Have you heard of the term ‘Eco Perfectionism’? Maybe you haven’t but you might understand the concept. Put simply, it’s the idea that you can only take part in the sustainability movement if you’re living an environmentally flawless life.
My feeling on eco-perfectionism is that it’s one of the biggest barriers to getting people to take more sustainable steps in their lives. Who wants to make a change to their life, for fear of getting it wrong? For people on social media to tell you just how wrong you are? And how do we encourage people to take part in a movement when people seem so quick to tear people down, rather than build them up?
Progress, Not Perfection
Something I think about a lot is the old adage, ‘Progress Not Perfection’. As such I’ve come to think that sustainability should have a tagline. You know, how you would describe sustainability to someone you met in an elevator, with only limited time to get your point across. Progress, not perfection would fit perfectly.
It’s getting this message across that is the problem.
I’ve found when you push your head above the crowd, and blog about sustainability or share something on social media people assume that you’re some kind of eco-perfectionist. My own experience of blogging about sustainable living has shown how some people are quick to criticise. I often get the old chestnut “how dare you do X, Y, or Z on a site called MORAL FIBRES”. Moral Fibres in capitals.
I mean, first of all, on my about page, I straight up state that I’m not perfect. I mean, no-one is because it is simply not possible to be perfect. Not in any aspect of sustainability. This is because everything we do has an impact. We can try and minimise that impact according to our own individual ethics, but ultimately there are trade-offs in any aspect of sustainability.
Sustainability Is About Nuance and Individual Circumstances
Take animal products, for example. Leather and wool are both derived from livestock rearing, which has its impacts on the environment. Vegan leather, however, is a virgin plastic derived from fossil fuels and is nowhere near as durable.
Meanwhile, acrylic fleece jumpers are also made from fossil fuels and shed microplastics into our oceans every time they are washed. Even ones made from recycled plastic bottles. There are trade-offs and choices to be made, with no perfect choice, save to only buy second-hand everything ever. This often isn’t a practical or accessible choice so we make tradeoffs based on our own individual internal values.
There’s No One Way to Be Sustainable
And that’s the thing with the sustainability movement. Sustainability doesn’t look a certain way. There’s no one way to be sustainable. Everyone has to make choices according to their own lives values, circumstances, barriers, and privileges. It can’t be prescriptive.
We, therefore, cannot make judgements about how anyone approaches sustainability, because we don’t the ins and outs of a person’s individual circumstances, values, barriers, privileges, and nuances. Nuances such as when plastic-free isn’t always best for the environment.
Shouting at people telling them that they’re doing it wrong is neither helpful nor does it engender people to environmentalism. All it does is tell people that there’s no room for individual circumstances.
We’re Not Born Experts
What eco-perfectionism also does is tell people that there’s no room for trying, learning, or growing. However, we’re not born experts. There needs to be space in the movement for people to try, and learn, and make mistakes, and try again.
Shouting people down when they make mistakes means they don’t progress to the trying again stage. They’re made to think environmentalism isn’t for them. Shouting at people on the internet or in real life achieves nothing. Instead, stop and think about what you could say that could offer encouragement. Or decide if it’s best to say anything at all. Sometimes that the most useful thing to do.
Eco-perfectionism, and the quest for it, is a sure-fire way to burn out or develop eco-anxiety.
It’s difficult to aim for perfection, and we can put people off our mission if we’re too over-zealous. However, if we aim to be imperfect environmentalists, then we might just encourage more imperfect environmentalists to join our cause.