We spoke to Business, Climate Change and Food Systems Journalist, Sharlene about her insights and experience covering stories from the point of view of marginalised communities
What is your ethnic and academic/professional background?
I am a Hindu Gujarati Indian, and I am a journalist with a focus on small business, climate change and food systems.
What inspired you to act as a catalyst for sustainable practice? Is there a particular story you can share?
In my final year at Lancaster University, I was chosen for a special bootcamp-style module to attend the World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s liaison-delegate meeting. Before this, I hadn’t had any specific interaction with the environmental sustainability movement, but I had always been involved in social justice and grassroots community initiatives. Going to the liaison-delegate meeting was so eye-opening because it not only revealed the science behind the climate crisis, but also all the many social, economic, cultural and community impacts it will inevitably have. That was in April of 2018, and I’ve since been enthralled with the subject, reading widely, going to talks and eventually embedding it into my journalistic practice.
Can you tell me about your career in journalism and how you got into writing about climate change and environmental injustice/race intersectionality?
It was really a matter of luck – I had always wanted to be a journalist because I loved writing, but often struggled with the difficult question of whether to become a specialist journalist or stick to general reporting. I decided to start specialising as a climate and business journalist on a freelance basis, mostly to also be able to learn about some of the work that was being done on the ground by communities and small / micro enterprises.
The more I researched and reported, the more I started to learn about the intersections between the climate crisis and marginalised communities and came across the term climate justice as a result. That’s been one of my key focus areas ever since, because once you see it, you can’t unsee it.
I’ve been involved in writing about agricultural justice, housing inequality and land redistribution, as well as Indigenous rights.
Find Sharlene’s Portfolio here: https://muckrack.com/sharlene_gandhi
What have been your biggest successes and learnings to date?
For me, I’ve always been deeply inspired by the work of Indigenous, Native and Aboriginal communities around the world. There is just a wealth of information to learn from them and how they have championed an approach to living that is in harmony with nature.
My biggest successes have just been people giving me the opportunity, time and time again, to write about, speak about and explore this deeply intricate and important topic. I was super honoured to be part of shado magazine’s editorial team for their Climate Justice issue, which was published in September this year, and earlier in the year, I also researched and wrote up an investigation about the design and psychology of emission tracking apps for the American Institute of Graphic Arts.
Being South Asian, did you face any backlash from family, friends or society at large for choosing to take a niche/unfamiliar career path?
I was luckier than most in that I didn’t face any particular backlash when choosing my career path, but I think being from an immigrant family – particularly one where money wasn’t always floating around freely – means that you have financial security in the back of your mind. So while I wasn’t pushed into medicine or engineering or law, I was certainly gently encouraged to do a degree that would lead me to a job. That is how I ended up with a business degree, because it would lead to a financially stable career.
And my parents weren’t wrong – I spent the first two years of my career as a consultant, with a very healthy paycheck attached. But ultimately I wasn’t happy with myself in that role and wanted to transition into a career that meant more to me in due course.
How have you actively changed your daily practice to be more sustainable?
Shopping locally and from small businesses has been a large part of the shift for me. It takes more time and more effort, but at least I know that I’m contributing to someone’s wellbeing and financial stability much more directly than if I were shopping from a larger supermarket that squeezed margins for their farmers and producers to make sure the end retail price was as cheap to the consumer as possible.
Nearly three years ago, I also gave up all fast fashion and high street shopping, favouring secondhand, vintage and charity shop purchases for clothes, accessories and shoes. That hasn’t been easy, particularly because of the convenience and speed that fast fashion affords you as a consumer, not to mention the attractive pricing. But for me giving up fast fashion is crucial not just to planetary health, but also to climate justice. It signals to these companies that we can’t put up with the terrible conditions that they expect their garment workers to produce in.
Do you feel there is a stigma or lack of understanding of the climate crisis amongst South Asian communities? What do you believe the blockers to be and how would you go about solving the issues?
I wouldn’t say there is a stigma more than there is a lack of understanding. But that is highly ironic because a lot of the things that South Asian families do naturally are sustainable. It generally starts with low-income, immigrant families championing these practices, with the most famous example being using containers repeatedly to store curries and daals. South Asian cooking often involves using entire fruits and vegetables in order to minimise waste. South Asian culture is slower and more deliberate than capitalistic, time-driven Western culture, and a slower lifestyle impacts our surroundings less. South Asian food practice has always been about buying local and supporting grassroots shop owners, where possible.
So, in other words, sustainability comes to South Asian communities easier than we might think, but the way that modern day sustainability is wrapped up and packaged makes them feel like it’s far away and unattainable.
Being carbon conscious in a practical day-to-day sense can be quite costly – how can people easily and cost effectively make a difference? Do you think being sustainable is accessible to everyone?
Naturally, being sustainable is supposed to be accessible to everybody, because it actually requires us to live slowly, more locally and more deliberately. A plant-based or vegetarian diet can be cheaper than a meat-based diet. Shopping locally shortens the supply chain from raw materials / ingredients to the final consumer, which reduces the end price and makes sure that the original producers are adequately compensated for their effort.
However, the marketisation and mainstream branding that has now been attached to sustainability has meant that there has been a premium price attached to it, which has also in turn made it unaffordable for a lot of people to make sustainable choices. Starting small and stripping back your routine is a good place to start though, rather than thinking you need to invest in additional products or services at a cost to you.
What advice would you give to younger generations in relation to sustainability and the environment?
Personally I think younger generations are much more knowledgeable about social justice and environmental sustainability than we are, simply because they don’t have a choice. So there is probably more than we can learn from them than they can learn from us!
I think for those interested in making a difference, I would advise starting small. Start with yourself and your sphere of control, extend that to your social circle, then to any impact you can make in your local community through conscious consumption, volunteering and raising awareness. Only then can you learn about the issues on the ground, on a grassroots level, which help you understand the system at large and why it functions the way it does. Otherwise, starting with the system and its flaws can seem too monumental and overwhelming to be able to make a tangible change.
Can you share one life story which has deeply impacted you?
I’m just humbled that I get to do so many wonderful things and continue spreading the word about sustainability! In the last couple of years, I’ve been so honoured to speak at the Almeida Theatre, at Global Action Plan, at Amnesty International, for IKEA, and for various smaller organisations looking to educate and inspire change. I’ve been able to interview amazing people, including Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm and Sana Javeri Kadri from Diaspora Co.
In one of my earliest pieces of work, while I was working with the Pentland Centre for Sustainability in Business, I got to interview Arctic climate scientist Dr Oran Young. He has dedicated his whole life to the study of climate and spoke so passionately about the links to aspirational lifestyle and the worsening climate crisis. It really hit home then that this is more than scientific. It’s about how we define happiness and success.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
For South Asians, there is an absolute wealth of literature to delve into in terms of prominent writing about environmentalism, anti-capitalism and racism. Two perhaps obvious voices are Vandana Shiva and Arundhati Roy – they give a great introduction, in the content of South Asia, of why environmental sustainability needs to tie into social justice.
Find some of Sharlene’s work here:
Supply Chain Transparency: https://mailchimp.com/courier/article/building-transparent-supply-chain/
Carbon Tracking Apps: https://xd.adobe.com/ideas/principles/app-design/how-carbon-tracking-apps-are-designed-to-foster-responsibility-and-why-this-might-be-flawed/
How Green is UK’s New Deal?: https://www.ourstosave.com/feature?id=ckda46h78000p07234osxdkme
IKEA project: https://lifeathome.ikea.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/IKEA_Life_At_Home_Report_2020-2.pdf