If their goods and services continue to be priced as they are, is the sustainable movement only for the demographic that can afford it? If so, can it even still be called sustainable?

 

Art by Chelsea Caritativo

These days, “sustainability” is instantly associated with metal straws, tumblers, or bamboo toothbrushes.

But beyond these innovative yet trendy products, the United Nations defines it as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” which includes gender equality, labor rights, education for all, and more.

Various social enterprises, whose industries range from ethical fashion to organic agriculture, are indeed attempting to establish the sustainable movement in the Philippines. In a review by the British Council, many of these social enterprises are producer-based organizations that collaborate with low-income laborers and suppliers to distribute their products to the general market.

And there is definitely a demand for these businesses. According to a global survey by Nielsen, the Philippines placed 5th among the top countries that demand for programs to improve the environment.

Considering 21% of Filipinos is below the poverty line, much of the population cannot rely on regularly buying organic food priced higher than competitive prices. Many Filipinos would find it impractical to purchase ethically-made clothing that sells for thousands instead of second-hand clothing – whose sustainability is actually ambiguous – at only a tenth of that price.

With low minimum wages, many cannot afford to make the switch from cheaper and more ubiquitous plastic-wrapped necessities to more expensive non-single-use, eco-friendly, and ethical products.

Thus, the rise of social enterprises has been met with hostility, particularly towards its authenticity and its sustainable impact. If their goods and services continue to be priced as they are, is the sustainable movement only for the demographic that can afford it? If so, can it even still be called sustainable?

Climate change has never been more observable, especially this year’s summer, which has reached to a scorching 35.9 degrees Celsius.

Good intentions, misguided actions

Erwin Lizarondo, a professor of social entrepreneurship, explained that the hostility towards sustainability is due to the demographic that owns these businesses.

“The people who lead the sustainable program are the elite… The elites are actually funding these projects or social enterprises… The middle class and even the lower socioeconomic status are suspicious of these elites simply because of our politics. It’s the politics of the rich and we continue to see that,” he said.

There is no harm in wanting to engage in sustainability, especially if one had the resources and quality education to do so. The problem arises when these business owners are unable to properly engage with a market outside of their own, Lizarondo said. Good intentions can become savior complexes due to a preconceived notion of proper livelihood by living in metropolitan cities.

With a lack of understanding of their beneficiaries’ environment, livelihood, and etc, social entrepreneurs can have a tendency of treating their laborers as just a means of production. Businesses should prioritize investing in people holistically – not just in their skills – rather than just the brand.

“The teaching of sustainability at least is often mistaken that it’s all about environment. It is not. It’s a whole lot of issues under it. And I don’t think we’re getting at the root cause of what sustainability really is,”

More than metal straws

For Pang Delgra, a member of Habit, which provides alternative products to help transition to a more sustainable lifestyle, she believed these harsh criticisms are aimed towards the more popular yet less systemic solutions towards sustainability.

At Habit, their metal straws and collapsible cups are just a first step for their market. “But, as we now realize, aren’t the cheapest or best solution. It’s a good first step for those who can afford it but it’s definitely not for everyone,” Delgra said.

The following steps should consider beyond products and more onto habits. Because to claim sustainability is only for the elite is to only talk about the consumerist side of things. Lizarondo said, “It’s simple practices; all of those small practices. And they do make a difference.”

These practices even include age-old reminders from the older generations, such as bringing one’s own shopping bag or bayong to do the groceries, saving food scraps for compost, and cutting on electricity and water use – all which don’t necessarily need to purchase new eco-friendly products.

Alongside new innovations, old habits and practices before a time of plastic and disposable waste are returning. In Britain, milkmen have begun their operations once more in delivering bottled milk from door to door.

There is no harm in wanting to engage in sustainability, especially if one had the resources and quality education to do so. The problem arises when these business owners are unable to properly engage with a market outside of their own, Lizarondo said.

Expand and engage

Is it possible to argue that eventually the prices of sustainable products and services will go down as the demand increases? Possibly, yes. But Lizarondo countered that there is no time for “eventually.”

“Yes, we’re making a dent. But it’s not quick enough for us to actually make significant difference. Because if we look at it, unless we involve those who are in the lower socioeconomic status, you won’t be able to hit critical mass. And we are not the critical mass,” he said.

The alarms have been ringing loud and clear for exactly that critical change needed. Last March 18, a young whale washed up on Compostela Valley with its stomach containing 40 kilograms of plastic trash. Climate change has never been more observable, especially this year’s summer, which has reached to a scorching 35.9 degrees Celsius.

“If you really want to make a dent into this whole sustainability thing, it’s important to actually get to know those who are not in your market to understand why we’re asking these people to use these things,” Lizarondo argued.

“If you actually look at the social entrepreneur scene in the Philippines, how many are really being led by grassroots level? Who supports ideas from the grassroots level? How much of the elite can really bring it down to the grassroots?” Lizarondo continued.

For Habit, they make it a point to make their products cheaper or at par with the rest of the market. “This is a deliberate choice because we want to be able to say that we did our best to make our products available to as many people as possible,” Delgra shared.

Yet, they don’t see themselves selling directly to the lower socioeconomic status. Instead, they channel 1/8th of their profit to community-related work such as beach cleanups or for conducting research on the waste flow from the consumer to post-consumption stakeholders such as basurero, mambobote, and junk shops or what they call their 8th Partner Initiative.

There are other social enterprises that have the capacity to provide straight to their beneficiaries and make their products affordable to most. Sinaya Cup, a menstrual cup provider, uses a percentage of their profits to donate their products to women in need as well as fund seminars on female hygiene for school children. Ritual, a package-less, organic, eco-friendly, and fairtrade grocery, has been operating since 2010 and is now able to sell their products at much more affordable prices.

But the burden should not fall on the consumer but more so on big corporations and the government. By asking whether sustainability is limited only for those who can afford it, the attention is diverted from solutions that can actually make impactful change.

“The teaching of sustainability at least is often mistaken that it’s all about environment. It is not. It’s a whole lot of issues under it. And I don’t think we’re getting at the root cause of what sustainability really is,” Lizarondo claimed.

The current sustainable movement needs proper government intervention to not only require these corporations to ban single-use waste, unethical labor policies, and accountability for their carbon footprint but also encourage and support local social enterprises.

Government policy on sustainability is indeed taking place on a local level. Since 2012, San Fernando, Pampanga has cut back on its landfill from 88% to 20%. The local government unit collaborated with both its citizens and the nonprofit organization Mother Earth Foundation to implement a zero-waste strategy through material recovery facilities and closely regulated waste management.

Such case is a microcosm as to how sustainability should be on a national level. For impactful sustainability to occur, all sectors of the community must be engaged; not just the upper and lower socioeconomic class, but every single member of the community.

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