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Environmentalism for people on low incomes

By Elizabeth Jakimow - posted Thursday, 12 January 2012

Last week, I watched the television program, 'The People's Supermarket'. This show follows chef, Arthur Potts-Dawson, as he opens a supermarket for the "people". And yet it became quite clear that not all the "people" felt like the supermarket was for them at all.

The People's Supermarket had some fabulous ideas about organic and seasonal food and giving farmers fair wages. And these were ideas that at least some of the people wanted. However, other people had to go shopping elsewhere because The People's Supermarket didn't have what they were after. They couldn't afford organic. They didn't want to shell peas. They want basic, cheap and easy-to-cook food. As one lady put it, 'It seems a bit upper-class, a bit up your backside.'

As someone who cares about the environment, I liked what they were doing with organic, seasonal food, with fair prices given to farmers. But as someone from a low socio-economic group, I also understand why so many people were getting upset with the range of food on offer. Not everyone can afford organic food. Not everybody wants to buy artichokes. Frozen pizzas may not be the best option to choose from a social and environmental perspective. But they're often cheaper (and quicker) than making a meal from scratch. When you're low on money (which often means low on time), it may feel like the best option available.


But something else that really struck me about The People's Supermarket and the complaints that were made was that, even if the people could afford the food offered (and had the time and the knowledge to prepare them properly) just that feeling that it was 'upper-class' somehow excluded them. They weren't upper class people. And so while this was not explicitly stated, anything that had that kind of upper class vibe to it may have given them the impression that they did not belong. This store was for other people - not them.

I don't think this is a problem that's just isolated to The People's Supermarket. In fact, it might be indicative of how people from low socio-economic backgrounds feel about environmentalism generally.

Whether it's a store devoted to green products, a fruit and vegetable shop that sells mostly organic food, or the organic aisle in the supermarket, there's often the feeling that people with little or no money don't belong. There's the sense that this store is for people who have more money to spend. You realise that you're shopping in a place that is not catering for people who often have baked beans for dinner because they can't afford anything else.

I believe that many people from low socio-economic classes feel uncomfortable in lots of stores anyway. When a packet of biscuits costs more than you would usually pay for a towel or a shirt, you begin to think that you just don't belong. I doubt very much it's intentional, but some stores seem to have a whole heap of signals that tell people on low incomes, get out, your type aren't welcome here.

And maybe people with low incomes see those signs because struggling financially affects you psychologically anyway. When the message from society is that your worth is based on the income you receive and the types of products you purchase, it's easy for those with low incomes and little ability to purchase goods to feel somehow less worthy. We pick up on the signs because they're reinforcing how we feel about ourselves. And quite honestly, we don't want to be in places that remind us of how poor we actually are.

But this feeling of exclusion also applies to reading material. Most environmentalism books are written by people who are well educated and I would say reasonably well-off - at least compared to me. I've lost track of how many times these books would suggest adjusting your thermostat in order to reduce your impact on the environment. I don't have a thermostat. And when I read this suggestion, along with many other suggestions that seem to be addressed to people on higher incomes than me, I feel excluded. If the book was a place, I would feel like I didn't belong.

While I certainly have nothing against environmental books being written by people who are well-educated - they're usually the people best qualified to speak on the topic - I have wondered whether they really understand the demands and limitations placed on those with little money. Sometimes it actually seems as though they don't even realise such people exist. Or if they do recognise they exist, they don't think they'll be reading their books.


When money is recognised as an issue, it still isn't properly understood. Telling people that using less electricity will save them money is a good thing. Telling them to install solar panels or even set up a veggie garden often fails to recognise that many people don't even have the money to do this - even if it will save them money in the long run. Recently, I spent $100 on items for a veggie garden. If you think that's a minimal amount, then you fail to understand exactly how tight money can be for some people. Even an amount as small as $100 can be hard to find when you're struggling to pay the rent and the bills and buy clothes and food every fortnight. One-off costs that save money long-term are hard to afford when you're living from pay to pay.

Furthermore, it seems that most discussion and education on climate change happens in media outlets and forums that are not widely accessed by people with limited incomes. The Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (ICIJ) recently published a study that looked at the coverage of climate change in ten Australian newspapers[1]. The Australian had the most coverage, followed by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. The newspapers that had the least amount of coverage were The Adelaide Advertiser, The West Australian, The Hobart Mercury and The Northern Territory News. The Australian, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, according to the graph in the study, all are targeted to those with higher incomes. None of the four papers that have the least amount of coverage were targeted at higher incomes, and four of them were classified as tabloid newspapers.

Many people have mentioned that environmentalism is seen as a left-wing concern. My fear is that it has also become an upper-class concern. The discussion around environmental issues is conducted by people with high incomes and addressed to people with high incomes. Any person on a low income who does wish to live in a more environmentally sustainable way may feel themselves excluded by their circumstances. A 'green' lifestyle is something for the 'rich folks', not for them.

We only have one planet. And if we are to protect this planet, then environmentalism cannot be limited to only people in one particular group. It is not a political issue, as many others have said. Neither can it be a class issue. Environmentalism should be something that everybody can embrace, whether they are right-wing, left-wing, rich or poor. However, if we want the poor to embrace environmentalism, then the particular circumstances of people on low incomes need to be addressed. We also need to stop excluding them (whether intentionally or unintentionally) from anything that addresses environmental concerns.

I am a single mother with an income of less than $25,000 a year. While it makes me richer than many people in other parts of the world, it places me very near the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder in Australia. However, this planet belongs to me too. And I don't want to be excluded from taking care of it just because I don't have much money. And I certainly don't want to feel like I don't belong to the environmental movement because I belong to a different class than many of the people involved. Yes, I have limitations on my time and my resources. Yes, I may feel uncomfortable in arenas where most people have more money than me. But this planet is so important that we need to find a way to work around that. What happens to this planet affects everybody. Therefore, we need to include everybody in the effort to take care of it.

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About the Author

Liz Jakimow is currently completing a Bachelor of Theology at St Mark's Theological College. She is interested in environmentalism, poverty and social issues. She blogs about ecotheology at and is the moderator of the Australian Christian Environmental Group on Facebook. She is a single mother, with two children, aged 12 and 10.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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