Edel Coffey: Sustainability is not just about the environment — it’s about respect

Some days it seems like every waking decision I make has the flavour of eco-guilt marbled through it
Edel Coffey: Sustainability is not just about the environment — it’s about respect

Edel Coffey: For too many people, the word sustainability is still a turn-off

For decades, I’ve battled with climate guilt. What, you haven’t heard of climate guilt? It’s right up there with mother guilt for feelings such as ‘I’m not doing enough’ and ‘everybody else is doing this better than me’.

But last week I made a breakthrough in my battle with eco-guilt. It came courtesy of Livia Firth, founder and creative director of EcoAge (and also Mrs Colin Firth). ‘For me the closest word to sustainability is ‘respect’,’ she said. ‘Once you have respect for the people that make your clothes, you are already at an incredible advantage in terms of sustainable fashion."

For too long, trying to live sustainability has felt like a spiral of self-recrimination, a way of beating myself up for not doing enough, for furtively ordering steak instead of the vegan option on a night out in a restaurant, for buying a pair of €11 runners, provenance-unknown, instead of a pair made out of recycled materials for €150, for using disposable nappies for the children instead of knitting my own, for driving a diesel car because we were told diesel was better for the environment and then we were told actually, no, it’s catastrophic, way worse than the petrol engine you traded in. I mean, I haven’t even made the switch to a moon cup yet, never mind an electric vehicle. 

The eco-guilt is never-ending. Every decision weighs heavy, from the small – should I buy these green beans from Kenya or can I still buy a takeaway latte even though I’ve left my keep-cup in the dishwasher – to the large – will the extra cost of buying a hybrid car really be worth it in terms of the difference it will make to the world’s chances of survival when you factor in the labour and pollution involved in mining the lithium required for the battery and the disposal of my previous car? Some days it seems like every waking decision I make has the flavour of eco-guilt marbled through it like salted caramel… except it doesn’t taste as good.

Irish Examiner sustainability logo 2022
Irish Examiner sustainability logo 2022

For too many people, the word sustainability is still a turn-off, still a cue to shut down, change the channel, tune out as it’s all just too difficult and painful to hear. And indeed it is difficult. The idea that we may already be in an irreversible situation is frightening and I can see why sticking our fingers in our ears can seem like a preferable option to engaging with the very real terror of species-ending climate change. But ignorance and despair are useless and paralysing. They don’t help anything and they certainly don’t protect us from the realities of climate change. Disconnecting from the problem is the worst thing we can do. Finding ways to connect, to live as sustainably as we can, even if it might feel so small as to be futile, is actually essential. Even though the crisis can feel unsolvable. Even though some say it is already too late.

Livia Firth’s suggestion that we might get closer to living sustainable lives by having respect for the people we engage with in every area of our consumption feels revolutionary because it is within the power of each and every one of us to make the most respectful choices we can, wherever we are on the scale of privilege. Sustainability is not just about the environment, after all. It’s about people too.

Firth’s connecting respect with sustainability is an excellent recalibration if you’re struggling with how much work is involved in living a sustainable life. If you’re feeling resentful or lazy about washing your recyclable plastic packaging for the green bin, think about the person who will have to sort it on some step along the process. Instantly all resentment will be gone, because there is no justifying forcing someone to sort through your dirty food packaging. And that’s about respect. 

If we can connect sustainability to respect for each other, it becomes a little less like a chore and a little more like basic courtesy for each other.

It’s natural to feel powerless and despairing about the climate crisis, particularly when public intellectuals like Noam Chomsky, now 93, tell us some stark truths about the state of our planet. In a recent interview with the New Statesman he said we are likely "moving to a future in which the lucky ones will be the ones who die more quickly" and “we are now facing the prospect of destruction of organised human life on Earth.” 

In the face of stark statements like this, it might be easy to think it's pointless to wash your recyclable packaging but it’s important to remember that we do have the power to make small changes in our individual lives even in the face of irreversible damage. Those of us who are privileged enough to have choices about how and what we consume have the power to choose the sustainable option. And maybe if we spend a little more time focusing on respect, it might not just be the planet that benefits. Our burden of eco-guilt might lighten too.

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