The consumption that is most visible to the average person is consumer goods, all of the stuff that we buy and use on a daily basis. This is the appliances, computers, bicycles, plastic bags, furniture, clothes, toys, and so on. We are so aware of these things because we interact with them all day and every day, and advertisements constantly suggest that we need more of them to make our lives more happy, convenient, or complete. A lot of ‘living green’ advertising also targets these sorts of things as what we ought to work on and pay attention to.
Taking a step back, it turns out that all of these products combined make up only something like 10-20% of the average person’s personal footprint, in terms of energy consumed or carbon released, with housing and home energy use, personal transportation, and food and diet all accounting for bigger portions of the average person’s impact. But consumer goods tend to get much more than 10% of our attention because they are so salient when we see and touch and use these things constantly. We would argue that we ought to slightly de-emphasize consumer goods in our sustainability thinking, and only give them the amount of attention that they deserve; it isn’t worth one’s time to agonize over how eco-friendly one’s toothbrush is when there are much bigger problems to address. That said, cutting down on the impact of our stuff is still very worthwhile.
So where do the impacts of our consumer goods come from? First there is the procurement of all of the raw materials, whether it be metal ores to be mined, fossil fuels that can be transformed into plastics, or trees, cotton, and animals. These raw materials are transformed at factories of various types into the products we will buy. Then there are the transportation networks, trains, ships, warehouses, retail stores, all needed to get those products out to you. Each of these steps requires land, equipment, buildings, and fuel. One can add up all of the inputs and divide it by the number of products being sold, and end up with an accounting of the impact of each laptop and box of kleenex. From a sustainability standpoint, being especially careful about the high impact products is going to have much more of an effect than paying attention to the small stuff.
Strategies for lowering the impact of consumer goods
Back in the seventies, the US adopted the “Reduce, reuse, and recycle” campaign, and this is still very good advice today. Starting with reduce, this is the step that has the biggest effects. This is the most important action for households, in that if you don’t buy something in the first place then all of those inputs to make and deliver that product are avoided altogether. This lowers one’s impact much more than the other steps of ‘reuse’ and ‘recycle’. Reducing one’s consumption does run counter to much of current consumer culture, and certainly wouldn’t make advertisers and sellers happy. We would recommend that you purchase those things that actually have a positive impact on your life and well-being and stop there; very few people really need to fill attics, basements, garages, and storage units up with ‘stuff’.
While reducing initial purchases in the first place is the biggest step, giving the things that you do buy a long life is also very important, whether that be for things that you buy new or reusing those things that you can find secondhand. One really important aspect of this is to buy quality goods if you want them to last. For anything, be it appliances, tools, or clothes, if you want and expect them to be long-lasting, then it is often worthwhile to buy higher quality upfront. Yes it can be more expensive today, but this is often a good investment in your own future. To give one brief example, we are using a hand-me-down high quality stroller (a Chariot) that is about 15 years old and has gone through three families before our own. Yes, these strollers cost a lot new, but they last forever – a used one of these is better than many cheap ones brand new.
Then there is recycling. More broadly, one should also be thinking about products’ end of life, where they go after they’ve been used and reused. Recycling can take in wastes of many types, the usual metal, plastic, and paper that are picked up at the curb, but also of electronics, hazardous chemicals, and other things. Even food composting is a form of recycling, taking all of that food waste and turning it back into a raw material that is used to grow more food. Two intentional steps that we need to take is to buy products that are recyclable in the first place, and then make sure that we take that second step to divert them from the garbage later on. There is even a movement that directly tries to change the ways in which we make all our products so that all the parts will be able to cycle back into other uses at the end of life, called cradle to cradle design.
At the same time as we want to greatly reduce the amount of stuff that we throw away, it should be mentioned that garbage that is disposed of in properly built landfills isn’t by itself a huge problem. We aren’t going to run out of space to dig big holes, and garbage seldom causes big soil or water quality problems. Instead, it is all of the resources that are being used to produce all that stuff in the first place that is the real problem that needs to be addressed.
Another very important thing about the products that we purchase, at least for those that use electricity or fuel, is their efficiency. All of the home appliances, light bulbs, laptops, televisions, motor boats and lawn mowers, they all need additional power. And that power, whether it be from burning fuel directly or from taking it from the electrical grid, has to come from somewhere. Products of all kinds are available today in forms that are vastly more efficient than those that came before. LED lighting uses five times less energy as incandescent bulbs and modern four stroke engines use way less fuel and have cleaner exhaust than two stroke engines. Take the time to do a bit of research, and usually the more efficient options of those available are going to be better choices. And electrification is the future. Replacing gasoline, natural gas, and propane products with electric ones is almost always going to lead to lower total impacts. Electric devices are always more efficient than their fuel powered cousins, batteries are improving steadily, and the rise of renewable energy is making electricity cleaner by the day.
Finally, there are ‘green’ products. For these, the devil is in the details. In some cases these are truly better, appliances with Energy Star certification really do use less energy than others. In other cases, there are unscrupulous companies that tout the sustainability credentials of their products when they don’t exist, known as ‘green washing’. With this, as with so many things, it comes down to trust. If a product is labeled as eco-friendly, is there anything there to back it up? Do they explain exactly what makes it different from the ‘normal’ product, or do they have a reliable third party certification? No products, not even the ‘green’ ones, have zero impacts. So as mentioned above, the big takeaway for the stuff we buy is to make sure that we only buy those things that actually matter to us, and not to shop and buy things as an end in itself.