Is it my job to change the world, and who is going to help?

We explore how responsibility for social and environmental issues is distributed between citizens, government and business. Whose job is it to make a positive difference in a problematic society?
Becca Thomas
 

I like to think of myself as someone who is doing as much as I can to minimise my negative impact on this planet and society, and I imagine that people who have chosen to work in the nonprofit sector are driven by similar goals; they feel strongly about a particular issue, and wish for their lives to reflect some good in a world where we are constantly faced by the worst that humanity is capable of.

I became passionate about raising awareness of the negative environmental and social effects of the ‘fast fashion’ consumer industry last year; I subsequently challenged myself to shop for clothing at second-hand/vintage shops and sustainable retailers exclusively for the rest of my life, and used a blog and social media to hold myself to account.

Unsuccessful in my aims and reflecting now over a year down the line, I have been thinking increasingly about how people, especially those who work in the third sector, find a balance between trying to do good and functioning on a personal level in a society/economy where it is becoming increasingly difficult not to be complicit in unsustainable practises. Whether it’s with clothingfood, or transport options; the cheapest and most convenient commodities tend to come with a hefty moral price-tag. So where, if at all, do you draw the line before your ambitions to make ethical and sustainable choices prevent you from living within your means and enjoying the human experience? Is it ever acceptable to disregard these issues, consciously or unconsciously?

Concerns about certain matters (e.g. social/environmental/animal welfare) and subsequent lifestyle choices might be more salient with those working in sectors related to them; however, I believe it is everyone’s responsibility regardless of occupation to, at the very least, cultivate an awareness of the processes resulting in the everyday products that it is all too easy to take for granted.

Our Charity Awareness Monitor (CAM) research from January last year revealed that I’m a minority in this belief; companies and governments are seen as having primary responsibility for tackling climate change, particularly in rich countries and particularly in comparison to individuals. 22% of the public believed that it’s not worth taking individual action against climate change if others do not do the same. The same research from January this year revealed that most believe they can see the effects of climate change, but a significant proportion still deny human impact.

I was unsuccessful in my challenge because I found it all too easy not to give thought to the negative processes behind the fast fashion industry. Compounding this, a general lack of transparency and skilfully designed ‘ethics campaigns’ by retailers left me confused about whether or not I (or they) were actually doing any good.

Clothes companies emphasise the minimisation of their negative environmental and social impacts through compliance with government legislation and (mostly self-regulated) community projects; but they give vague or no indication of the scale of said negative impact (understandably), or the long-term effectiveness of their community projects to combat it.

It is crucial that we all re-evaluate the role of citizens, government, and business in tackling the environmental and social issues which bubble away underneath the clothing, food and transport choices we all make. While it is encouraging to see the government and businesses hold themselves to account, more needs to be done by these influential bodies - and by individuals also - to cultivate awareness and a collective culpability around these issues; leaving it for someone else to deal with is far too easy.

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