Is Zero Waste Only for the Privileged? (And Does It Matter?)

I’ve received a few emails recently asking whether I think zero waste is a lifestyle for the privileged. After all, it is predominantly represented in the media by white, seemingly middle-class females. Is zero waste really a lifestyle for everybody? Or just the more affluent few, or those with more time on their hands to spend traipsing to the various trendy organic stores and making DIY skincare products from scratch?

I wanted to explore this further by answering four questions: what is privilege; what is zero waste; is zero waste a lifestyle for the privileged; and ultimately, does it matter?

What is Privilege?

A good definition of privilege is this: “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group”. These “privileges” are often unearned, for example, being born into a particular country or family. Actually, privilege is a lot more complex than simply calling it an “advantage”. Often it’s multiple advantages, based on all kinds of factors.

This short video (less than 2 minutes) does a great job of explaining privilege, and this video below (which is 4 minutes) demonstrates how different people are affected by privilege in society.

In many ways, privilege is an advantage that manifests itself as choice. The more privilege, the more choice.

Having privilege doesn’t make anyone a bad person. It doesn’t mean not having to work hard, or struggle to achieve a goal. It just means having advantages that make these things easier than for someone else without that privilege.

What is Zero Waste?

I think it is important here to explain both “zero waste”, and also “zero waste as represented by the media”, because they are not the same.

“Zero waste” is about sending nothing to landfill, and recycling as little as possible. It’s about rethinking the way we do things: refusing what we don’t need, reducing what we use, reusing what we have, repairing what we can, and recycling as a last resort.

Zero waste is about consuming less, making conscious choices when we do need to make purchases, supporting companies who are trying to do the right thing and reducing our environmental impact. It’s about choosing second-hand, borrowing or making do, choosing things that will last and taking responsibility for our personal choices.

Of course, the media represent zero waste in a slightly different way. Zero waste in the media is the newsworthy bits, the glamorous bits, the bits that invite intrigue and discussion. The media love to talk about and show photographs of glass jars of annual trash, trendy bulk stores and Farmers Markets.

Some of the most popular zero wasters are glamorous Americans who are also extremely photogenic and live in beautiful houses and apartments, and their lifestyles lend themselves to media coverage.

But this is just a snapshot. Even glamorous zero wasters shop at second-hand stores, and compost their food scraps, yet this isn’t talked about nearly as much. Or they choose to buy nothing at all – but where is the photo opportunity there?

Is Zero Waste a Lifestyle for the Privileged?

I would say no. But also yes.

Whilst any “lifestyle” is a choice, and therefore infers some level of privilege, the zero waste lifestyle is the lifestyle of consuming less, of refusing the unnecessary. Of borrowing, and choosing second-hand. These choices are accessible to most.

So no, the zero waste lifestyle is not reserved only for the young, affluent, or those with plenty of time on their hands.

The media might represent the zero waste movement as white, female and middle-class, but scratch beneath this veneer and you will find that zero waste is embraced by men and women, young and old, from all of the continents.

The glass jar full of trash might be the emblem of the movement, but to me, the zero waste lifestyle is a philosophy and a set of principles rather than a destination.

Anyone can subscribe to the ideals.

How far and how quickly we can progress towards these ideals, in practical terms; I do think that is a matter of privilege.

Having a choice – about where we live, where we shop, what we buy and how we spend our money – that is a privilege.

I don’t have children. I don’t have elderly or sick relatives that I need to look after. I don’t have any disabilities, serious health complaints or allergies. I live in a city with plenty of options. I can do a big bulk grocery shop once a month because my budget allows me to, rather than having to go every week. Because the bulk store is very close to my house, I can also pop over there if I’ve forgotten a couple of things.

These factors make it easier for me to reduce my waste, and that is privilege.

Access to bulk stores and Farmers Markets, the choice of grocery store, being able to afford things like stainless steel lunchboxes or organic oats, these choices are not available to everyone.

For those of us who do have access to these things, we are privileged.

Of course, zero waste is not about stainless steel lunchboxes or organic oats. It’s about working towards reducing waste, consuming less and choosing better. Privilege makes it easier, for sure. The less privilege and the less choice, the harder we have to work for our desired results and vice versa.

Zero waste is no different from any other scenario.

Does it Matter?

I don’t want to talk about whether privilege matters. Rather, I’m interested in why, when it comes to living zero waste, privilege is talked about at all, and more so, why it is seen as a bad thing.

Privilege exists everywhere, that’s just a fact. Yes, privilege tends to mean more resources and more choice. Like many things, zero waste is easier for some than others.

But that shouldn’t stop us doing what we can. Every step is a step in the right direction, and small changes still add up to create a big impact.

Whenever I see negative press or comments about zero waste in the media, the discontent tends to be around privilege; perceived and actual. It is perceived that zero wasters are well off, and therefore the lifestyle is not attainable to most.

Firstly, I disagree that zero waste is only for the affluent. I disagree that we need expensive zero waste “trinkets” (like stainless steel lunchboxes or reusable coffee cups) to live zero waste. They are luxury items.

As someone who owns both a stainless steel lunchbox and a reusable coffee cup, I realise this. The most sustainable and zero waste choice would be for me to not drink coffee at all, and drink only water. But I enjoy an occasional coffee, and so I have a reusable coffee cup.

That doesn’t mean these things are necessities of the zero waste lifestyle.

The “stuff” gets talked about so much because it is a talking point! But talking about the “stuff” can detract from the real message.

 Zero waste is the lifestyle of refusing, rethinking, reducing, reusing and repairing. Of using what we have, and making do.

Buy nothing new and choose second-hand – that’s the zero waste lifestyle. Join the library – that’s the zero waste lifestyle. Ride a bike and get rid of the car – that’s the zero waste lifestyle. Refuse a plastic bag and a plastic drinking straw – that’s the zero waste lifestyle. Own less pairs of shoes, choose the best you can afford and wear them often – that’s the zero waste lifestyle.

