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Is our desire to be sustainable intensifying our mental health (i.e. ‘Eco-guilt’)?

Now, more than ever, the conversation surrounding sustainability or climate change has pervaded every fabric of our society – politics, and business. And that is partly because our current generation is demanding better. There is no doubt that this current generation is full of replenishing. We are more open to making changes more than ever and it is nothing short of invigorating. We crave change, and we crave difference. One big – some would say unique – way of our difference is an eco-friendly way of living. Sustainability has thus become mainstream (or the norm) and those who clearly do not act in an eco-friendly way must explain their actions or motives. And so, is this sustainability idealism detrimental to our mental health? So being a mental health month, I believe it’s only appropriate we spend some time to understand how, perhaps, our sustainability obsession could be affecting our mental health.

There is little doubt about the impact of extremism on the well-being of individuals. People are shamed, vilified, and sometimes ‘canceled’ for failing to live up to these standards to the point that it appears sustainability is fast becoming a religion. Just before you start to think I am against sustainability, I am not. I am all for things that would make our lives better and those of future generations. That’s why for me thrifting is such a great lifestyle or shopping habit for me. However, even this newfound lifestyle may come with its undersides. Take as an example, you’re strolling through the mall and you pop by your favourite shop. You look around and come face to face with a beautiful denim jacket. “I have to have it” is what you say to yourself and before you know, your card’s been swiped. Fast forward to swiping through your feed, just find out the denim jacket you purchased from your favourite store…supports fast fashion. What is that you are feeling inside? Eco-guilt! It is what haunts us all. A study found that nearly a third of Americans experience eco-guilt. Some scholars even argue that it may even be appropriate to harness the power of guilt, as a moral emotion, to promote environmental behaviour1. However, this only may prove useful if our guilt stems from something we have control over such as thrifting rather than buying a new stuff. But people’s sensitivity about the environment is gradually moving into the territories where we have no control or maybe even lack the resources to support our intentions. 

Eco-guilt is the awful feeling you get when you could have done something for the environment, but made the decision not to for whatever reason… or the guilt arising from not meeting personal or societal standards for environmental behaviour.

I worry with the current statistic on mental health among my peers, we perhaps are holding ourselves too much to a higher principle that could easily degenerate into guilt and shame – the underlying issues of teen mental health. With eco-guilt, taking small actions to help the environment (a recycle paper here, a thrift clothing there), and cut ourselves some slack. As much as we have thrifting at the tip of our fingers, it does not mean every single item has to come from that source. We should allow ourselves the latitude when our actions are out of sync with our values and principles. There would be circumstances where it cannot be practical to live in an eco-friendly manner. We should understand that the solution is trying to reduce the amount of non-eco items one day at a time till such a point that we can live better. This, I believe, is a better way to handling our eco-guilt. 


Melissa M. Moore & Janet Z. Yang (2020) Using Eco-Guilt to Motivate Environmental Behavior Change, Environmental Communication, 14:4, 522-536, DOI: 10.1080/17524032.2019.1692889