Making Green Happen Through Economics of Sustainability

By Lori Hamilton

While for some, the challenges of making a transition to a more sustainable way of living lie mostly in changing hard-learned habits, for others, going green is difficult for other reasons.

How can we make green affordable and achievable for everyone? What are the implications of failing to consider the unintended impacts of green projects, some of which aren’t always positive? Are there ways to implement sustainable practices in day-to-day living that are realistic for those who can’t always make the greener choice because it’s not the best financial option?

These are some of the questions we’re trying to answer in order to make sustainability sustainable for people from all economic backgrounds.

Gentrification and the Green Movement

Even the most well-intentioned, progressive movements sometimes have unintended negative consequences. When you picture neighborhood improvements like upgraded public transportation options, increased green space, or an added bike lane, it might be hard to see the downsides.

However, the problem of eco-gentrification — rising prices in areas where green urban development is taking place — is growing, and it impacts the people living in neighborhoods where development costs can’t be made up for by the people already living there. While these green upgrades are meant to improve these spaces, they sometimes result in those areas becoming too expensive for current residents to continue to affordably live.

It’s also true that green projects are more likely to be underway in areas where residents tend to be more affluent. “Large-scale projects for ‘greening’ cities, such as the High Line, have become bigger and more targeted to more specific audiences, contributing to the problem of residential segregation,” notes Jeanne Haffner in a piece from The Guardian, discussing the risk of eco-gentrifying spaces.

The effect of residential segregation has serious consequences for the people living in areas that don’t receive the benefits from improvements. We can see examples of the impact of this in places affected by this year’s hurricane season. Climate change is resulting in increased flooding and destruction from storms, and areas most impacted tend to be those where residents don’t always have the incomes to afford costly upgrades to infrastructure that could help reduce property damage. It’s a cycle that pushes people living in gentrified areas into those areas that are less likely to be recieve investment.

Haffner goes on to offer some insight on better options for introducing green projects, including projects of a smaller scope being implemented across different neighborhoods in cities simultaneously, to easy the effects of sudden changes that might push people in or out of a particular area. She also points to “conscious anti-gentrification” tactics as a possible solution: things like including residents in discussions surrounding greening projects and avoiding projects that have high aesthetic appeal but less green benefits. Addressing the social factors that contribute to the issues of residential segregation and eco-gentrification can also have a positive impact on the green movement as a whole.

Affordable, Sustainable Choices for Individuals

It’s true that in the long run, many green options are more affordable than their standard counterparts. For example, switching to choices like solar energy and Energy-Star rated appliances can result in sizable savings for homeowners. And there’s no doubt that the payoff for the environment is worth the cost. However, not everyone can afford to make expensive up-front investments in more sustainable options, even if they know it’s a smart financial and environmental move.

Current incentivization programs don’t always solve this problem for homeowners who come from less advantaged economic backgrounds. Tax credits are an excellent way to incentivise those that can afford to pay for up-front costs, but have little benefit to those that can’t.

There are some ways to implement sustainable practices that result in more immediate savings. These are often practices that individuals might be doing in their normal lives already, or could easily implement, but might not even realize have a green benefit. Sharing the environmental positives of these practices can help encourage people to continue them or try them out.

One great example of this is secondhand shopping. “Buying used clothing is the greenest option of all—and a triple threat in terms of eco friendliness,” notes Green America, adding, “It keeps old items out of the landfill, prevents resources from being used to make something new, and helps you save money.” Secondhand shopping is a great option for vehicles, appliances, and consumer goods like electronics, as well. More practices that play double-duty in terms of financial savings and sustainability include being more mindful of energy use around the home, buying produce in season, and planning commutes efficiently to save gas.

It’s important to consider the impact of economic background on accessibility and practicality of greener choices if we hope to achieve widespread adoption of sustainable practices. Understanding the barriers individuals face to implementing green practices, despite good intentions and a desire to contribute to a greener world, can help us develop ways of addressing those barriers. The success of the green movement depends on collective success, which is possible when we enable and empower the individual.

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