I have a confession: I’ve almost given up on being an eco-warrior.
Five years ago, I turned vegetarian, and even dabbled in veganism – only stopping when congenital health conditions got in the way. I still maintain that when done right, a plant-based diet can work, but I understand it’s not for everyone.
Since then, I’ve also tried embracing a greener lifestyle and one that’s closer to zero-waste: taking quicker showers, composting my food waste, opting for second-hand clothes made from natural fabrics, and sleeping without the air-con, for starters.
But in these past six years, I have had friends tease, even mock, and express disdain at my actions. I’ve also had relatives scoff at my interests and efforts.
Their words sting – and are a huge part of why I want to give up.
I’m not the only one who gets flak for my cause, though. Long-time eco warrior and veterinarian Cassandra Ng faces a similar plight, or perhaps one that’s worse.
Ng makes it a point to avoid single-use plastics. She also uses packaging-free toiletries and has recently switched to a more “flexitarian” diet – one where the majority of her meals are plant-based, but she’s still allowed meat and dairy as a rare treat.
She also avoids buying anything first-hand – even clothes and furniture. The 28-year-old, who recently moved to Sydney, almost entirely furnished her new home with second-hand goods. “The only things I bought new were a fridge and a mattress,” Ng added.
While a conservationist might consider that impressive, many of her acquaintances didn’t think so. And when Ng told friends that her carpets were second-hand, many cautioned that “bed bugs and icky stuff” could be introduced into her home in this manner.
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Some even volunteered to buy her a new carpet, thinking she couldn’t afford new items. “I had to explain that I wasn’t doing this because I lacked the funds, but because I wanted to,” she said.
She drew negative comments for her second-hand clothes, too.
“People like to make comments about how my second-hand clothes are dirty,” she said. And ‘dirt’ didn’t just mean things like stains.
This is something I’ve been through, as well. Once, I even had a friend seriously advise me against wearing my second-hand qipao. She explained that the dress was likely spring-cleaned from a deceased woman’s wardrobe, and that her ghost would haunt me.
Ng was also made fun of for her sartorial decision.
“I’ve had friends asking questions like, ‘Are you coming over in your polkadot dress again?’ or, ‘Do you own anything else’?”
While she feels that young women are pressured into never repeating their outfits, she has no problem doing so, especially if they are still in usable condition. “I am happy wearing the same old clothes again and again,” said Ng, who vehemently opposes fast fashion.
Thanks to inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends, fast fashion is in every mall and household. But, bedazzled by the latest one-dollar swimsuit, many of us fail to see the consequences of fast fashion.
“Fast fashion is one of the biggest wastes of resources in the world,” Ng said. “I’d also love if we could take a moment to think about why women seem to be expected to have a million different outfits.”
It gets worse when naysayer’s words turn nasty
Being teased or made fun of for one’s beliefs is something Ng can deal with. But being really hated on for caring about the environment hurts. “Especially because, from my perspective, we’re getting flak for simply trying to help,” she said.
See how netizens reacted to 16-year-old Greta Thunberg after her viral speech at the United Nations on Sept 23.
In recent Instagram stories, Xiaxue made fun of the teen activist, labelling Thunberg’s actions as ‘so damn cringe’ and made fun of her for crying. Many regular Singaporean netizens, too, have resorted to ad hominem attacks, with many calling her a “spoiled brat”, “loser”, ungrateful, and more.
But the flak came way before her recent speech. In fact, as early as February this year, she had to respond to rumors circulating about her.
As an environmentalist, it is exasperating, not because they disagree with our views but because they have resorted to mean, personal and hurtful comments. Oftentimes, such comments are uttered not with the intention of changing the receiver’s mind, but simply to hurt them.
Ng, who also finds herself on the receiving end of similar comments, said: “I think I receive the most judgment from people who expect me to do everything perfectly, just because I care about the environment. If I don’t, they see me as a hypocrite.”
However, Ng tries to see the positive in everything. The optimist explained that she takes people’s comments in stride because: “It gives me an opportunity to explain why I do certain things. I’m also able to explain that I’m really not doing anything ‘extreme’ at all.”
While being green has always been something I wanted to do, there were definitely times I felt burnt out.
I’d get embarrassed when people stared at me for picking trash up while walking.
I hated getting called a killjoy for not wanting to eat Korean barbecue.
I’d get affected when I shared scholarly articles on Facebook, on the benefits of veganism on our overloaded planet, only to be ridiculed.
I’d get physically tired after spending an hour chopping my food waste into smaller pieces for my worms to eat and break down, alone.
And of course, there were countless warm nights when I’d toss and turn, and longed for a comfortable sleep in a nice, cool air-conditioned room.
I almost gave up.
But after talking to the passionate and positive Ng, I was reminded about why I went green in the first place. Knowing that there are other activists out there persisting in the cause reinvigorated my will.
And while it can be hard when naysayers or detractors criticise our efforts, it’s possible to have a conversation that serves to educate instead of turning antagonistic. Besides, I know that every little bit that I do to help will go some way to save the environment, whatever people may say.
“People’s comments do hit me hard, because I definitely feel like I’m not doing enough,” Ng said. But while Ng admits that an individual’s actions may be small, she chooses to believe our effort makes a difference.
She added: “I am always trying to improve. I stand by the following statement: We don’t need a minority to do zero-waste perfectly. We need a majority to do zero-waste imperfectly.”
Our planet depends on it.