Cleaning Up Our Planet: Class Implications
03 March 2023
‘Cleaning is just putting stuff in less obvious places’ - a statement we are all ashamed to admit to. When it comes to household cleaning, there is no ‘one size fits all approach’. Imagine visiting your neighbour’s abode and immediately asking ‘how often do you clean?’, such an insult would result in a genuine lie, probably that of ‘everyday’, paired with an unimpressed glare.
Since its inception, cleanliness practices have indicated economic and social status whereby a clean environment suggested comfort and acceptability. Scientific advances of the 19th century and the publication of the Pasteur’s ‘germ theory’ removed class associations of hygiene, addressing the link between poor hygiene and disease.
Heightened climate focus of the 21st century resulted in the fine-tooth combing of most consumer items, including scrutinising the environmental impact of cleaning detergents. Cleaning products often contain harmful phosphate components and non-biodegradable active surfactants, generating toxic algal blooms and disruption aquatic wildlife ecosystems. Toxic algal blooms are harmful bacteria which grow out of control and produce harmful effects on humans, mammals and marine life. Traditional detergents are also guilty of contributing to the excessive disposal of single-use plastics, with UK households using over 70 million cleaning sprays each year- more than 140 million pieces of plastic.
Cue green cleaning products
Interchangeably termed ‘bio’, ‘eco’ or ‘sustainable’, the market growth of green cleaning products has initiated a clean up of our planetary mess. Green detergents are made with biodegradable chemicals, packaged in compostable materials, including Ecover and Method. But, whilst eco-detergents are helping the planet, their introduction has unintentionally reinforced the concept of ‘environmental classism’.
‘Environmental classism’ is the disproportionate effect of environmental policy on lower income communities. Lower income communities are often more strongly affected by the negative effects of climate change, yet are hard done by when it comes to green policies slapping extra costs and worsening economic inequality.
So what has cleaning got to do with environmental classism?
Entering the green cleaning transition has inevitably been paired with a price premium, making the products less accessible to people on lower incomes. On average, sustainable cleaning products, including Ecover and Method, cost 133% more than conventional products.
Understandably, these products are more costly to manufacture due to alternative chemicals used, however, retailers exacerbate the inaccessibility of such eco alternatives.
Decisions made by our supermarkets have further fuelled this class problem, as more ‘upper class’ stores use behavioural and visual nudges to encourage shoppers to choose the more environmentally friendly cleaning product. Conversely, ‘lower class’ supermarkets assume disinterest in eco-alternatives, placing items out of eyeline in high up shelf corners.
Why does this matter?
Environmentalism is a universal accessible movement, however, businesses are shaping necessary green goods into ‘luxury items’, reinforcing class barriers. With the predicted 4.4% eco-cleaning market growth, price premiums will continue to force consumers to pick traditional alternatives. Yes, as consumers we can continue to making responsible choices, however, big retailers need to take responsibility and incentivise environmentally friendly purchases. Green cleaning is just a snippet of this issue, seen in organic groceries and responsible cosmetics. Increased awareness of sustainable consumption barriers can help shift the profit driven marketing strategies of retailers, making eco products the norm.
So how does this affect me?
If you are faced with the choice of splashing the cash on a £3 Method antibacterial spray when a £1 own brand bottle is staring right at you, remember you don’t have to break your bank to be an eco-warrior. Instead, grab yourself some vinegar and baking soda for an eco-conscious, cost effective clean.