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The Clean Living Movement’s Left Behind Demographic

By Elizabeth Condra·· 5 min read
The Clean Living Movement’s Left Behind Demographic

Recently we’ve seen an extremely profitable trend emerge from a genuine desire to be more environmentally conscious. The “clean living” movement includes everything from recycling to eating vegan, and it’s taken ahold of consumers with its many claims that their products will lead to reduced waste or decreased exposure to harmful chemicals.

While this trend may have started out as an authentic attempt to measure how humans and the products we consume are affecting our planet, there are several concerning connotations within the movement. These include how specific products are marketed, and how the movement treats those who aren’t necessarily unwilling but rather are unable to afford the high markup of living “cleanly.”

Buying the Hype

The “clean living” label covers the likes of more Instagrammable things like eating healthy, being active, and using vegan, cruelty-free skincare and beauty brands. Therefore, the trend encompasses a wide variety of products, from recipe kits to cleaning products.

Many meal-prep brands claim that ordering their kits is less harmful to the environment than a conventional trip to the grocery store. Though a study did find that these claims were correct (at least for the brand Blue Apron specifically), just three meals from Blue Apron run about $60 weekly, with two servings per meal.

Many brands have noticed how profitable a “clean” label is, alongside other claims like natural, ethical, or even healthy. 

The brand Grove Collaborative touts its monthly delivery service as “eco-minded” for “healthier, brighter” homes. The brand sells everything from lotions and hand creams to toothpaste and air fresheners, all formulated with all-natural ingredients and without dangerous chemical additives. While their products are priced individually, their hand soap and lip balm, for example, are pricier than ones you’d find at a run-of-the-mill drugstore.

Many brands have noticed how profitable a “clean” label is, alongside other claims like natural, ethical, or even healthy. These descriptors suggest that their product and their product alone is safe, healthy, and overall better, while the alternatives are potentially dangerous to buy and use. However, the distinction between the two is in the markup of the “cleaner” products, which raises an important point the movement has continued to overlook.

The Store We Love To Hate

As our culture becomes more aware, or at least environmentally conscious, there has been a certain amount of backlash against big corporations like Amazon and Walmart, if not for the way they treat employees than at least for the nature of their affordable, lower-end products. With Walmart specifically, there’s not much the company can seem to do right in the eyes of critics, from the size of their stores to the quality of their goods. 

In 2012, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance released a three-page outline of Walmart’s failures, which included things like failing to implement renewable energy policies, selling “shoddy” products (thereby increasing waste), increasing greenhouse gas emission as well as land consumption, and industrializing food production, among other things. 

Walmart has been criticized for failing to implement renewable energy policies, selling “shoddy” products (thereby increasing waste), and increasing greenhouse gas emission. 

The scale of the impact Walmart has had as a result of globalization is a serious issue we’re beginning to explore within the context of how this impacts our planet, specifically through the waste we produce and how we actively try to amend it. What’s evident, however, is that big box chains and corporations like Walmart are often the only available business in rural or lower-income areas. As America’s largest retail chain, Walmart makes the majority of its profit from consumers who make at or less than $25,000 a year, around $38,000 lower than the national median income. When we factor in the reasons why the chain is so popular in specific areas, it’s easier to comprehend why a costly “clean living” movement hasn’t taken off in those places.

The Hypocrisy of the Movement 

At its core, the main principle of clean living seems to be about creating a more secure, sustainable world. There is something to be said for being smart, educated consumers who are aware of the impact our consumption has on the planet, and many clean living brands are making it their mission to work towards that end.

But it seems like these brands are specifically reserved for a certain demographic — the ones who can easily afford their no-waste, ethical, cruelty-free products. So who is that better world and more sustainable planet really being created for then? If we’re measuring our ability to be more eco-friendly consumers and patrons of strictly sustainable brands by our bank accounts, it seems like the future we’re working towards is one only a select few will be able to benefit from, and the ones who are simply unable to afford it are out of luck.

But it seems like these brands are specifically reserved for a certain demographic — the ones who can easily afford their no-waste, ethical, cruelty-free products. 

There’s no question that we’d all benefit from limited waste lifestyles, regardless of wealth or income. If more of us actively commit to recycling whenever we can, for example, we’d all stand to gain something from it. When it comes to buying “clean” products though, the advantage lies in being able to afford those products, and the benefits obtained from using them are limited to those groups. This becomes complicated when marketing tells us that buying these products is the only way to achieve healthier, sustainable lifestyles when it should be easy and affordable to have those benefits across the board.

Closing Thoughts

In our climate-minded culture, we’re encouraged to do whatever we can as consumers, like reducing single-use plastic and using ethically-sourced products. But those who have no other choice but to patronize “lower-end” chains are shamed or denigrated for doing so by those among us who claim to be the most environmentally conscious. Were the majority of products deemed necessary for a sustainable lifestyle actually affordable, living “cleanly” would be more easily accessible for a significant portion of the population.

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