Poverty and ethical living

Green living can create some tensions between the choices that are available to you.

Live lightly, own little, do everything the slow way and by hand, walk, handwash, grow your own veg, upcycle things, don’t own a car. Unless you’re very lucky, it’s hard to put this kind of light living together with a well paid job. Most of the people who do it manage by being self employed, and are low paid. It’s hard to sustain conventional employment without a car, in fact if you look at many job applications, you’ll be asked if you have one.

Buy organic, fair traded, buy local (often nigh on impossible for rural people without a car, most villages do not have farmer’s markets I have to say). Buy high quality food products that don’t have palm oil in them. Buy eco friendly washing powders, cosmetics, home cleaners and so forth. They cost far more than the regular versions. Veg from the farmer’s market is much more expensive than veg from the cheaper and nastier supermarkets. Milk is the same.

Of the available diets, vegetarianism is without a doubt the most affordable for someone on a low income. Good quality, responsibly sourced meat is really expensive. Good quality vegan proteins are also more costly, as are the products that don’t have dairy products as fillers. It’s surprising how many cheap things turn out to have whey powder and the like in them, once you start looking.

So, here’s a conundrum. I don’t have a fridge, because I think that’s a greener choice. I don’t buy cows’ milk unless I have guests (I am vegetarian). I would like to keep my use of dairy minimal anyway. So, I can have low cost UHT cow milk at less than a pound a litre, it will keep until I open it and be good for a day or so in the cool box once opened. I can do the same with low cost soya milk, but in both cases, I’ve got no chance in warm weather of keeping the milk for more than a day once open, and I don’t reliably use that much so there’s a high risk of unacceptable food waste.

For a couple of pounds, I could buy a tin of dried milk powder (cow) and make it up with water at need. For about five times the price I could buy a smaller amount of dried soy or coconut milk.

So we have a situation where the person with the high powered job, driving a car, and actively participating in the capitalism mainstream probably can afford seitan, dried coconut milk, ethical cosmetics, green cleaners, and all the other things that go into having an apparently responsible, vegan shopping basket. The person who lives lightly and close to the earth and who is trying hard not to participate too much in consumerist culture, probably doesn’t earn enough to shop this way.

Is one choice better than the other? Are ethical consumer choices sometimes just window dressing for otherwise largely unsustainable lifestyle choices? Is the farmer’s market really that good an idea if you have to drive twenty miles to get to it? I don’t have any answers, just the sense that if we want something sustainable, it has to be possible to both live lightly and source ethically, and if we’ve got to choose between the two, we’re collectively getting it wrong.

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About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

8 responses to “Poverty and ethical living

  • angharadlois

    It’s such a tricky balancing act, I struggle with it in my own way. Holding down a slightly-corporate job which involves a commute makes it difficult to keep my food consumption as ethical as I would like; especially since walking everywhere I can’t go by train leaves me with limited options and a small window of opportunity for shopping. But, increasingly, I find that making the effort – buying ethical, secondhand work clothes; walking everywhere I can’t get to by train – feels like a minor act of defiance against a system that only cares about exploiting resources. It’s a way of keeping hold of a sense of self. And even though I frequently beat myself up for the smallness of the effort, and how little difference it probably makes, at least it is something.

    There are some lovely local Incredible Edible and Foodlink initiatives locally that I would love to get more involved with if I can find the time. But, if I can find that time, it is probably better to use it for sensible cooking and saving of leftovers first!

    My (very) long-term dream is to live in an old stone cottage with a pantry, and grow things in the garden, and keep things cold on a big slab of slate, the traditional Welsh way 🙂

  • ecoturtle

    First of all, I really like your blog, but today I only partly agree with what you write (like no farmers’ markets in the country and the resulting driving miles, etc.), but I disagree that a sustainable lifestyle is only really feasible for well-paid people and that sustainable cleaning solutions were more expensive than ordinary ones – in fact, cleaning and washing sustainably is often even *cheaper* than using commercial products. I myself am self-employed and earn *very* little by western standards, I am a vegan and don’t own a car nor a driving licence, but I largely manage to live sustainably, e.g. by shopping online where one often finds ecological products for really good prices and so does not need any car to go shopping. However, I only manage to live like this because I do *not* buy any of those shiny, and in my opinion over-priced, eco-cleaners, but use homemade cleaners instead: I simply clean with water and vinegar, and sometimes baking soda and lemon juice for ‘harder’ cleaning jobs – all of these are very cheap eco-friendly ways to clean. For doing the laundry, you can use ‘soap nuts’: 1 kg costs as little as £ 10 and one bag will last for more than an entire year (!!) if you wash 2-3 times a week because you can use the same nuts 2 or 3 times when you wash at low temperatures. When you are done with them, you can boil them and use the resulting soapy water for doing the dishes, or use as a pesticide or fertilizer on your plants. So you get really good value for the money they cost and it is much cheaper than commercial washing powders and you can compost them afterwards. Also other things like palm-oil free margarine can be made very easily at home (it takes no longer than 5 minutes! A recipe can be found on my blog) and the same goes for cosmetics, which are not that difficult to make at home from natural and simple ingredients (and it doesn’t take long either). As for vegan proteins, if one eats legumes like (dry) chickpeas, beans, lentils and peas instead of those expensive soy-based products, which are not even very healthy by the way, also this can be a cheap way to live a sustainable vegan lifestyle. So living sustainably does not really require a lot of money, one simply has to think a bit out of the box and not fall for those shiny over-priced ‘alternative’ products. 🙂

  • Bren

    So much is true in this, and so well expressed. It’s something I’ve thought myself, especially trying to source my food shopping away from supermarkets. I couldn’t really do that without a car.

  • Sheila North

    It’s always a balance and question of choice. I’m pescetarian, though I eat relatively little fish and sea food. Love my dairy, especially cheese! Many of our possessions are second hand, including the laptop I’m typing on.

    We have a car, but it mainly sits outside the house whilst we walk almost everywhere. We now have a 2nd hand freezer, after living without one for around 18 mths, so I know we can do it again. I have a washer, but mainly use the short cycle & very little powder: it does the job, is cheaper and more eco friendly.

    Unusually, we have no central heating: never have done. Most of the time, I don’t miss it.

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