Sustainability, Parenting And Privilege: An Honest Account

‘In principle, I’m all in. In practise, I find myself slipping up constantly’ – why parenting sustainably is a minefield, tied up in privilege, shame and guilt

By Martha Alexander

23 July 2021

hen I was pregnant with my daughter I envisaged her nursery filled with wooden toys in muted tones and a rail of sustainably-created clothes in a palette of gender-neutral hues. I was definitely going to go down the reusable nappy route and bought a lovely baby cookbook with recipes for organic purees that I would be making from scratch.

By the time she was six months old my house was a sea of singing, flashing plastic landfill, she wore whatever was not covered in milk or snot, I had taken a permanent detour from the reusable nappies route because when are you meant to do all that intensive cleaning, and, no, I had not found my calling as an organic baby food chef.

I didn’t have the time and I didn’t have the money. I was working all hours and the last thing I felt like doing at any time was blending parsnips or washing poo out of terry cloth.

As far as expectation versus reality gulfs go, the one concerning what type of parent you’ll be has got to be among the widest, especially when it comes to sustainability.

No one could argue that sustainability – defined by the UN World Commission on Environment and Development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” - isn’t a good thing.

My stance is this: in principle, I’m all in. In practise, I find myself slipping up constantly – drawn to cheap and easy solutions despite knowing what damage things like disposable nappies do to our environment and how plastic destroys our sea life and so on.

Why can’t I just do better when it comes to living an eco-friendly life? I’m not lazy and I can’t plead ignorance. As a middle-class homeowner with a degree, I am undoubtedly privileged and yet as a writer I’m not in an industry renowned for its generous pay cheques and I’m woefully time poor.

“I was working all hours and the last thing I felt like doing at any time was blending parsnips or washing poo out of terry cloth.”

And this gives me the feeling that living sustainably is often tied up with extreme privilege. I have come to believe, rightly or wrongly, that you need an abundance of time, money and even connections – in order to commit to living sustainably. I often think that ‘sustainability’ has become about badges of honour - like organic cashmere and plant-based diets – which incidentally speak to status and glamour.

It’s easy to forget that simply knowing about sustainability and ways to limit our impact on the environment is a privilege in and of itself. Research from 2011 shows that people with degrees are more likely to adopt pro-environmental behaviours. However, the same research also found that these people are likely to display their eco credentials via what they buy rather than what they do.

Having financial and social freedom is an enormous privilege – you can make decisions about where you shop, what you eat, what transport you take and how you manage your time. Some people simply don’t have that choice.

Those who appear to live sustainably often inhabit a moral high ground which in some cases comes with an undertone of superiority. But when you consider that the ability to make choices such as driving an eco-car or having a nanny to help wash nappies or buying organic produce is essentially down to fiscal privilege, it seems a little less worthy.

Green shaming – to shame someone for not being environmentally friendly – is a thing. And while I haven’t experienced it overtly, I have been lectured about how easy it is to use reusable nappies by an acquaintance of mine (wearing vegan Veja trainers in a bathroom filled with extortionately expensive organic toiletries in a part of London that has been gentrified beyond all recognition).

“It’s honestly a doddle,” she assured me. Downstairs I could hear her live-in nanny loading the dishwasher.

If I sound chippy and resentful, it’s probably because I am.

From the moment we are pregnant, society judges women on how they parent (“should you really be drinking coffee?”) and it carries on through choosing pain relief in childbirth, to using formula or sleep training or pacifiers or screen time or ice creams. The pressure to do it all ‘properly’ is intense. Women especially have to suck up so much patronising advice from people who can’t see beyond their own circumstances or world view. It’s so, so wrong to shame anyone for their choices without knowing their situation and it's completely unacceptable for anyone, including brands, to target new mothers - who are almost always exhausted and stressed and worried about doing the right thing - to imply that they aren’t being sustainable enough.

With all this said, sustainability expert Helen Rankin, a mum of four and founder of reusable baby wipe brand Cheeky Wipes, points out that low-income families are likely to have a low carbon footprint.

“In many ways, people on low-incomes will be living more sustainably than the better off for the very fact that they aren't driving petrol guzzling cars or jetting off on foreign holidays. They're also more likely to be walking or taking public transport.”

“I find myself slipping up constantly – drawn to cheap and easy solutions despite knowing what damage things like disposable nappies do to our environment and how plastic destroys our sea life and so on.”

Rankin points to sustainable options that are both easy and inexpensive, such as reusable wipes.

“Our baby wipes kit is priced at £42, but it pays for itself in around six to eight weeks over the cost of disposable wipes,” she says. “However, for people who are struggling to put food on the table, we understand that could be a stretch, but they could go 'old-school' for wiping hands and faces and have what our mothers and grandmothers would have referred to as 'a flannel in a bag'. Would cost the same as one single packet of disposable wipes and could be reused again and again.”

It’s important to note that we live in a world where we are being sold too constantly, but sustainability is most effective when we buy as little as possible – instead, normalising baby clothes libraries and hand-me-down culture. Somehow our commitment to sustainability malfunctions when consumerism is compromised.

We’re all guilty of justifying our choices when it comes to parental sustainability – I pat myself on the back for buying organic t-shirts for my daughter and using Ecover detergent (conveniently forgetting about how I instantly abandoned composting after I opened the lid and saw an enormous rat in there and the times I put half loads of laundry on). But the truth is, you can’t ‘buy’ sustainability – quite the opposite.

“Being a sustainable parent is doing what you can, within your budget and timescales,” says Rankin. “You shouldn't let anyone beat you with the big green guilt stick. No one is perfect, but if everyone did what they can, it would be a huge step in the right direction.”

5 Cheap And Easy Ways To Parent More Sustainably

Check out Build A Bundle - an online shop filled with beautiful pre-loved children’s clothes in mint condition at bargain prices.

Consider reusable wipes if reusable nappies are a push too far. Cheeky Wipes have our vote for ease of use.

Normalise hand-me-down culture: not everything needs to be brand new. eBay is great for second hand equipment while hosting a ‘swap shop’ with friends is a social way to be sustainable.

Batch cook simple meals. We know, we know, we know this takes time but it will save time in the long run as well as reducing food waste and lowering your shopping bill.

Rethink party bag contents. That cheap plastic tut is all show and no substance, abandoned quickly and left for landfill. There is a way of creating eco-friendly party bags and it’s here at Eco Party Bag. And, no, it’s not expensive: plenty of toys are sub £1.

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