Let’s not get distracted by the things that others buy. Zero waste is not about what we can afford to buy. It is about what we choose not to buy. Ultimately, zero waste is not a lifestyle of “buying” or “stuff”. The less we buy and the more we make do, the better job we do of living zero waste.

Secondly, I’m at a loss as to why anyone would think it is a bad thing that those with privilege are choosing to live zero waste, use less resources and tread more lightly on the planet. There are plenty of people with privilege exploiting the planet, using more than their fair share of resources, and encouraging consumption.

Why attack or dismiss those using their privilege trying to make the world a better place?

Anyone working towards reducing their impact and sharing what they’ve learned should be applauded, in my view.

I am very aware that I am white, female, middle-class, and living in Australia. The stories that I share are written from this perspective: my lived experience. Most zero waste advocates share their own experiences and lifestyle choices. It’s fact-sharing rather than prescribing a lifestyle for others. We do what we can, and we share what we know.

I do not think that people with privilege talking about and advocating for zero waste is a bad thing. However, if they are the only people talking about zero waste, then that is a bad thing.

I don’t think the issue is one of privilege. I think the real issue is one of representation. That is what matters.

Waste is something we all make decisions about, every single day. We all have the potential to create waste, and the opportunity to avoid it. Reducing waste is accessible to most.

But if zero waste is only talked about (or represented in the media) by one group of people, with one set of experiences, how can we expect everyone to embrace this way of living?

How can we expect those not in this group to relate, or to connect, or to feel inspired?

Whilst the zero waste movement is represented as white, female and middle-class, there will always be people who feel excluded.

I don’t have the answers, but I do know that if we want the zero waste movement to spread, we need to be supportive, inclusive, and encourage all voices, even those that are different to our own.

We need to recognize that people have different experiences and different journeys.

We need to recognize that we cannot and do not speak for everyone.

Where we have privilege, we need to be aware of it. Not deny that it exists, but recognise that it is there.

Privilege isn’t a bad thing in itself. It’s how we use it that counts.

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Is Zero Waste Only for the Privileged? (And Does It Matter?)
81 replies
  1. Vicki
    Vicki says:

    Zero waste has made me more privileged – I’ve learnt that I need less, actually MUCH less than I thought I did when in my younger years. Because I now need less, I spend less, because I spend less I can afford to earn less, which means I can work less. This gives me more time to enjoy the things I do – gardening, preserving & making things & to spend more time with those I love. I feel very privileged!

  2. Lilfairtrade
    Lilfairtrade says:

    Dear Lindsay,

    Hope you’re well?

    I enjoy reading your posts.

    Thank you educating us!

    As a teacher and the only person of colour actively working to educate others in my community and country about fair trade and ethical living.

    I personally feel leading by example is the best way to change sceptical minds. I’m sure you’ll agree?

    I’m thinking of attending a Zero Waste event where I live but must pay approximately £50 for the 4 hour privilege.

    As a zero waste campaigner do think its acceptable for campaigners and experts similar to myself in the field of sustainability to charge the general public for such events?

    I was under the impression that knowledge, skills and experiences should be free and shared with all.

    Would love to hear your thoughts.

    Best regards

    • amandawastefree
      amandawastefree says:

      Hey Sabeena, I’ve also been wondering this. Recently I went to a zero waste talk where the entry fee was about $25 (NZD), I was given a free ticket and was an audience member. I found the event was very white, and mostly young-middle aged females. This got me thinking A LOT about privileged. I found the event ended up not being very helpful for ever day people to help reduce their waste, and it came across as pretentious. I actually left half way though! As someone who has done presentations on zero waste, I think it is hard to find a balance between making enough $ to make a living and also providing the knowledge and education required. Personally my presentations are often paid for by the organisation who is hosting, which is then on-charge to our local council as part of a waste fund. The public attending have had free entrance. I do struggle with finding this balance though, it can be difficult! Would love to hear yours and Linday’s thoughts.

      • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
        Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

        Thanks for sharing your thoughts Amanda :) It would be interesting to know whether the event you describe had positive feedback overall, or whether most of the audience members felt like you did. I do believe that there’s a place for everything, and if this event was well received by others and they are inspired to make changes then that is still a positive outcome, even if you personally didn’t resonate with it. If it wasn’t, and most people who attended felt it wasn’t useful, then it likely won’t happen again. People only pay for things they think are of value.

        It is hard to strike a balance, you are right. I don’t have all the answers. I think it is because we really want to help, and see opportunities to do good everywhere. But I also know what it is like to be overstretched, and I am coming more and more to terms with saying no even when the project is good and worthwhile. And not feeling bad saying no when I don’t want to do something, no matter how noble I’m told the cause is. There are many noble causes, and I cannot actively support them all. None of us can do everything! Plus feeling overworked, overwhelmed and bitter is not helpful to anyone…

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Hi Sabeena, thanks so much for your comment and that is an interesting question. (I’ve also read Amanda’s comment below and I’ll answer that separately, but I’m taking her thoughts into account with my response here.) It is particularly relevant that you ask as yesterday I went to the WA Annual Waste & Recycling Conference, and the ticket cost me $550 for the day. For me, that is a lot of money to spend at an event! But actually, it was so good, and I met some really interesting people, heard about some amazing work, and had some surprisingly good conversations with people I wouldn’t have expected. I feel really inspired and energized by it all, I feel my mind opened a little wider and I have changed my perspective on a few things. Was it worth it? Yes.

