Is The Need To Empower People Our Biggest Barrier In Enacting Environmental Change?

The impacts of personal debt and poverty on the UK's ability to conserve the environment

Debt is a huge global issue and affects our ability to conserve the environment. According to the IMF (International Monetary Fund, 2019) there's $188 trillion in global public and private debt. This is a huge topic so for this article I am going to focus mostly on individual debt and poverty and how this affects individual people's ability to participate in positive environmental actions.

I know… The Bumble Life is supposed to be a positive newsletter. So why am I writing about something so difficult and depressing as debt? Well… I don't necessarily think that the need to be positive about the big issues encountered when addressing environmental issue's means that we should ignore important topics; rather we should think about solutions to these problems and failing that create a discourse over the solutions that we could implement. This one is a particularly hard article for me to write as like many people; at this stage in my life I am not what you could call wealthy or middle class even and I do have student debt hanging over my own head. Still; I feel that it is important to back track (just a little bit) and talk about just what peaked my interest in writing this article…

…Recently I happened to stumble upon a feel good article about a project called Bank Job. This community led group blew up £1.2 million worth of payday loan debt to demonstrate the problem of debt culture and call for bad debts to be forgiven. As these debts are sold by banks for a fraction of their value it only costs them about £20,000 for over £1000,000 worth of debt. After buying the debt they were able to send letters letting people know that their debt had been written off and blew up printed bank notes for their feature film which will help demonstrate the problem of debt culture; with project donations helping to raise money for selected charities and to purchase and write off debt; mainly targeting payday loan debt.

What is payday loan debt?

Payday loan debt is very short term debt that is given out at a very high rate of interest. The idea is that you only borrow the money for a very short time. It is targeted at low income people who do no have access to other loans and need to cover a bill or expense. The problem comes when people can not pay this short term debt or they end up needing to keep continously taking out debt as they use much of their next pay check to pay for previous high interest debt.

Whilst we don't know the impact that the writing off of this debt has had for the individuals helped by the Bank Job project or why they got into debt in the first place; we can assume that these types of loans are morally suspect. They are targeted at those with low wages and low credit scores. Of course these companies may provide a life line for many struggling with low or no savings; to cover a surprise expense but it’s not debt alone that is the problem.

Here in the UK there has been a rise in the 0 hour or low hour work contract alongside a rising cost in living expenses including food, housing, clothing etc. According to Statistica; the number people on 0 hour contracts in the UK increased from 225,000 people in 2000 to 1.05 million in 2020. Between 2019 and 2020 the number of workers with a 0 hour contract jumped from 820,000 to 1.05 million. These statistics don't include the number of people who have few hours contracted to them. With this uncertainty over income it is easy to see why many people might slip into debt or even find themselves trapped in debt that they struggle to pay off.

So how does debt combined with low income effect our ability to conserve the environment?

Well when you are in debt and you are on a low income the likelihood is that your main financial priority is to pay off that debt and have shelter/ a home and to have other basic needs. This affects people's ability to make the best purchasing choices in terms of the environment. Products that have less environmental impacts are often charged at a premium. Whilst many of our population are trying to make the best financial decisions on a low budget they may not have the resources to actually participate in environmental efforts. When you think that tackling these issues often requires very large groups of people to participate then this generally limits our ability to make a positive change as a society. Debt and employment culture has a large part to play in this.

Take what we are seeing in our current lockdown situation (as I write this article it is November 2020) and how many people's jobs are now either considered work from home jobs or deemed as non-essential work that can not be carried out from home with those workers being told to stay home with 80% of their wage (with exceptions). The people who are right now deemed as essential workers include specific retail workers. In the UK there is a culture where many consider those who work in retail to be beneath them in some way. We consider it low skilled and unimportant; infact many of our retail workers are subject to abuse from customers! According to Usdaw (a large retail union in the UK) 76% of retail workers surveyed stated that workplace abuse had become “worse than normal” during the Covid-19 pandemic. Is it possible then that simply appreciating the work that people do and demanding a fair wage to be paid for that work could help “free up” or even “empower” people to participate in wider issues such as the environment? The idea that we need everyone to participate in certain environmental habits would perhaps seem less scary if these barriers were not in place or even if those barriers just had a lesser impact on society as a whole.

When I talk about debt culture I am mainly talking about debt in terms of a society and other than education; the main factor which I feel that we should be addressing is poverty. Poverty is often a factor that can encourage people to take out the types of debt that help them to survive rather than debt that might improve someone's life situation like say a loan that will allow them to get a better job or a mortgage that could allow them to own their own home. Poverty is also oftern the reason why people are excluded from such loans and rising rent costs alongside rising costs to buy a house also factor into all of this.

