Making sustainability fair

One big problem with sustainability is cost. We might all agree that going green is a nice idea, but in practice it is easier for people with the money to afford it. How will we make it work for the many who can't?

Home Life Sustainability Making sustainability fair

As anyone who has shopped for sustainable goods knows only too well, being a green consumer is a pricey business. After all there is a reason why foods are grown intensively and with chemical assistance, why energy is generated by burning polluting and high-carbon coal, and why over 90 per cent of the world's vehicle journeys involve fossil fuels. The reason, of course, is that it is cheaper that way.

There is no getting away from it: sustainability is a very expensive business. Take the cost of transitioning to a low-carbon energy economy. The latest estimates from the International Energy Agency are that by the end of this decade investment in clean energy and infrastructure will have to be running at $4 trillion a year just to avoid the worst-case climate scenario. Written out in full that is $4,000,000,000,000 that has to come out of consumers' pockets every single year for the foreseeable future.

Increased costs

What's more, the added cost of sustainability is a financial burden that falls disproportionately on the less well-off. It's been shown by the price comparison site that a family of four who selected only the most sustainable products in a shopping basket of 20 everyday items would end up paying 88 per cent more than if they bought regular, everyday products.

As for cutting down on personal fossil fuel consumption, new electric cars are expensive and so are low-carbon household heating technologies such as solar panels and heat pumps. In the recent past many governments subsidised such products, with tax breaks and grants for alternative heating and electric mobility. But lately policy has shifted, with governments turning to penalties on emissions rather than support for consumers seeking low-carbon alternatives. In 2021, for example, the UK government cut subsidies for electric vehicles twice, halving the support available to buyers.

Subsidies work

Although there is fierce debate over what kind of government policies will best support the transition to a low-carbon economy, the cutting of direct subsidies that make green products more affordable may well be short-sighted. While it is clear that someone has to pay for sustainable energy investments, there is some evidence to suggest that a faster energy transition supported by measures like direct subsidies may save money in the long-term.

According to research from the Institute for New Economic Thinking at Oxford University, a rapid transition to low-carbon energy could actually end up saving $5.6 trillion by 2070 after all investment costs are accounted for, compared to no transition at all. That is a long-term saving for the future, but it would far outweigh the relatively small amounts governments have to spend on making clean energy products affordable.

Subsidies would also have a political benefit in sharing out the financial burden of energy transition and helping to make sustainability seem fair as well as sensible.

Easy savings

But it's not all bad news when it comes to the price of being green. Alongside these big policy issues that involve spending large amounts of money, there are also some much smaller ways in which anyone can actually save money through sustainability irrespective of how rich or poor they are.

According to, a family could save £42 ($56) a year just by replacing single-use shopping bags (which in most countries cost money) with reusable bags. Meanwhile the Consumer Federation of America says that simply swapping the five most-used light bulbs in a home for LED lights could save $75 a year in reduced energy costs, rapidly paying back the investment. Small things, but small things add up.

One more suggestion that is close to this company's heart: make sure your tyres are properly inflated because fuel efficiency falls if they are not (along with the associated safety considerations, of course).

So, check your tyres and start saving money and cutting carbon emissions immediately. We can't say fairer than that.

Illustration by Davide Bart. Salvemini