      I’m sure you already know my answer regarding leading by example – yes, I think it important. I’m not sure about changing skeptical minds so much as inspiring and invigorating those on the fence ;)

      Do I think it’s acceptable for campaigners and experts in the field of sustainability to charge the general public for such events? Actually, yes I do. Let me break this down. Firstly, no-one is making the public pay. There is a ticket price, but no-one is making them buy. They have to feel that it is good value, so they have a choice to pay or not to pay. Does it exclude people? Possibly, but I believe that tailoring your message to different people is important, and charging might mean more affluent people attend, meaning the message can be tailored to those people. If the event is good, the organizers will get great feedback and be able to do future events, and people will come because it is known to be good value. If it is not, it won’t happen again. Ultimately the public will decide if it is worth the money.

      Studies also show that if people pay for a service, they see more value in it.

      This kind of correlates to what I said in my post above, but if the ONLY zero waste events are paid, then that is an issue. But I know that there are many free events. However where events are free to the public, I still think it is fair that people get paid for their time and expertise.

      You say you are under the impression that knowledge, skills and experiences should be free and shared with all – but you also champion fair trade, which is all about paying people a fair price for the work they do! Is it fair to expect someone to work for free just because their work is in the sustainability field? Personally, I don’t think so. We could get into a whole other conversation about the perils of capitalism and the barter economy and all sorts of things, but ultimately, we live in a society where we have to pay rent and bills, and we need money to survive.

      I think it is important to value people for the work they do, and their expertise and experiences. If people want to give away work, share experiences and give knowledge for free, that is great and commendable. But it shouldn’t be expected. And I don’t think it is unreasonable for people to charge. We all have to eat, pay bills and need somewhere to sleep. It’s up to people to decide if they want to pay.

      The other thing I’d like to add, if that things are rarely “free”. Equipment, room hire, transport to and from a venue, event advertising, use of technology (owning a laptop), wifi connection, website hosting, email services – all of these are costs and someone has to pay them.

      I hope my thoughts help in some way :) My question to you is: do you think the event will be worthwhile? Would you like to go? Do you think it is good value? Will you learn new things from it and appreciate the experience? If so, then I would go. If not, then I wouldn’t go. But those are the questions I would be asking ;)

  3. Rika
    Rika says:

    I think the problem is that you’re trying to put a label on a lifestyle. Why is that necessary? I live low waste, fair trade, organic, sustainable, DIY … you name it. I shy away from labelling my lifestyle as anything specific because I don’t need to justify to anyone how I live. And I believe sharing the experience also doesn’t require a label.
    Other than that, some really good thoughts here!

    • Tracy Brighten
      Tracy Brighten says:

      Hi Rika,

      I don’t think there’s a problem with putting a label on a lifestyle as long as it’s an inclusive lifestyle that welcomes people whether they live shining examples of a minimalist and zero waste lifestyle or they’re far off but doing their best to make changes. Lindsay makes this point very well here. I think it helps to identify a green or sustainable lifestyle because people like to be part of a community, especially one with such positive benefits for individuals, societies, and our planet!

      I can understand how you don’t want to label yourself though because your lifestyle is unique to you and you may take bits from various ideologies, consciously or sub-consciously. Likewise, I follow some vegan blogs and FB groups, I’m making changes and I like to feel part of the vegan movement but I don’t call myself vegan. In the same way that zero-waste may bring to mind middle-class white women, vegan brings to mind activists, a misjudgement in both cases I think!

      • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
        Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

        Hi Tracy, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this – very well articulated. We are vegan at home, but when we are out it doesn’t always work out. I know that “true vegans” would consider my using the word vegan to be outrageous. (Oh, and we eat honey. And have a worm farm.) But if I go to a restaurant, vegan is a very useful label!

        Labels are useful but also cause misjudgements, as you say. I think as humans we are kind of hard-wired to try to make connections, and labels do work well for that. Mostly!

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Hi Rika, thanks for your comment! This article really has nothing at all to do with my own perception and opinion surrounding labels (you can read more about that here: It is more to do with the idea of “zero waste” as portrayed in the media and the presumptions made by others unaware of what the lifestyle means, looking in. At least, that;s how I intended it to be!

      As I talk about in the article I linked to, I think labels can be useful but only up to a point. There are always exceptions! (And people trying to “catch us out”!) Do what feels right, I say! :)

  4. Ross
    Ross says:

    I am a white middleclass male who emigrated from an African country, so I feel a little qualified to add something here about privilege.
    It’s my privilege to have found a safe, ordered and prosperous country in Australia. It certainly is a privilege to have had the choice to build a small straw house with zero mortgage stress and the ability to make my own toothpaste which excludes any involvement with plastic. I have seen African people with far less privilege than me, live simply on maize meal and foraged greens. These beautiful people who are inadvertently contributing to zero waste and living mostly happy lives are perhaps more privileged than the privileged people living in developed countries with a plethora of stresses. I think it’s all about perspectives…

  5. Patrice
    Patrice says:

    Excellent, insightful, thought provoking post Lindsay. Love that you are pushing the envelope and addressing the hard issues around the zero waste lifestyle. Thank you!

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Thanks Patrice. I think it’s an important conversation. And it’s frustrating to hear people say they can’t live zero waste because they can’t afford a stainless steel lunchbox. Everybody can reduce their rubbish, it has nothing to do with stainless steel lunchboxes ;)

  6. thefruggebeast
    thefruggebeast says:

    Another great article Lindsay. Totally agree, and there are lots of aspects of activism and change that are easier with privilege e.g. attending marches and protests costs time, energy, and money (if travelling or missing work) but it doesn’t mean that those people with privilege should not participate in these efforts, just that they should recognise why some others may not be able to.

    For instance, I don’t like when I see zero waste / simple living accounts attacking other people for taking a plastic bag or a single-use coffee cup – while I admit that it can be painful to watch these items being taken without a second thought, none of us knows the journey any other person is on at any time. Better for those of us with privilege, to use it to help influence organisational / policy / cultural change so that this lifestyle can be accessible to everyone!

