The cultural barriers to sustainability (and how to overcome them)


In the discourse of ‘being green’, much of the vocabulary is centred around the environment itself. Scientists, academics and lobbyists often refer to the welfare of the earth, the degradation of the planet’s resources. It is just as important to note that the quality of humanness is as much of a vehicle for sustainability, as a barrier, and is woven within the social perception of an eco –friendly future.

One individual who is tuned into this, is Donnachadh McCarthy of 3 Acorns Eco-Audits. McCarthy, FRSA, is the pioneer and award winning environmentalist whose consultancy, is helping businesses, schools and charities operate sustainably. I spoke to him to find out more about the cultural influences that affect sustainability in the professional landscape.  Are these organisations’ actions informed by an absence of awareness, or knowledge, or the presence of social belief? Here are the main symptoms of consumer culture, that are contributing to the environmental emergency.


‘People have a certain urge to turn on the light bulb, but not to turn it off’. Donnachadh states. Such an urge correlates with the social pressure to produce, to ingest, to consume, which often eclipses our concern for the effect of these behaviours. Capitalist institutions in the developed world suspend belief of their contribution to waste, placing more emphasis on productivity and creativity.


So what takes the place of this urge, when it comes to turning off the lights? Donnachadh spoke of the ‘subliminal fear’ people have that if they reach to turn off the light or heating before they leave work, a security guard will tell them off. Such anxiety is typical in the hierarchical environment of many Western working spaces, tarnished by individualism. Not disrupting the modus operandi of an organisation becomes a necessary prerequisite in sustaining the veneer of professionalism. McCarthy remarks that even though the majority of the offices he visits during the day, could enjoy natural light, the lights are still on full blast. He observes this comes from a fear that your boss won’t think you’re working, if the lights aren’t on. With the process of jobs being sought out and ‘obtained’, comes the idea that one must protect this fragile state, and must be seen to be conscientious at all environmental costs.


One large schism that lies between social perception and the reality of sustainability, is that to be ‘green’ is more costly. Donnachadh pointed out that he saved one company 50% of their expenditure on energy, without them having to spend a penny. The route towards a sustainable future is often littered with ideas that this way is more expensive. Coporatism breeds the belief that change can only happen once we invest a certain amount of capital in an idea. In order to pave a route towards a more sustainable future, there needs to be an acceptance that we can alter the way we live in the world now, we don’t need to completely rebuild the work space or import pricey eco-friendly designs. Western society places value on the outward appearance of material forms. But as McCarthy points out, it is the interior usage of the building, rather than any exterior ‘eco’ design, that is a more important feature of conservation.


‘The government is allergic to legislation, it’s an insane mantra’, McCarthy states. The inertia of conservatism within the current government, presumes that green energy obscures progress, and financial gain. The environmentalist remarks on the ‘lunacy’ with which the government neglects to implement an Energy Efficient Act, and instead invests £11 billion in a nuclear power venture that is not even certain to work. It is a myth in our current government, that it is more ‘productive’ to seek out new forms of inefficient energy, rather than to maintain the resources and live efficiently with the ones that we already have access to.


What we can gain from this insight, is an awareness of how wastefulness, and unsustainability is not inevitable, it is created through a concoction of perception, belief and repeated behaviours. Members of consumer society have been formed by its currents, but still have the authority, through awareness and education, to govern its future flow.

Donnachadh also spoke of the social cohesion he’s felt since making an active contribution to environmental change. He described his ritual of shopping at London’s Fairshare, an organic, independent retailer that boycotts packaging. Here, he has built a relationship with the people that work there, he consumes the experience, and not just the produce. This can demonstrate, to all people living in contemporary society, that the fruits of sustainability can emerge, when we alter our cultural perceptions, to attune our social behaviour.

And reinstate a positive sociality in perception, we all have the ability to possess.

You can read more in Donnachadh McCarthy’s The Prostitute State: How Britain’s Democracy Has Been Bought (2014)’.

About Gabriella Morris

Gabriella is a researcher and Anthropologist at Captioning Culture.