My mum feels the same way about the sustainability trend as she does about the West’s discovery of Tumeric and yoga: ‘These people are way behind. I’ve known about this for years.’
Forgiving my mother’s brown smugness, she has a point. Though she can’t (and shouldn’t) speak for current inhabitants of South Asia or the Middle East, particularly as India’s present state of pollution is nothing to be proud of, she represents a practice that I’ve seen is quite common amongst other immigrant parents: The Art of Preservation.
Preservation is something that most immigrants know all too well; having to pack up your life to begin a new one in a different country forces you to determine the true value of the material items you own, in a split second. Then, once starting out in a new country as an immigrant, you can’t afford to be wasteful, because being wasteful means being reckless with money. Therefore, the importance of frugality leads to what we now measure as ‘sustainability’. In my household, this logic was applied to everything. Clothes, books, school supplies, any supplies really… My ‘first’ anything had already belonged to my older brother’s first. All younger siblings will acknowledge how our dreaded hand-me-downs have now been rebranded into ‘second-hand gems!’ In fact, even my own clothes were handed down to me. Or handed up. The other day I realised I was wearing the same t-shirt my mum bought me in elementary school. The one in the kids XXL that I was humiliated to wear on class field trips because my mum made sure if she was buying me something, it would have to fit me for longer than a year – and that it did.
For a while, this recycled process made me resentful and desperate to branch out on my own consumerist limb and, after spending fresher’s year at uni splurging my student loan on fast fashion, I came full circle to do what any brown kid struggles to do – tell my mum she was right all along. Ultimately, my mother’s shopping habits have encouraged me to be conservative with my clothing purchases, though maybe not through the same motivations. Whilst my style may uphold the notion, ‘if you’ve got it: flaunt it’, my buying habits have transitioned more into something like, ‘if you’ve got it: wear it. And don’t buy all that other crap you don’t need.’
Of course, I’m not perfect. With the pull of capitalism, it’s hard to stay completely out of the pull of the trend tornado, but in an effort to be sustainable I’ve found a new appreciation in trading and borrowing friends and families clothes, particularly for big cultural events. If I had to source a new look for every time someone got engaged, married or held another big birthday bash, I’d be totally void for cash and closet space.
When speaking to my Middle Eastern friend Lulu, we bonded over how her parents had the neverending source of multi-purpose plastic bags stored in a drawer in the kitchen, used as carrier bags, as well as for literally anything that required a bag, or double wrapping (like tupperware filled with rice to take along for any journey longer than an hour.)
But, while our MESA families can teach us a lot about sustainability, there are still some ways that we can teach them. Lulu told me about how she was pushing her family, who live in Saudi, how to be more sustainable – beyond the ways they already practice:
‘Currently, as I get more educated on issues, I’ve just started passing them on to my family – especially my mum. So everyone has reusable water bottles back home, and since tap water is undrinkable, we have a water cooler now instead of plastic bottles.’ Plus, for portable sustainability, she told me she got them all metal straws to avoid using plastic ones.
Additionally, while brown families may be up-to-date on the ‘reuse’ and ‘recycle’ parts… they’re sometimes a little behind on the ‘reduce’ part. That’s where we can try and teach them the importance of simplicity, particularly when throwing big events, as hosting can be a major source of excess waste, i.e. plastic cups, etc. Encourage them to use paper-based party supplies and not over-buy when unneeded.
Thankfully, our backgrounds have overwhelmingly set us up with the tools to be sustainable – but going forward, it’s up to us to maintain progressive habits, and impart our wisdom on our family where we can.. All while trying not to sound patronising to the all-knowing uncle. And they say millennials can’t do it all.