    Also, seek out and lift up those voices that you think should be heard and represented in the debate. On social media you’ll find zero waste and sustainable living accounts from almost every country in the world! For anyone on instagram, @zerowastehabesha is also doing a great ‘representation matters’ series at the moment highlighting people of colour active in the sustainability movement.

    Long comment over! :)

  7. Mel
    Mel says:

    Hmm. I think the term ‘zero waste’ tends to be trendy with people considered middle – upper class. However, I think the lifestyle applies to a lot more people out of other circumstances. When I get stuck, I ask myself what my grandmother would have done on The Farm. They ate everything, any scraps went to the farm animals, my grandmother could sew, mend or cook anything and my grandfather fixed things. They also had a good community of friends to lean on and share skills or team up for bigger jobs. People struggling to live in developing countries waste much less and live closer to zero waste out of necessity, they just don’t label it, or tweet about their compost. I think the worst ‘priveledged’ people are those individuals who can and do produce large amounts of waste, who are not necessarily at the higher end of the global income scale (and the companies who live off pushing the unnecessary crap).

    • Tracy Brighten
      Tracy Brighten says:

      You make a good point Mel. While I think a label can be useful to give people a lifestyle to strive for, it’s really about going back to nature in many ways and as you say, living more like our grandparents or great grandparents did. I think we need to tweet and post about zero waste in developed countries though because it isn’t a common concept for many of us compared, as you say, to those living a simpler lifestyle out of necessity. With wall-to-wall advertising and 24/7 shopping, we have to break the habit of wanting more stuff. I’m thinking more about how I live and making changes, but I’ve a way to go compared to Lindsay!

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      That’s an interesting perspective and good point, Mel :) I didn’t call myself zero waste for quite a long time as I hadn’t actually come across the term as a lifestyle. I went plastic-free, and then focussed on living with less waste. I wrote posts about a zero waste kitchen meaning “how to not create waste” rather than a kitchen full of mason jars. Now I call myself zero waste, as the label is a useful identifier, but like you, I believe it’s more about simple living.

      For many, it is a lifestyle choice to be zero waste. As you say, many more people live this lifestyle out of necessity. But to choose to be zero waste is better for the planet than to choose many other things. I’d rather zero waste was trendy than something else.

      Nothin’ wrong with a tweet about compost though, Mel! Let’s face it, good compost is an art form ;)

  8. Ralph Lancaster-Gaye
    Ralph Lancaster-Gaye says:

    Great post Lindsay: well done for discussing the issue of privilege! I hadn’t thought that zero waste might be considered as ‘elitist’, so to speak. However, it seems obvious now: the more money you have, then the more time you will have available to make choices. Perhaps people with privilege have a responsibility to make significant zero waste decisions. Education plays a big part, whether it be through schools, friends, the media, or high profile privileged socialites leading by example?! My work involves helping the underprivileged, and I can see how people in extreme poverty have difficulty planning to the end of the week, let alone perceiving the future of the planet as a priority. Which leaves us zero wasters open to the criticism of elitism. However, we all wake up in our world, making choices and deciding to behave in certain ways, and are limited by what we can afford. So, well done to any zero waster, however rich or poor, and well done to you for such a pertinent and stimulating article!
    Thank you.

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Thanks Ralph, loved your thoughts on this. I agree, I think anyone who makes any kind of effort should be applauded. It really isn’t “them” and “us”, we are all in this together. Those of us who can do more should do more, in my view, and help pave the way to make it easier for others to follow in future. Let’s use any privilege we have to help everyone :)

  9. struggling minimalist
    struggling minimalist says:

    I’m a white female middle-class Eastern European living in my homeland. I have a degree and speak more than one language. I work in higher and further education. I’m independent and own a (slightly mortgaged and frankly tiny) flat in a centre of a nice city. I’m also approaching middle age, I’m self-employed (or free-lancing to make it sound more fancy) and often get zero-hours contracts, which makes my financial situation precarious. I’m single and live alone. I’m disabled. My several health conditions make my dietary, skincare, clothing, and leisure time choices more difficult. But they also make me a better minimalist and propel me in the direction of zero-waste lifestyle, which I would consider rather a consumer’s conscience than a middle-class white privilege.

  10. Mrs M (@meg_e_r)
    Mrs M (@meg_e_r) says:

    Good post and I’m really pleased to see you broaching this topic. We seem to live in an age when you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t, and of people taking offence at certain words or terms rather than focusing on the substance. As somebody who has always used words as the tools of my trade, I certainly seem to have to caveat and qualify everything I say or write more than ever.

    I am therefore increasingly taking a different approach to the whole issue of zero waste. I have actively been stripping the word lifestyle out of any conversations I have about waste avoidance, as I get the impression that the word immediately suggests the luxury of choice. And as much as I abhor pointless packaging and especially plastic, I usually approach the issue from another angle. In the first instance I avoid the term zero waste or even discussions about packaging altogether. Instead, I increasingly start with things like food or water usage, as these are things that a/ anybody can relate to, b/ that the less well-off usually are usually very good at managing efficiently and c/ where collective action can significantly reduce our overall footprint. I make a point of celebrating those skills and making people feel seen as fellow stakeholders, before moving on to any other aspects of the waste discussion.

    In reality, what we are doing is living by traditional skills or old-fashioned attitudes to resources and waste, but of course, both those words are also highly loaded too…

    Keep leading by example, Lindsay, in whatever way feels right for you and don’t feel you have to apologise or justify anything!

