Dear Vivienne Westwood: Stop Shaming People Who Can’t Afford to go Green

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Most people who try to live environmentally friendly lives, do so in the full knowledge that it’s not easy, nor is it always cheap. If it were, there wouldn’t be so many websites dedicated to giving tips on how to cook healthier, how and what to buy that’s ethically OK, how to save money and the environment at the same time.

To live a green life is also to live a privileged life, as a Cambridge University study that was released this month showed when they revealed that eating healthily costs three times as much as consuming unhealthy food.  But the link between poverty and obesity has already been made over and over again. We know that the poorer you are, the harder it is to get a healthy meal.


Ethics and Clothing

shopping mall
Photo by Martin Monroe

But it’s not just the food industry where we see such class differences: The clothing industry is just as likely to highlight such inequality.

I’m sure we all know people (myself included) that have had to shop at less than reputable establishments, such as Primark and Forever 21, in times of need. With unemployment on the rise, and people struggling just to pay the rent and keep food in their kids mouths, can you really blame them for opting for the cheaper brands than the more expensive ones?

[sam_ad id=”80″ codes=”true”]When I was younger we were a typical poor Irish family. My dad had lost his job after he broke his back in work-related accident and we lived off of his insurance payout. We were so poor that I sometimes didn’t have shoes. One year when September rolled by, my dad realized that he’d need to get me some shoes for the school year. He went to the store without a penny, hoping that he could figure something out. On the way there he found £20 on the ground – and that is how he could afford to get me shoes for another year.

This isn’t an unusual story. I wasn’t bullied or taunted for not being wealthy as a child. Not many of us were. It wasn’t something we made fun of each other for because we were all in similar situations.

Times are often tough, and living ethically isn’t always cheap.

My dad didn’t know who made those shoes. All he knew was that he needed to have his daughter fitted out for shoes for the school year, and it tore him up thinking that he might not be able to provide me with even that.


High Fashion, High Morals, High Noses

Photo via May S. Young
Photo via May S. Young

Vivienne Westwood doesn’t have any sympathy for those of us who don’t live the high life, and can’t easily make better choices, and she’s not shy to say so. She’ll stick her nose up at you quicker than you’ve shown her your empty pockets.

The designer has, yet again, stated where she stands on ethics and fashion by stating:

“Clothes should cost more – they are so subsidised,” she said.

“Food should cost more too – you know something is wrong when you can buy a cooked chicken for £2.”

But this is not the first time Westwood has made such comments. Last year she stated that she thought poor people should buy fewer clothes. And I’m sure many of us screamed at her “WE DO”.


Ethics versus Politics – A Person By Person Judgement

What Westwood is trying to say is something along the lines of: We should try to work away from the disposable culture that we’ve developed. We should buy investment pieces that will last the test of time, instead of items of clothing that are likely to be thrown out within a year.

But what she fails to realize is that this applies to upper, middle and lower classes. The upper classes, with their huge houses that are not always powered by solar panels. With cars that would make Mother Earth turn in her grave.

And this is why Westwood’s claims are completely classist with no consideration about a specific class’s own difficulties.

Not everyone can afford the luxury of being green, buying ethically or being vegan.

[sam_ad id=”80″ codes=”true”]Of course, there’s no excuse for littering when there’s bins, or driving to the store, when it’s only a five minute walk – but this is all about education, another privilege that lower classes aren’t always so lucky to have access to.

So instead of shaming people for not being able to make the steps that we are lucky to be able to make (a step which is far from productive), here’s what I suggest:

We applaud and encourage them for trying to take any measures they can to be greener. It’s not always easy, and you have to be very committed to it in order to make drastic sacrifices that you may have to make, but shame and humiliation won’t encourage anyone to make those sacrifices – not willingly anyways.

  • Sarah Burke

    Sarah is a graduate of the University of College Dublin. After receiving her MA in Gender, Sexuality and Culture, she taught High-school English and History for three years before moving to Vancouver to pursue a career in writing. In her spare time, Sarah likes to write poetry, go to music festivals and drink wine. Her favorite food is the burrito. She is an avid reader of fantasy novels, an active participant in feminist circles, and will always have an adventure planned in the foreseeable future. Interesting fact: Sarah is fluent in Irish (Gaeilge).

2 thoughts on “Dear Vivienne Westwood: Stop Shaming People Who Can’t Afford to go Green”

  1. This is an important discussion, but I am afraid Ms. Burke does a real disservice to those of us living below the poverty line when she suggests that eating environmentally is more expensive. It is, in fact, less.

    There is no doubt about it–low income urban communities are often produce deserts as they say. It can be tough to buy great fruits and veggies. But eating environmentally is first and foremost about becoming vegan–the single most powerful step any individual, no matter their class status, can take to lower their carbon footprint and express solidarity with the goals of the climate movement.

    But being vegan is about where you get your *proteins.* And as it turns out, it is easier to get good proteins in low income urban communities, which so often are partly or mostly communities of color, than in other neighborhoods. Why? Stores in Latino communities stock dozens of kinds of beans, canned and dried. Indian, West Indian, and Pakistani community stores stock gorgeous arrays of legumes–varieties of lentils, chick peas, etc. Stores in Asian communities carry all manner of soy product, including varieties of tofu. These are all cheaper than meat or cheese and all far healthier as sources of protein than meat or cheese. Fancy fake meat and etc products are expensive, to be sure, but so are fancy pre-prepared non-vegan foods. Low-income folks are not able to choose such things often, no matter whether they are vegan or not.

    I am in complete sympathy with the ideas behind this essay. I never heard of Vivienne Westwood. She sounds like lots of privileged clueless people I’ve met, and like someone I’d hate o have to rub elbows with. (I’m sure she’d feel the same about me lol…)

    But there is no reason to spread misinformation in the name of a good cause. I’m a single woman living below the poverty line, as well as a part-time single parent, and I can say without any hesitation that my grocery budget went down when my daughter and I went vegan–and we find the low-income communities where we have lived (and live) to be very easy ones in which to be vegan. I’d urge the author to reconsider her stance on this.

  2. By the by, both Oreos and most Pop-Tart flavors are vegan–and we’ve never had trouble buying these treats in the low-income communities we have and do call home. 🙂


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