A class apart

Last updated: Nov 2007


What’s the impact of the UK’s notorious class system on the environment movement, asks Simon Birch

Class. It’s the ‘c-word’ that even today many environmentalists are still uncomfortable talking about.

Like it or not, the harsh reality is that the UK remains a class-ridden society and the environment movement is not immune from its divisive effects. All the evidence from opinion polls merely confirms what most already know: if you’re middle-class you’re more likely to be environmentally aware and a member of an environmental organisation.

So just why is it that groups such as Friends Of the Earth and Greenpeace are by-words for the muesli-eating, Guardian-reading middle classes?

“Historically the environment has always been seen as being way down on the list of priorities for low-income communities,” says Asad Rehman from Friends Of the Earth.

“People have always been primarily concerned with whether they have a job, decent housing and if they’re a member of an ethnic community, whether they’re the target of racism,” he says. “The result is that environmental groups and other NGOs have always been as seen as something for white middle-classes.”

Jonathan Atkinson from UHC, the Manchester-based ethical design co-operative, agrees that environmental groups have failed to address the issues that low-income communities face.

“The majority of environmental campaigns don’t tackle issues of inequality and social justice. It’s easy to say ‘fit low-energy lightbulbs and don’t use plastic bags’. It’s much harder to engage with issues such as class and race and examine the inequalities that exist.”

The irony is that many low-income and disadvantaged communities face some of the worst environmental problems in the UK, whether it’s air pollution from congested inner-city roads or toxic emissions from factories and sub-standard housing.

As well as not being seen as a priority for many low-income communities, a green lifestyle is increasingly viewed as being too expensive. How many families on benefits can afford organic potatoes or fairtrade jeans when they can get the conventional versions for a fraction of a price at ASDA?

The truth is that thanks in part to Eton-educated David Cameron and his multi-millionaire mate, Ecologist editor Zac Goldsmith, being green is now increasingly seen as something for the privileged, where once it was the preserve of the penny-pincher and unwashed protestor.

Nor is it only the political elite who are guilty of increasing the disconnect between the environmental message and disadvantaged communities. It’s all very well for a number of the UK’s leading climate change campaigners to lecture people on flying when they themselves have benefited from runaway property inflation and legged it over to some rural idyll in Wales.

Sure, it’s not helping the environment, but for many low-income families who don’t have the luxury of verdant back-door views, their annual two weeks in the sun courtesy of Easyjet is one of the few times that they can get away from the grimness that is their inner city estate.

So just how should the environment movement start to connect with low-income communities?

Asad Rehman says that the challenge is to make environmental groups relevant and engage with communities over the issues that they’re concerned about.

It was on this basis that four years ago Friends Of the Earth collaborated with local communities in the North East to block two ‘ghost ships’ from being dismantled in Hartlepool, preventing 800 tons of toxic waste from being dumped in landfill sites.

Subsequently FoE have worked with communities in inner-city Manchester on public transport issues and a major project is planned in the East End of London, which has some of the worst urban environmental problems in the UK. The Women’s Environmental Network has also done pioneering work with women from Bangladeshi communities in Tower Hamlets.

Just this summer UHC initiated a project to work on the issue of climate change with residents in Wythenshawe, near Manchester, one of the most disadvantaged areas in the UK.

“Wythenshawe Forever was a huge success,” says Jonathan Atkinson. “Rather than looking at the problems of the area we celebrated what was good and we were able to show people how they could easily reduce their carbon footprint.”

Ultimately Asad Rehman believes that it’s vital that environmental groups embrace all sections of the community. “We believe that a clean and healthy environment is a right for everyone and we need to be able to speak for every section of society,” says Rehman, adding that “we need to campaign on the twin principles of both environmental justice and social justice.”


From Ethical Consumer issue 109, November/December 2007