    • Tracy Brighten
      Tracy Brighten says:

      You make an interesting point Mrs M about the word ‘lifestyle’ that I hadn’t considered. While I agree ‘lifestyle’ implies the luxury of choice, I think many people in developed countries do have choice, unless they’re living hand-to-mouth. But ‘lifestyle’ does perhaps conjure up the lifestyle that is commonly marketed to us in developed countries – the one you see in magazines such as Homes and Garden. ‘Lifestyle’ then seems the wrong word to use with regard to minimalism and zero-waste. It’s a subtle difference but I think I prefer ‘living’. Thank you for getting me thinking!

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Meg, so great to hear from you! As always, so many interesting thoughts. I loved the idea of talking about the non-packaging aspects of waste (food, water) and then making others feel part of the collective. Zero waste is such a big topic really, encompassing so much more than packaging at the consumer level, yet too often the conversation boils down to shopping at the bulk store. You are right, there are so many ways to tackle it – and of course, people do! (They just don’t call it zero waste.)

      You’re right too, that these words are always highly loaded. Even here in the comments there’s been talk about using labels such as “zero waste”. I’ve written before about labels, and why I think they are good up to a point, but of course, nothing is ever that simple. We use the term “zero waste” to help highlight commonalities, but then people expect a definition, or are trying to find exceptions and catch people out.

      Let’s face it, none of us are living in caves and weaving our own clothes (well okay, maybe you are on that one) and zero waste isn’t really about absolutes. It’s about aspiring to do better. But that isn’t nearly so catchy ;)

      Thanks for sharing Meg, always love to hear your perspective.

  11. Tracie Rose
    Tracie Rose says:

    I’m so glad I read this. There are days when I feel I’m not getting there when it comes to the zero waste movement, and feel I’m just treading water with the little bit that i do – but that is definitely because I compare what I can achieve with what others are achieving.
    Thanks for pointing out what I’ve been overlooking recently – and that is that so long as I’m trying for better – that I’m refusing the plastic bags at the checkout, or fruit and veg pre packed – i leave mine loose and the checkout girls never mind – all very much to the dismay of my husband when I first started doing this years ago before there was a “movement” in the media. Picking up other peoples rubbish – not all of it of course, but some on my walk to work.

    No I don’t make my own face cream – I rarely even make my own pesto – but it’s on the list for my progression – and now I feel so much better that at least it is on my list of things to achieve and that I intend very much to get there, but it’s taking time to adjust my life to all those things I’d like to do

    Thanks for the pep talk :)

    • Tracy Brighten
      Tracy Brighten says:

      Good on you Tracie Rose! While there’s much to learn, if we start to feel we aren’t doing enough, we’ll get despondent and we may give up. As Lindsay says, a step at a time! Feel good about what you are doing rather than berate yourself for what you aren’t just yet. All the best :)

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Glad it helped, Tracie. Don’t despair – these things take time. I started back in June 2012! It’s much easier nowadays to find blogs and read about the “equipment” we need to buy, but the actual process of changing habits and rethinking the way we do things – that takes the same amount of time. Sometimes it does feel like treading water, and other times something shifts and we take a big leap forward. Plus, it’s as much about the journey as the destination.

      If you intend to get there then you will get there. I have faith in you! :)

  12. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    Like everyone else here I love this post, but perhaps not for the same reasons. This is the first response to criticisms of the zero waste lifestyle that touches on more than just ‘is it expensive’ or ‘can I be zero waste if there are no bulk stores where I live’ (which I do know you have touched on). The fact that you acknowledge that people with disabilities, allergies and other aspects of privilege is awesome. I do suffer from ill health which means I sometimes have to compromise my environmental values in order to manage day to day tasks better, seeing all these social media ‘perfect’ environmentalists can be hard so I am very careful of the content I engage with. This is why I love your blog because you show your journey, your successes and struggles (like feeding your adorable greyhound). I also like Ali Cherry and My Green Closet on YT for the same reasons you are all really positive and inclusive.
    Lastly I agree zero waste isn’t about what you buy but what you don’t and that is so important to remember when seeing all these perfectly curated instagram or blog posts.

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Sarah. I met a really interesting lady at a council community workshop recently who was in a wheelchair, and her passion was access. Perhaps unsurprisingly. She’d worked with a lot of projects ensuring disabled access, and was telling me these various stories with a kind of “can you believe they thought that” tone. And of course, as an able bodied person, most of these things just weren’t on my radar. It just would never occur to me that an architect would design a building without ensuring the disabled toilets were big enough for a wheelchair, or that access to the building would not be considered, rather only access within the building. It made me think about how representation is so important, and that every perspective helps build the picture. I thought about what she said a lot when I wrote this, actually. It is easy for us to forget our privilege.

      “Zero waste isn’t about what you buy but what you don’t.” I think that might become my new tagline ;)

  13. Tracy Brighten
    Tracy Brighten says:

    Thank you for another thoughtful and eloquent post Lindsay!

    Your message here is one I hope the zero-waste critics who shout ‘privilege’ start to understand: “the zero waste lifestyle is the lifestyle of consuming less, of refusing the unnecessary. Of borrowing, and choosing second-hand. These choices are accessible to most.”

    I think many of us have more choice than we realise. While family and financial circumstances, ill-health, disabilities, and country of residence affects the choices we have, as you say, we can take small steps to greener living that work for us as individuals. There isn’t a one-size fits all!

  14. Bronwyn
    Bronwyn says:

    Something else to keep in mind is that so often the choices of people in positions of privilege disproportionately effect the lives of people without that privilege.

    If you do find yourself accumulating more disposable income and spare time as a result of ‘zero waste’ choices, can you use this privilege to support people without these things or struggling against much bigger issues?

    For example, the money you save on sanitary products by choosing reusable options can be spent on supplying sanitary products to women sleeping rough, where washing and boiling a moon cup isn’t an option, let alone a priority.