There is conflicting advise out there over whether renting or home ownership is the best choice. In 2016 Zoopla published a press release stating that it was “cheaper in 48% of Britain's citiies to buy rather than rent a house”. This however conflicts with some of the advise from many money expert sites such as that of investopedia suggesting that actually there are many hidden maintence bills that you might not forsee as a home owner that renters don't have to pay. Still; when you pay rent you do not actually end up owning an asset. If the landlord took out a morgage before renting it out then renters may even be paying for their landlord to own an asset. Having a home gives you some security (if you can afford to pay all the expenses associated with that home) as you have someone to live, it may mean less moving around as a rental contract may only last months or a year, you eventually own an asset or at least put money into actually owning something.

How can we fight debt culture?

The best way that I believe that we can fight debt culture is by supporting companies and buisnesses that actually pay their employees a living wage. I don't mean the “National Living Wage” as in the term coined by the government to describe the increased minimum wage but that set by the Living Wage Foundation of £9.50 or £10.50 for those living in London. UK National Living wage is £8.72 per hour (less than this for those under 25 and this doesn't increase in London to consider the increase in costs accossiated with living in the Capital City). According to the Living wage foundation Lidl is one of very few supermarkets that actually pay the Living wage to their own staff but they have not yet reached the stage of accreditation from the foundation yet… I personally consider this strange when as they are generally thought of as a budget supermarket. With this in mind one of the ways we can empower people is with our consumer choices.

If we choose buisnesses that pay their lower wage staff better wages over those that don't as well as looking at their environmental impact we can bring greater attention to this issue from decision maker's within buisnesses. This could positively affect their decisions in regards to staff wages. If paying staff higher wages allows companies to become more competitive then it will act as an incentive for them to better pay their staff. This salary of workers are oftern published in job advertisements and employment sites. We can also look at the type of employment they tend to offer in terms of 0 or low contracted hours v's full-time employment too to decide if big local buisnesses actually compensate their workers ethically.

Small buisnesses particularly those with ethical and environmental policies are worth considering as an alternative to larger companies. If we are supporting individuals and small companies who choose to practice buisness sustainably and ethically we are not only empowering the people who run this buisness but we are also making sustainable choices ourselves.

We should also extend our ethical expectations to empower people in other countries as well as our own. Many companies don't manufacture all their goods within their own country so its important to consider the ethics of a company in terms of how they operate globally as well as within your own country to decide which is the most ethical and sustainable buisness and which product is most ethical. We have a global economy with buisnesses operating in multiple countries; many of our large environmental problems are global as too are many ethical issues. Debt and poverty in countries with lower incomes can oftern lead to people turning to exploiting their natural resources to trade as a result.

Another way to fight debt culture is through education practically with young people leaving for University. Oftern many banks will offer students large over drafts and although in some circumstances these could be useful it's important to educate young people about debt, it's uses and how/ if to use it. This being said a lot of the debt accumulated by students from student loans is oftern considered by students as something they will be able to pay back through gaining higher employment. Through knowledge of these systems we can learn how to empower ourselves and avoid some of this.

Banks and ethics/ the environment

Hopefully it is now easy to see that the ways in which we spend our money can have ethical and environmental implications attached. The places in where we store or invest our money can also have these implications. A recent article by The Sky Lark brought to my attention just how much money many banks have invested in fossil fuels which they quoted as “over £2 trillion” since the 2015 Paris agreement. They put forth some suggestions as to how to check that how ethical your bank is which you can find in their article Does my bank account fund climate change? As with spending money where you store money could influence the decisions of banks over where to invest as if enough people consider these factors when choosing new banks then this could cause a shift in investment strategy to attract new customers and remain competitive.

The take home

  • Debt can have real implications in terms of peoples abilities to participate in environmental projects

  • Empowering people could allow for a greater contribution to positive environmental change from society as a whole

  • Where you spend or save money can have ethical and environmental implications

Of course one person doing a positive thing won't solve all our issues but one person can empower someone else by making a positive choice. Many people making many positive choices could do more to both empower others and indirectly/ directly conserve the environment depending on the actions of those people. We do need campaigns to educate people and help people make better choices environmentally but in some ways debt and poverty can make the environment seem like a middle class issue and so we need to address this too.

Remember; things that may seem impossible may well become possible when we work together.

Thanks for reading; let me know what you think down in the comments section and subscribe The Bumble Life newsletter for more.