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Sustainability and the ability to live sustainably is a sector notoriously hard to access as it involves making personal sacrifices that are not possible for everyone - it’s usually the pricier and more time consuming option. It’s often heralded as an individual choice to shop in this way with little thought for the things these systems may offer to a community on a wider scale. For example, bulk and zero waste stores have been an incredible option for those looking to shop sustainably for years but they’re simply not accessible to vast swathes of people. In a survey we ran in the local community in Leyton and Leytonstone before we launched, over half of all of our respondents stated that they did not currently shop with zero waste stores. This was not because they didn’t want to but because they simply couldn’t find the time, or they didn’t own cars to transport their shopping from further than their immediate local area, or they couldn’t afford it, or they simply usually got their shopping delivered because they have young children who need entertaining! Local communities when they come together have a huge amount of power in promoting access amongst ourselves and this is something that has come to the forefront even more so throughout the Covid-19 lockdown. I think the sustainability and zero waste sector can learn a huge amount from this.
This year has really put every single one of us through the ringer in all number of different and yet intersecting ways. One of the only real ‘good’ things that I think has arisen out of the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown has been the widespread establishment of local mutual aid groups. Waltham Forest specifically has one with over five thousand members of the local community involved on Facebook and ready to support people with any kind of need that they cannot meet independently. They are also a space for community organising and connection in a time when many might otherwise be isolated from their usual spaces and support networks. People in this network have been providing anything from food to spare clothes, furniture for those moving into new accommodation, errand running, or simply a friendly chat from time to time. There has been a strong and important understanding quite suddenly in local communities of the myriad of things which might prevent others from shopping for themselves, being able to furnish a new home themselves, attending meetings in person, or from accessing government support (and the huge limits and failings of this in the first place), and the need for a community based alternative.
The locals of Waltham Forest have risen to this task in a huge way and when the government have now wiped their hands of any semblance of this support in the current moment of writing post-lockdown (or post first lockdown), these systems and a resistance of the urge to return totally to normal are more important than ever. As @nina_tame, a Disability activist with a huge presence on Instagram, has explained, many people who are physically Disabled who were previously shielding are now being told in the blink of an eye that they need not shield anymore. The government heralded this as a positive step, a sign of a ‘return to normality’, but the sudden knock on effect of this supposed normality is that any support offered to those previously shielding, such as government issued food packages, is due to abruptly end. Nina rightly states that ‘Covid really does bring out the eugenics in people’ when many are expected to return to work and their children are expected to return to school with a tagline of ‘it only affects the vulnerable’. It’s the same logic of individualism which leads still others to state that those who may lose jobs and family incomes due to the stopping of the furlough scheme, those in precarious, zero hour, or low paid and unstable employment, should simply ‘get another job’ - a survival of the fittest mentality.
This mentality, and the mentality of individual sacrifice and choice doesn’t serve anyone apart from those who do not have barriers to their access in the first place. Communities that can support each other, that don’t need to rely on support from a government that serves only a fraction of people, are communities which can build the most sustainable systems because they are about quality and serving the needs of a community at large rather than sheer quantity; they promote ease of use that rivals those of the opportunistic large corporations. Locally, for example, Organiclea are already proving this day in day out with the most wonderful local and totally sustainable food system supported and bolstered by huge community involvement, be it from volunteer growers, local independent businesses acting as pick up points, and huge community uptake in their fruit and veg box scheme. Organiclea is hugely accessible precisely because it centres the community it serves and listens to its needs whilst still being sustainable. Covid-19 Mutual Aid groups have proved to me even further that this type of cooperative future is possible and it’s here, we just need to sustain it, and this is exactly what we’re trying to build on with Top Up Shop as a delivery based service. Normal wasn’t actually so great, so let’s create new!