    I also think often about how the emphasis could be shifted from ‘zero waste’ to something closer to ‘ethical choices’ which incorporates these ideas – buying Himalayan salt from the bulk food store in a glass jar might be zero waste in terms of what you personally contribute to landfill, but doesn’t take into account the resources used in the process of transporting it to you or the ethics of the extraction and processing of the salt or the conditions of the people employed to do this.

    A great conversation to be having!

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Thanks Bronwyn, so many good points. You’re right, all these issues are complex, have many facets and are often interconnected. But I do like how zero waste is a door into the world of ethical living. Start with one thing, and slowly realise some or all of the other issues or factors at play. You’re spot on, there’s always something more that we can do.

  15. Darren Pine
    Darren Pine says:

    A very well put and thought provoking post, Lindsay. My first experience with zero waste was exactly like you describe. I found two websites, both by upper middle class white American women. While the subject was what I wanted to read about, their messages (sermons?) were not. They preached about zero waste, and made it sound like that if you couldn’t do all the hip and trendy things like bulk shop and use all the expensive environmentally friendly options, there must be something wrong with you. What really turned me away from zero waste back then was one of the women wearing designer jeans with torn knees. It seemed like another shallow neo-liberal trend to make people feel better about themselves.
    All I can say is I am glad I found your website, and also the recent War on Waste series. As you say, there is a chance to make a difference, beyond the stereotypes and pigeonholes.

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Thanks Darren. That’s why it is so important to have representation from all age groups, cultures, backgrounds and walks of life. There are middle-upper class people who need to hear the message, and they likely need to hear it from people they identify with. But this isn’t going to resonate with everyone. Let’s get more people, different people, talking about waste generally, and the issues and solutions. The more people talking about it, the bigger the impact. I’m so glad the War on Waste aired, I really think it opened to conversation to a whole new group of people.

  16. Wilhelmina Bloemen
    Wilhelmina Bloemen says:

    Nnecessity is the mother of invention..l struggle at times to make ends meet and therefore rely on creativity and l definitely do not like wastage. I love your posts and the ideas shared by many. I like to share and be inclusive in that way and l love my..our home..this earth we live on and know that others care to make it a better place and preserve it for our children. Thankyou to you all

  17. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    Thank you for a great post. I appreciate the approach that you took to this. The video about privilege is really powerful and I now find myself googling the questions that were asked to find out more. Thank you for sharing.

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Thanks Lisa. I actually did that exercise in a workshop once, and it was pretty intense. It was in a community organising group I’d been part of for some time, and I knew some of the people in the group quite well. I’d always considered us “equals” and to realise that I had so many more chances and opportunities than some of them was pretty…eye-opening. When you know the people in the room and they are standing way behind you, it’s awkward to say the least. It was quite emotional to do it in real life. I only wish I’d done it 10 years ago…

  18. Stephanie
    Stephanie says:

    I love how you tackle privilege in the zero waste community. It used to bother me that I only saw white, middle class women portrayed as the faces of the movement. While it still bugs me for the lack of inclusivity, I’ve also realized that middle class and upper middle class folks are the ones that need the message most. Working with low income families have taught me that it is the middle class that wastes most, the people with the disposable income to buy more than what they need. Low income folks tend to use more public transport rathe than own their car, buy only the food/clothing that they need/can afford because they have no choice (lack of privilege). They embody the zw guidelines yet with a stigma, whereas middle class folks get to be trendy about it.

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      That is so well put, Stephanie. I agree, it is the middle classes that have the biggest potential to make a difference when they change their habits – because they have enough disposable income to consume a LOT. It’s not so much big or flashy stuff, but what we consider to be regular stuff: takeaway, upgraded phones, magazine subscriptions, new clothes, more shoes, etc. All that stuff adds up, when you think about how many people encompass the middle classes…

  19. Surya
    Surya says:

    Hi Lindsay,
    A very thoughtful post. But the irony would be that most of the privileged people donot care much about zero waste or sustainability. I fall into the category of low waste, zero waste being hard to achieve for me. What I have felt so far is that as someone who cares about environment and tries to be mindful about waste, I feel so lonely in my day to day life. Online, of course I find many similar thinking people, but with the exception of my loving neighbour, not a single person among my friends and colleagues are even remotely aware of the waste they are producing. As a mother of two kids I find it very hard to stick to my life style choices when other people are involved. Be it a birthday party or a simple get together there is an excess of everything.

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Hi Surya, thanks for your comment. It can be lonely when it feels like the only one who cares in the “real world”, but I assure you there are people out there who live close to you who share the same values as you do. The challenge is finding them! And actually online (Facebook Groups, etc) is a great way to connect with local people and meet them offline. I don’t know where you live, but here’s some suggestions for trying to make some connections: any local zero waste Facebook group; Buy Nothing groups; the Transition Town movement (their website will tell you if there’s any near you), any nature-based groups (here in Australia bushland group would be a good place to start).

      Family events and parties can be a trial sometimes, but we can only do what we can do. Just make the best decisions that you can, for you, and know that it is better than nothing. Even if it is small. Change takes time, and just because they aren’t aware now, doesn’t mean they won’t be aware in the future. We will get there! :)

  20. Surya
    Surya says:

    Coming back to your post, I think zero waste is a mind set and most importantly it is a different mind set to what is mainstream today. Privileged or not, white or coloured, does not really matter. But it is the mindset that is hard to achieve and so many people are oblivious to it. It is great to see people like you championing a change. Thank you!

  21. Christine Anderson
    Christine Anderson says:

    Great post Lindsay, generating a very interesting discussion, but I don’t feel you need to apologize for being “white, female, middle class and living in Australia”. By sharing your ideas and leading by example, you inspire and encourage others.By the way, I’d like to mention the word privilege in a slightly different context. I feel very privileged to be living on this beautiful planet called earth, and feel it is my responsibility as a human being to do all I can to look after it, not trash it.

