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!

What The Oatly Debacle Tells Us About 'Green Capitalism'.

· 950 words · about 5 minutes

If you’re in the zero waste community you’d be hard pressed this week to have missed the sustainable revolution’s newest, biggest, collective disappointment in the Oatly debacle, but if you did, here’s what went down and why it matters on a huge scale.

It came to wide scale attention this week that the previously well-regarded milk alternative brand ‘Oatly’ has been bought into by some extremely shady characters. The most notable of these being the 10% of shares owned by Blackstone, a private equity firm not only with alleged links to Brazilian logging firms in the Amazon, contributing to horrendous deforestation, but also with sizeable donations to the Trump campaign. Sadly, it doesn’t even end there, Oatly have come under further scrutiny for the 2016 buy in of 30% of their shares by the part Chinese state owned China Resources Verlin Health Investment Company. As a Swedish company with huge markets primarily in Europe many have rightfully asked why a decision would be made to sell large parts of the company shares to Chinese owners. A statement from Oatly themselves claims that “One of the reasons [for Chinese owners] was to enter the Chinese market.”, they seem to have seen this move as an opportunity to expand their reach globally but why does all of this even matter? Why shouldn’t they? Do we all need to stop buying Oatly now? Well let’s break it down.

In short, yes, we do need to stop buying Oatly, but the long answer is of course more broad. In our best possible scenario we need to stop buying from huge global companies altogether, they don’t represent us, they don’t serve us, and they don’t offer even a glimmer of the truly radical sustainable alternatives that our communities and local initiatives can provide. As a company previously hailed for their ethics and their provision of a very strong alternative for dairy products, Oatly have previously been seen as one of the ‘good guys’. They, in a kind of Ben and Jerry’s way, prided themselves on their steadfast ethics, their commitment to sustainability, and an emphasis on ‘minimal environmental impact’. They were loved for their playful taglines and graphics and a seemingly down to earth approach to marketing. Oat milk and other vegan alternatives in general have also been embraced widely for their ecological benefits in lower co2 and water consumption during growing and production as well as being cruelty free. However, as Emma from @wisewithwaste has asked: ‘What about the social impact of their products?’. The selling of their shares simply to the highest bidders, namely huge multinational corporations, has proven beyond any reasonable doubt that Oatly’s ‘down to earth’, ‘we’re just like you’ approach is all just green capitalism and bluster. Green capitalism in its simplest manifestation is when capitalism attempts to tell us, the socially conscious public just trying to do our best, that the only way to be sustainable is to buy new things! That we need to keep regularly purchasing and consuming but that’s ok because the things we’re consuming are vegan! Or ethical! Or just says it's nice! It matters not that we might be purchasing from huge companies with investment, like Blackstone, in corrupt property ownership and foreign governments, its the intention that matters right? Oatly’s statement of intent to break into the Chinese market, and their method of doing so by selling shares to a part state owned private equity firm, is immediate evidence of their intention to pursue continual profit and free market global capitalism. Some defenders of Oatly, and Oatly’s own recent statement on the matter, have argued a kind of ‘changing it from the inside’ approach to Blackstone’s investment in the company but it would be naive to think that Blackstone see Oatly as anything more than a financial opportunity, and when the ethics are gone what’s really left in the end? As Aja Barber has stated, it seems to be a ‘means justifies the ends’ approach and it just doesn’t hold up when the companies gaining materially are part of the original problem. Even Oatly’s view of China as simply another ‘market’ is worrying at best given the material human rights abuses being suffered there currently. There is nothing radical about free market capitalism. This kind of liberal free market capitalist pursuit and supposed justification, especially in its current form with the boom of multinational corporations, is fundamentally incompatible with truly sustainable alternatives; with systems that promote reuse, repurposing, self sufficiency, low waste, circular systems, and an emphasis on community. Why? Because these systems consume less. They’re less about growth and more about buying responsibly, especially in the zero waste movement, nothing is seen as disposable, so why would I need to keep buying more when I can make my own? Or when the things I do buy last forever? Or when I’m simply content with what I have already? These premises are untenable for capitalism and for continual growth led systems, they would collapse without the unrepentant drive for new markets and more and more profit, even with riches beyond your wildest dreams.

Oatly want to tell us that deals like this are inevitable if sustainability is going to triumph in this world; that we have to give some when we take some and work with the big guns at the top. This is failing to reimagine our current systems in truly radical ways, the pursuit of money over anything else is what has led the climate crisis in the first place. Unfortunately in the process they’re failing to see the material harm their income now contributes to. At least we can finally get around to making our own oat milk now right..?