Working-class Environmentalism by Karen Bell

I meant to read this for a really long time, but completely failed to get round to it until a few months ago.

I wish I’d read it sooner.

Working-Class Environmentalism by Karen Bell is one of the first books I would recommend anyone read if they’re new to the sustainability movement. Yes, in places is reads like a dissertation, but it deals with so much more than the usual ‘mason-jar low-physical-waste’ side we so often see.

At this point, I’ve read a lot of books about sustainability, but all of them seem very much pitched at a certain income. Even How To Save The World for Free felt as though there was an earning threshold that was a prerequisite to being environmentally sound. In the UK, where the divide between rich and poor is growing ever more pronounced, more and more people fall below this mark.

I could write a whole book about the ways in which the sustainability movement is only superficially set up for those on a lower income but thankfully, I don’t have to because Karen Bell did.

This book isn’t a work about the things that those in low income households can do to save the environment. It’s about the ways in which people who earn less are already doing more for the planet than their better-off counterparts. It’s about the disproportionate impact of poor environmental strategies on those who live in deprived areas. It’s about the myriad ways that conventional environmentalism is causing a bigger class divide – like how it’s easy to blame those who need plastic-drenched ready meals because they’re working three jobs. Or how we demonise those who rely on fast fashion prices to clothe their families because trawling charity shops or second hand sites takes more time then they have free/have internet access for. There are so many ways in which the mason jar aesthetic of the zero waste movement disadvantages all of us, but this is so seldom spoken about and almost never in conjunction with money – if it is discussed, it’s in regards to mental health and the unachievable expectations we place on ourselves in a capitalist culture.

I also feel that it’s worth mentioning – just from a ‘growing as a human being’ standpoint – that the definition of ‘British working class’ is no longer someone from a northern mining town. It’s call centre workers, care workers, and beauty technicians. It’s Deliveroo drivers, and Uber drivers. In-work poverty is rising. And poverty disproportionately impacts people of colour, traveller culture, and immigrants.

It got me thinking more about the ways in which the zero waste movement encourages a minimalist aesthetic, and how this contradicts the poverty-driven desire to hold onto things ‘just in case’. I remember listening to a podcast by Jen Gale (of Sustainable-ish fame) in which she encouraged people to stop hoarding baby clothes and school uniforms, as passing them on would prevent the need for more to be made/sold. But what if you can’t afford to replace them after you give them up? I know that saving and repairing my eldest’s uniforms has been of huge financial benefit to me – especially now that the pandemic requires that uniform is changed daily. If I needed to buy 3-5 shirts, 3-5 sweatshirts, and 3-5 pairs of trousers per child per year, that would cost well over the £100 mark – and that’s factoring in second hand, off-brand bottoms. That’s a monumental amount of money when you’re in receipt of Universal Credit. *

For me, one of the most important factors in this book was the message that if you’re living on a low income, you’re probably already living in a more ecologically sound way, than those earning more and buying ‘green’ things.

In short – if you’re only going to read one book about the planet this year, let it be this one.


*If you’re in the market for off-brand school uniform, or for logo-sweaters from around Glasgow, then Apparel Exchange are a great social enterprise offering donated goods for low prices – including wellies, hallowe’en costumes, and waterproofs.

Their landing page also specifies that : “families can […] receive free clothing from us when times are challenging.”

If you have clothes to donate, you can make contact with the team here.

I’m not affiliated with Apparel Exchange at all, just for full disclosure.

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