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Thanks Christine. I’m not sure I was apologizing so much as recognizing that I am advocating representation when I fit firmly in the white, female, over-represented basket ;) And some people might think that ironic, but it is what it is.

      I really liked your perspective on privilege. Very true.

  22. Bella
    Bella says:

    Perhaps we who experience privilege could make steps to increase accessibility for those who experience greater barriers to participating eg pay it forward system.

    If every bulk store allowed people to drop off excess jars/calico bags then those in need wouldn’t find it so difficult to begin bulk shopping.
    If events offered subsidized tickets more diverse groups would be present.
    If ‘Top 10’ info graphics were translated more people could engage.

    I shouldn’t be made to feel guilty about my privilege. However, since I am aware of it, I should be working to be more inclusive in my practices. Especially since everybody in the Zero Waste movement should want Zero Waste to be the norm not a fringe movement.

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Hi Bella, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree, those with more privilege can use this to help grow the movement and increase inclusivity. For example, helping shape policy or working with organisations and governments, right down to the micro actions of translating a document, as you suggest.

      I totally agree. No-one should be made to feel guilty of their privilege, particularly as they typically didn’t have any choice in the matter (colour, nationality, parents, heritage). Being aware of it, and trying to use it for good – what more can anyone ask?

  23. Elaine
    Elaine says:

    I am curious about the female part. It makes sense that white, middle class people have more choices, more time away from the struggle for survival to think about those choices, and more likely to come from a background which encouraged and supported thinking out of the box. But how about men? Why are more women interested in this topic than men ? What could be done to engage more men ? And in a collaborative way, not a competitive way ?

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Hi Elaine. My personal thoughts on this are as follows: zero waste has a lot to do with day-to-day living. Things like groceries, cooking, cleaning, shopping. Typically, these are things that women are more interested in than men, or that women take more responsibility for, or are even expected to be carried out by women, for whatever reason. There’s obviously a lot of cultural influence, and stereotyping etc. But I think it’s fair to say more women do these things, or are interested in these things, than men. And I think that is why zero waste tends to fall to women.

      On the other hand, other aspects of sustainability, particularly things with moving parts (electric cars, solar panels, rainwater systems) tend to be more popular with men. I know if I run a zero waste workshop, most participants are women. If I go to a workshop on building a wind turbine or electric cars, most participants will be men.

      Of course, there are men who are involved with zero waste. I think lots of women who talk about zero waste have long-suffering male partners in the background who follow along, but they don’t talk about it. My husband will willingly go to the bulk store and he will take glass jars and buy in bulk, but he wouldn’t write a blog post about it or post the pictures on Instagram ;) I guess it’s just a topic that women like to talk about more than men. I don’t think that’s a bad thing – as long as men do talk about it too, and are represented :)

  24. Ginny
    Ginny says:

    Thank you for this balanced and interesting post. I haven’t read all the comments and feedback so I hope I am not repeating too much here. I recently saw a post on Facebook about a woman who could fit all of her waste into a jar…and all it made me do is feel bad and resentful. I realise I am living in a privaledged environment (UK, white, middle class) but I also am juggling two jobs, two children under three and mental health issues. Whilst I try to live softly on the planet, at this stage of my life I have to give myself a break sometimes. These “holier than thou” posts you see just make me angry! I think it is great if people can do it, but for me, aiming for a lifestyle of reuse, reduce, recycle is much more realistic, even if I don’t always get there yet.

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Hi Ginny, thanks so much for your comment :) The jar “thing” is quite divisive. Some people think it is inspiring and motivating; others immediately put it in the “too-hard” basket and find it demotivating. I think it has a lot to do with being relate-able. As you say, if you see that as a step too far from where you are, it won’t be inspiring.

      Don’t let others (and definitely not how they are portrayed in the media – remember they can twist things and mis-quote the facts) get you down. Just do what you can!

  25. Litter Free Me (@LitterFreeMe)
    Litter Free Me (@LitterFreeMe) says:

    Hi Lindsay

    As someone starting out on their waste free living journey I read this blog with interest. The idea that Living Waste Free is exclusive to white, privileged females had never occurred to me. Perhaps because I was inspired to reduce my household waste by War on Waste’s Craig Reucassel and Lauren and Oberon from Zero Waste Families?

    I have always considered our love affair with waste was a by-product of our modern, time poor lifestyles rather than something dictated by gender, wealth and class. Something that has been reaffirmed to me in recent times by the canny members of social media groups such as Simple Savers.

    Could there be some unfortunate stereotyping in the media between gluten free, organic, vegan, middle aged, bored, wealthy women and those who decide to reduce their waste?

    As a society we ALL need to start taking responsibility for the waste produced by our modern lifestyle choices. Everybody makes time and has the money for things that are important to them, no matter their wealth or status.

    Let’s hope the media stops portraying living waste free as an exclusive lifestyle choice for a privileged few, rather than a universal goal for all of mankind.

    Lisa Maree

    P.S. I love your blog and you have been a big inspiration to me Xxx

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Hi Lisa Maree, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I came to plastic-free and zero waste through Plastic Free July and the documentary Bag It!, which features a guy called Jeb Berrier who definitely is not a middle-class female! I didn’t think about privilege for a long time, but as there is more media attention and coverage the topic comes up more. I have no doubt there’s some stereotyping going on in the media ;) But I also think there’s the case of people seeing photos and making the judgement without really looking into it. There is no rule that we need a stark white modern aesthetic to be zero waste, for example! Sometimes people simply find excuses.

      The more people share their stories and their journeys, and we see more diversity, the more the message will spread. So we should all do what we can :)

      PS Thanks for your kind words!

