘regular’ and a horrible guilt that ensues. I relate the feeling to one you get when you’re trying to lose weight. Because you are strictly not allowed to have any junk food, you find yourself bingeing on a bag of Maltesers, desperate to taste the badness in all its glory one last time. You can start your diet again tomorrow, after all.

I became horribly anxious on my way through the supermarket checkout a few weeks back, because I ran into a friend who is very ‘eco-conscious’ and buys most of her groceries from a local organic grocer. I had a moment of anxiety over the idea that she would see some of my not-so-eco purchases on the conveyor-belt and make a negative judgement of me.

Then I realised, I wouldn’t judge somebody else for this. I would probably make note of the unethical choices, but understand that everybody has a different level of knowledge on the ethical consumer choices available to them, and to what extent they should consider them. Given my recent enlightenment on the subject, I sometimes feel as though ignorance is bliss, because now my shopping trips take twice as long and involve a new form of anxiety. But it doesn’t make it any less important for all of us to work towards gaining this knowledge and changing our behaviour to suit, even if it is one bottle of conditioner at a time. The fact that the guilt is there means I am aware, and awareness is the first step to change.

So where do you start with purchasing ‘green’ and how short of green-crazy do you stop?

You may feel silly as you transition into a more sustainable lifestyle. Like me, you may feel like the information available to you is overwhelming, and the issue itself is complex and difficult to understand. You may be bothered by all the greenwashing that’s going on. You may feel like all your efforts are pointless because you see other people around you continue to consume and waste with no conscience about it. None of these things should stop you from making choices that you now know are right.

I think it’s important to give yourself a pat on the back for eco-choices you do make, even if it’s not much. Because as I’ve mentioned, there are many areas where an eco-choice must be considered. Then, simply work towards doing more. As you make more and more ethical decisions, they will become comfortably familiar, and the idea of purchasing the regular version of the same product will suddenly seem strange. Eco products are becoming more mainstream as manufacturing companies are realising the benefits of producing their products in a sustainable manner.

It’s important to know what really is an ethical choice. Search the labels on organic foods for the ‘Australian Certified Organic’ logo, because many food manufacturers wrongly use the word ‘organic’ on their labelling. For paper products, check for the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) logo. This means the paper has produced from pulp mills that adhere to FSC standards and policies.

You will no doubt go through a phase of sustainability guilt, as I am, but don’t let it stop you. You will also sometimes ‘binge’ by buying a product you know has been manufactured in an energy-intensive way, or by exploiting workers in China (I happen to be typing this up on an Apple product). But sometimes you need to take one step back to take two steps forward. Try to educate yourself on what you could be doing better in one area of your life at a time, and once you’re happy with that, move on to the next.

Areas you might like to start with:

  • How you travel to work – How often do you use a car vs public transport?
  • What sort of work you do – Is it socially responsible? Does it exploit anyone? Do you contribute to the production of wasteful products? Do you believe in what you do, or do you only do it for personal gain?
  • The activities you do outside of work
  • Your home environment – do you purchase eco-products? How often? Would you go as far as looking at buying organically produced fashion and homewares? What sort of appliances do you use and how much energy do they use?
  • The food you eat – Do you look at ethical choices? Have you considered the impacts of agriculture on global warming and made food choices accordingly?

Of course, each of these areas deserve a lot more explanation, and I’m presenting this information in a very general way. But I could seriously go on forever.

One of the first things we were asked to do when I started studying Sustainability at Swinburne was to calculate our ecological footprint. I would recommend that as a good way to get started on your sustainability journey, as it can be shocking to realise how much of an impact you are making, just by existing as we do on this planet with our current Western ideals.

Polly Campbell has described the feeling of sustainability guilt well in her article on and also believes that you must make a slow transition in order to avoid becoming overwhelmed.

What are your thoughts on sustainability guilt? Have you ever felt this when faced with a consumer decision?

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