Environment, Social Responsibility, Sustainability

Sustainability and Social Responsibility: Complimentary or Counterproductive Forces?

I‘ve recently made a few lifestyle changes, possibly driven by the midlife crisis, which made me reflect on these two aspects close to my heart. On one side lies sustainability — about our community, the environment, the planet, and our role in safeguarding them for our children and generations to come. On the other side lies the social responsibility, which is understanding our position in the society, acknowledging the privileges that come associated with it, and thinking about how we can use them to improve our community, eliminate the inequalities and be a better human beings amid the sea of hatred, suspicion, greed. During my Masters, we have learned a lot about these concepts (although the social responsibility was focussed on corporate aspects; what I’m about to discuss is on a personal level), and eventually, one leads to achieving the goals for the other. For example, suppose we don’t use fossil fuels. In that case, it helps the environment, which improves the air quality and people don’t suffer from air pollution-related diseases, which leads to longer life, reduced medicine bills, reduction in loss of income, reduced pressure on the health services so on. How the two aspects improve the living conditions for humans and the environment is well understood. My dilemma is about looking at this from another perspective where sustainability and social responsibility are counterproductive. Even if they are not in the true sense, the amount of effort one needs to assess the overall impacts of their decision is phenomenal. And in the end, if you have to choose one over the other, which one would we choose?

I have recently participated in a charity fundraiser called the Ration Challenge, where one has to live off the ration received by a Syrian refugee in the refugee camps. It was an eye-opener for me to realise how it feels when you don’t get enough food or variety and yet have to function and do this week after week, month after month, without an end in sight. This made me aware of the living conditions of the refugees and the privileged that we receive whilst living in Western Europe. The weeklong challenge also highlighted how wasteful we were before taking the challenge and how most things we think are necessary are not really necessities that we can’t live without but are merely luxury goods. It costs £3.50 to provide a food ration box to a refugee is also humbling when we think of the money we frequently waste on luxuries. RationChallenge was a disconcerting experience, after which I’ll never be able to see life from the same perspective. At the end of the weeklong challenge, I made a few pledges to myself, and soon as I started to fulfil them, I encountered the conflicts between the two sides.

One of the pledges I made was to save money as I go along in my daily life and donate the money to various charities. The easiest way to achieve this is to buy the cheapest items I can find in shops. It is undoubtedly the easiest, but the more complicated it gets when you think more about it. If you want to be a responsible buyer and buy sustainable products, they are also the most expensive items in the market. I’m not comparing the exclusive designer brands, but comparing everyday products from an organic source and standard supermarket stuff costs twice as much. So being responsible helps the planet and the environment, but as a result, I won’t be able to fund, say, a weekly ration for five refugees. Where do we draw the balance? I have also started using sustainably sourced body care products made from natural ingredients. With these, the situation is even worse. So a bar of organic, sustainable soap can cost 5-10 times the price of a standard supermarket soap, and the supermarket soap will last probably three times longer. Again, good for the environment and sustainable businesses, but at the same time, depriving the necessities of their sustenance.

There are many similar situations that I came across and want to share to find out if I’m the only one worrying too much or is there others who faced similar dilemmas:

  • So you try to limit food waste. It’s a noble thing to do, but the food will still be wasted if you don’t buy it. Then if we all do that, the demand will fall, and so the price. So us not buying a couple of extra bananas can mean a farmer will lose their job/income in Central America. Now banana is a favourable object with regards to sustainability. If you compare rice, which you don’t throw away, things can still get complicated, as rice has a huge carbon footprint. So you are always on a knife’s edge.
  • The same goes for the argument with meats. Yes, we don’t need meat at every meal, so we can always cut down on meat, whether vegan or not. This has a positive impact on the environment, and it possibly eradicates some of the animal cruelty arising from increasing demand. On the other hand, a reduced production will have a direct impact on the local growers. We may say the government can regulate prices, but that is pretty unlikely for every commodity.
  • Let’s talk about clothes. I follow reverse consumerism when it comes to clothes and other wearable goods. I only buy them when I need them. Two of my most favourite shirts are twenty years old. I’m clueless about where the head of the snake is. As in a large population in G21 countries, we have a lot of disposable income, and we spend on clothes that we probably don’t need. But we keep the economy thrive through buying. It also helps communities in other corners of the world to remain employed. Yet, the production and transportation of clothes have a huge carbon footprint. So, do we help the economy by buying or protect the earth by not doing so?
  • Again, a sub-argument for a green future is buying local, which offsets transportation. But not all countries have the raw material they need to import anyway, and then, if we use a higher wage workforce, it improves the local economy but perishes the present model. Can we let that happen? Do we pay for retraining of the millions of workers that will have lost their means of income? If not, can we call the solution sustainable?
  • It’s the same minefield when we talk about toiletries and cosmetics. I’ve discussed this above. Going back to the social responsibility perspective, can we afford to spend three times more than supermarket prices whilst you can feed families for weeks?
  • Let’s discuss travel. We all know how detrimental air travel is for the environment. Sustainability literature always emphasises cutting down air travel and more local travel and staycations. This is all good, and I fully agree with the proposal. Yet, many countries in the world rely entirely on tourism. If all the tourists decide to do a staycation and glamming, where does that lead these far-away countries that you cannot travel to other than flying?
  • We come across similar indecision for the places to buy our consumables. Large stores presently have huge carbon footprint, and it is considered better to order from online shops that post directly from warehouses. However, if you don’t buy from shops, the shops on the streets will soon disappear, leading to a demise of high streets and town centres. Also, by ordering online, we can’t measure what the carbon footprint will be in the supply chain. If, say, we saved some energy by ordering a product that is shipped from China, what is the overall saving in carbon footprint? Also, what will be impact on the local communities if shops are shut and jobs are lost?

The examples are endless, but it brings down to the same dilemma. Are sustainability and social responsibility complimentary, or are they counterproductive? I doubt there is A clear answer. What it comes down to is what an individual values most. For some, saving the earth is the priority; for others, it’s all about the impact on the broader global community. Looking at an endgame scenario, the international community won’t survive if there is irreparable climate change. On the other side, what a clean earth be worth if the majority of the world population don’t have their basic human needs. There has to be a balance, but it’s a delicate balance, and it’s not universal for all aspects of life how it affects us. The balance is not universal either for different parts of the world. It is a difficult choice if you want to make a difference to the world, and we know that underneath our choice lies an inequation with no win-win scenario.

Yet, the question of choice brings the final twist in the mystery. We discussed the dilemma because we have so many options. Countries plagued by famine can’t be bothered to think whether they’d eat vegan or fair trade or organic food. People who don’t have clean water to drink can’t be bothered about whether their shampoo had parabens. Sadly, this is the story of most people in most countries of the world. We can dictate sitting in our Ivory towers what the world population should and shouldn’t do, but we fail to grasp a simple fact that for most, it’s a struggle to survive, and they will do what it takes. In that harsh environs, sustainability and social responsibility don’t mean much, although the threat from the absence of these two is very real to these regions more than anywhere else. This focuses on the humbling experience I had doing the #RationChallengeUK, which demonstrates what it feels like to experience some of the living conditions many people live in. Also, it allows us to introspect what we can do, using the privilege we have got — living in a rich country and spoilt by choices — to improve the lives of the deprived ones and our planet.

Whatever our choice, one thing is clear – not doing anything is not an option. We may not make the best judgements, but we need to be firm in our conviction and keep reminding ourselves what the cost will be if we don’t do anything. And it’s much worse than any of the disaster movies we’ve ever seen.