As extreme weather events in Canada and around the world are linked to human-made climate change, there is one story that continues to be left out: the connection between climate change and the products we purchase.
Recent research shows that across a product’s life cycle — from raw material extraction through manufacturing, distribution, use and disposal — the total embedded carbon emissions are 6.3 times the product’s weight. Interestingly, it is the product’s supply chain, or what we do not see related to making and distributing products, that is especially carbon intensive.
In the context of human history, the changes to our relationship with the material world have happened in the blink of an eye. Our ancestors lived in direct connection with the land that physically and spiritually sustained them.
Only in very recent human history have so many of us lived our lives at such a great distance from that which sustains us. Today, unchecked consumerism is helping drive a changing climate that is very much affecting all people.
Stories to buy more stuff
Since the Industrial Revolution introduced mass production, companies have devoted tremendous quantities of time and money to educating people about the value of the ever-increasing quantities of stuff for sale. They have told us what to covet, what our stuff says about who we are or our status in the world and why we need to buy even more. As marketing consultant Victor Lebow wrote in the Journal of Retailing in 1955, “We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing pace.”
Appeals to consume more stuff — clothes, electronics, appliances, toys, cars and so on — used to be found only in advertisements. In the 1990s, the average American was targeted by 3,000 advertising messages a day.
Today, appeals to consume are barely countable, as they are seamlessly and endlessly woven into our screen-filled lives, arriving via text message, personalized pop-up appeals and social media posts that celebrate consumption such as influencer haul videos.
Our stuff and climate change
In the past few decades, those in more materially affluent parts of the world have enthusiastically added more stuff to their lives and discarded hastily. For example, in the U.S., the average person’s consumption of stuff has doubled in the past 50 years and, in 2019, North Americans disposed of almost 21 kilograms of electronic waste per person.
The consequences of our rabid consumption are borne out in the planet’s ecosystems. Consumption in “developed” countries has led to massive-scale logging of the Earth’s forests, leaving just three per cent of the world’s ecosystems intact. The widespread production, use and disposal of plastics has deposited about eight million tonnes of plastic waste into the world’s oceans each year.
These outcomes have historically been experienced as “tragedies of the commons.” This implies that the consequences are “out there,” that the degradation and devastation were not been experienced firsthand — but climate change has changed that, taking lives and livelihoods, destroying homes and entire towns with extremes of heat, drought, wind, fire and floods.
Life cycles matter
It begins with the collection of “resources” — minerals, metals, oil, water and wood — and follows with their assembly into products, their distribution, use and often quick disposal. Each step in a product’s life cycle has environmental consequences and a carbon footprint.
For example, trees are the Earth’s carbon storehouse but the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) estimates that 10 million hectares of forests are lost each year. Furniture and furnishings in municipal waste (mostly wood products) amounted to almost nine million tonnes in 2018, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, nearly five times more than what was landfilled in 1960. Yet, old-growth forests continue to be cut down and consumers don’t know which forest products contain 100-year-old trees.
While producing or buying differently may decrease our carbon footprint, ultimately, the planet’s wealthiest will need to produce and consume less.
Large-scale and small-scale change needed
Making an effort to buy less during the holidays could have a meaningful impact. Americans, for example, produce 25 per cent more waste between U.S. Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, discarding half of their yearly paper waste — holiday wrapping and decorations — totalling about eight billion tonnes. Likewise, Canadians will send more than 2.6 billion cards and wrap gifts using 540,000 tonnes of wrapping paper over the holidays. For every kilogram of paper, 3.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide are produced.
Indeed, a big part of coming to terms with consumption and climate change involves acknowledging the inordinate consumption and climate impact of the wealthy. UNEP points out that the planet’s richest 10 per cent contribute almost 50 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions, while the planet’s poorest 50 per cent contribute only 12 per cent of global emissions.
Giving is a wonderful way for us to connect with those in our lives. Giving builds families, friendships and communities. Arguably such connections are needed more now than ever. But what we have been taught by the endless onslaught of consumption stories we must unlearn.
We must challenge stories that encourage fast and “cheap” consumption and demand the telling of — and share — stories that accurately link our copious consumption to the devastating effects of climate change. We must elect leaders who will do the hard work of transitioning away from an endless growth economy based on the excessive consumption of monetarily cheap but planet-expensive products. We must demand vital product information such as life cycle carbon footprints. And we must all commit to resisting the constant appeals to consume fast and cheap, by giving less stuff, more slowly and thoughtfully.