  26. federico
    federico says:

    Hey Lindsay, hope you are well.
    Very interesting post as usual, but probably in this case I do not completely agree with your point of view.
    At question “Is Zero Waste a Lifestyle for the Privileged?” you say ‘choice’, but what about possibility instead? I explain…
    We have the possibility to choose the food we want to buy, we have the possibility to grow our own veggie, we have the possibility to comment and share picture on Instagram, we can use public transport or we have the money to buy a Tesla car, and I can keep going.
    Most of the people on this planet do not have these possibilities, some of them don’t even have clean water to drink, we need to remember this… always.
    What we have here is a first world problem, real issues are elsewhere. Let me clarify with an example: I live in a slum in “pick a third world city” and I can choose to live zero waste, but I will hardly survive; this because water and soil are polluted, fresh and bulk food are not even close to me, etc. And not necessarily because I am poor, sometimes also middle class people (middle class for that country) do not have access to that.
    If we have the possibility, then we have a choice. We can choose our lifestyle, we can choose where to go to buy food or growing at home… Choice is the second step.
    For sure living zero waste is better than living waste, we need only to consider the full picture that unfortunately is very sad…

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Hi Federico and thanks for sharing your thoughts :) I think you are actually saying the same thing as me, just with different words. Maybe we have a different understanding of the word “choice”.

      I agree, firstly it is circumstance (which you call “possibility”), and then personal choice. Being able to choose a lifestyle: that is what I mean by privilege. If I were an asylum seeker or refugee, I’m sure zero waste wouldn’t be any way near the top of my list of priorities. But most of us, and I would assume anyone reading this post, would have some degree of privilege. This post isn’t about whether the zero waste lifestyle is accessible to everyone on the planet, more about whether it is a lifestyle for the privileged. And at its core, I don’t think it is.

  27. Alice
    Alice says:

    I love your articles. They are easy to understand and logical. I am on my way to live a waste free life in China. I hope I can translate some of your articles into Chinese one day and share them around. With your permission of course:)!

  28. jule
    jule says:

    Great Article as always Lindsay! I feel and think the same!! I dont want to hear: “I cant make a difference because I am not privileged” anymore. I dont have a massive budget at the momente and yes, I see that some products are just not available for people living on a budget and I hope that will change in the future (bamboo toothbrush, paper wrapped toiletpaper, organic veggies) or I dont see a mass anti plastic revolution ;) but I also see and experience (we are living “nomadic” since 2 years now) that you can make better and plastic free choices all over the world!!! So I say yes, everybody can make a difference, If they want!!
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, keep up the good work!
    Jule xx

  29. Jackie McCloskey
    Jackie McCloskey says:

    Thank you for your reflections on this. I would take issue though with the mention of getting rid of the car – if it’s still working why get rid of it? And unfortunate that you mentioned organic oats as this goes to the misconceptions that zero wasters are also organic ‘nuts’; vegetarians or vegans; or simply hippies. And as for reusable coffee cups – why do people have such a problem with this?! Doesn’t EVERYONE use a reusable cup at home? Keep up the good work :)

  30. Cam
    Cam says:

    I don’t have much patience for the argument of “privilege.”
    If you are “underprivileged” it is likely just going to be much harder, dirtier, leaner and less glamorous. That may or may not stop you. For example I am technically homeless (I live in an old van) nomadic, autistic, transsexual, queer, live WELL below the poverty line and have a chronic illness. I am at present in an area where the nearest co-op is an hour away. This does not stop me. It doesn’t have to. Those using being underprivileged as an excuse not to act need to re-examine their conviction in my opinion. If you believe this to be the right thing to do, then what is a bit of inconvenience. This seems disturbingly common an argument against sustainability – if it’s harder, people find an excuse not to do it, regardless of the fact they know it’s right, and are well aware of the damage the alternative materialist culture causes. Someone once made this argument to me about organic vegetables – that they could not buy them because they were more expensive than supermarket alternatives using farming methods known to cause soil degradation. I replied that I would just have less to eat if that was the case, it wouldn’t stop me sourcing sustainable produce.
    Being underprivileged doesn’t have to make you powerless and unable to dictate the way you live as reasonably as you can. In fact, poverty means you’re often forced into more sustainable, low-waste options regardless of your ethics – you simply don’t have they money for a high-consumer lifestyle!

  31. Georgie
    Georgie says:

    As someone who is considerate of the impact my material choices have on the planet & it’s people I feel very relived. Relived that my lifestyle is not dictated by the advertising world & as such I have true choice in how I live. I am free from constantly longing for things I don’t have and am very clear on what I need in life to be content. Material possession & privalage seem to go hand in hand at present. I like the imagine that zero waste living can level the playing field & redefine our perception of what it means to be privalaged to one that is less toxic to people & the planet.

  32. Emma Westcott
    Emma Westcott says:

    Great post, I have been pondering this as my grocery bill has gone up since going to the bulk food store in Hobart since January this year. Your view is balanced and has made me feel better for my choices.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] So ultimately, this idea came from following some zero waste Instagram accounts, and simply being really inspired. I loved what they preached, their attitudes, and the accessibility. *Something for your reading pleasure, is this article on Zero Waste and Privilege.* […]

  2. […] Jenna Flood is the stylist behind Ironic Minimalist and is very passionate about living a Zero Waste lifestyle, writing and sharing ways she applies these values to her daily routine. She is also a […]

  3. […] I have been living low waste for nearly 3 years now. Living sustainably is something I’m incredibly passionate about; having studied Environmental Science and Physical Geography. I am aware I’m in a privileged position. I don’t have children to look after, am in great health (I didn’t even go to the doctor last year) and I’m white and middle class. Please do not compare yourself to me, or other zero wasters who have been doing this for years. Zero waste and sustainable living should be accessible to everyone. I have taken to Twitter to rant about this before. Unfortunately zero waste is becoming a bit of a trending commodity. I suggest you check out this blog post by Lindsay from Treading My Own Path about zero waste and pri… […]

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