Consumption: Can we Shop and Consume Sustainably?

16 minute read

Updated on Thu Jan 28 2021

As the global economy grows, we are buying more stuff. More scientifically, we are "increasing our consumption”. However, as we do so, we also increase our CO₂ emissions.

Earthly doing groceries

In this chapter, we will discuss the impact of the consumption of goods made by four key global industries:

  • Fashion
  • Housing
  • Palm Oil
  • Personal Electronics

How does fashion affect the environment?

What percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the fashion industry?

The fashion industry is the second-largest industrial polluter, accounting for 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions! Most emissions come from the highly complex global supply chain that is used to produce and distribute clothes.

Garment-manufacturing supply chain

This industry is also the second-largest consumer of water and is responsible for 20% of industrial water pollution. It also creates many other toxins that are harmful to human and environmental health and produces 92 million tonnes of waste a year.

Manufacturing textiles has a big environmental impact

Still, demand for fashion continues to increase:

Growth of the fashion industry

What can you do to make your clothing choices more sustainable?

While reducing how many clothes we buy is a good place to start, significant impacts require change at a larger scale. Trade policy and regulations need to be introduced to help make the industry more environmentally friendly and sustainable. For example, in France there is a law which prevents the destruction of unsold clothing, reducing textile waste through reusing or recycling it.

What’s the impact of housing?

Housing creates an array of environmental issues, from when it is built to when it is knocked down. The main way to reduce such impacts is through government policy, such as enforcing the use of more environmentally sustainable building materials or recycling construction debris and demolition waste.

While most of us have little control over how our houses are built, we can make a difference to the emissions produced by living in them.

Ensuring our homes have double glazing and loft insulation will make them more energy efficient. By conserving energy, the average gas-heated home could save 0.6 tonnes of CO₂ and £184 every year in the UK alone.

Making buildings more eco-friendly

Another high-impact action you can choose is switching to a clean electricity provider. On average, this can save 1.5 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per person per year.

When selecting an energy provider, which energy sources are the most environmentally friendly?

Different sources of energy release different amounts of greenhouse gases. Coal is the worst offender at 820g per kWh. The emissions of greenhouse gases from each source can be seen in the figure below.

Earthly showing us green and safe energy sources

Not only does nuclear have the lowest emissions, at 3g of CO₂ per kWh, it also has the lowest death rate at 0.07 deaths per TWh. That's 351 times fewer deaths per TWh than coal. Other safe, clean energy sources, such as solar and wind, will also be important if we are to transition to a zero carbon society. Check out the Energy course to learn more!

Is palm oil bad for the environment?

Palm oil is an oil made from the fruit of an oil palm, typically grown in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Which industries do you think use significant amounts of palm oil?

Palm oil is widely used

The increase in demand for palm oil has resulted in extensive deforestation in countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. This has led to a loss of biodiversity as land is converted from dense forests to palm oil plantations. Rainforests can store more carbon than palm oil plantations, and so the conversion of rainforest to palm oil plantations has resulted in a net increase of greenhouse gas emissions. If the original land was a peat swamp forest, converting it to palm oil plantations will cause 1550 tons of CO₂ to be released per hectare.

This is made worse when ‘slash and burn’ techniques are used to clear land by burning the forest. This intentional burning releases large amounts of CO₂ and nitrous oxide, and, in 2015, fires in Indonesia caused 1.62-1.75 billion tonnes of CO₂ emissions to be released.

However, palm oil is actually the most efficient type of oil we can use for many household products. Oil palm is highly productive, producing an average of 3.8 tonnes of oil per hectare. Other temperate oil crops produce only about 0.3-1.2 tonnes per hectare.

Palm oil needs less land than alternatives
The efficiency of palm oil

So what can we do to produce palm oil more sustainably?

We should only purchase certified sustainable palm oil; that is palm oil that has been given a stamp of approval for its sustainable production. This is known as ‘voting with your wallet’, where you support companies who have made pledges to use sustainable palm oil and ensure that they are held to their commitment.

The current leading certification for palm oil is the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO); 20% of global palm oil production is certified by this group. The RSPO certification has been found to reduce deforestation by 30% so it's good to look for this logo when purchasing goods at your local supermarkets!

Earthly approves of the RSPO logo

However, RSPO has also been criticised for being unable to meet its sustainability goals, such as conserving orangutans and reducing fire hotspots.

What’s the impact of personal electronics?

Electronic waste is a big threat to the environment. Ownership of personal electronics has increased significantly in the last few years. For example, the number of people with a smartphone in the US increased by 230% between 2011 and 2019. What’s more, the lifespan of our devices is becoming shorter as companies try to encourage us to upgrade to the newest, smartest technology.

Earthly upgrading their phone

In 2017, 44.7 million tonnes of electronic waste was produced. Worryingly, only 20% of that waste was recycled.

When electronics are thrown into a landfill, toxic chemicals, such as lead, leak into the environment, polluting ecosystems, and harming human health.

What's more, mining for the metals that are needed to manufacture the batteries for these devices results in greenhouse gas emission of 11.73 kg CO₂eq per kg of metal extracted.

Which types of electronic waste can be recycled?

Even so, recycling such components is still expensive; buying less is still a superior option.

So, what can we do?

  • Buy less - don’t be tempted by advertising! You don’t need a new phone every year
  • Recycle old electronics if possible
  • Repair broken devices
  • Buy second-hand electronics
  • Buy environmentally friendly electronics. Possible certifications include energy star or Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT).
Preventing electronic waste
Next Chapter