How reducing your resource footprint can help save the planet
We live in an age of abundance – at no prior time in human history have we had it so good. Or so we think…
We have access to an astounding bounty of contemporary goods and services that our ancestors could only dream of: affordable consumer products (fueled to a large extent by the remarkable rise of China), low-cost flights that make inter-State travel a commonplace activity, fast-fashion houses that release multiple collections per year, disposable electronics that get ‘upgraded’ annually…the list goes on.
This is the height of the consumerism age, where we are made to believe that ‘We deserve it’ and the next new material acquisition will bring us the ever so coveted happiness, status and peace of mind. What we do not realise is that the show cannot go on forever. We live on a finite planet, with a finite amount of physical resources at our disposal. Infinite growth and infinite consumption are simply a material impossibility.
In fact, every year we go into ‘ecological overdraft’, a phenomenon called Earth Overshoot Day. This year it fell on 2 August 2017, meaning that by 2 August we had already used up more ecological resources and services than the planet can naturally regenerate through overfishing, overharvesting forests, and emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than forests can sequester. For the rest of the year, we effectively went into ecological debt, borrowing the Earth’s resources from the future, but without the future generations’ consent. The (even more) disturbing part is that Earth Overshoot Day comes closer each year:
We now need 1.7 Earths just to sustain ourselves, and this happens in a world where nearly half of the world’s population — more than 3 billion people — live on less than US$2.50 a day.
But before we have run out of material ‘stuff’, there is a far more worrying phenomenon that we so conveniently choose to ignore – climate change. Our consumption patterns impact not only our material environment, but also natural ecosystems, biodiversity, air quality, land and water pollution…you name it.
The link between material consumption and climate change is well-defined. Manufacturing – much of it for international markets – uses 54% of the world’s total delivered energy, especially in industries such as petrochemicals, metals and paper. Every year 322 million tons of plastic, 59 million tons of aluminum and 240 million tons of paper and paperboard are produced in the world. The result: 1.2 billion tons of garbage produced by three billion people living in cities every year.
The sheer scale of the challenge is often unimaginable and frequently placed out of sight and out of mind. But the consequences of our selective ignorance are magnanimous. There are not only ecological, but also great economic costs to the disposable economy that we currently operate. Indeed, according to UNCTAD, we are losing €48 billion a year in e-waste alone. In terms of climate-harming greenhouse emissions such as carbon dioxide (CO2), research suggests that a shift to a more circular economy would result in a whopping 33% reduction of product carbon footprint.
The solutions don’t lie in the hands of large organisations, governments and businesses alone. As the Christmas shopping season fervently approaches, there are some immediate steps you can take to contribute your fair share for a future-proof world. I will use the fashion industry as a case study example. It is quite a compelling one because the global fashion industry is projected to consume an astounding quarter of the world’s annual carbon budget by 2050. Moreover, the fashion business creates greenhouse emissions of 1.2bn tonnes a year – larger than that of international aviation and shipping combined. This should not come as a surprise, given that Zara delivers new products twice each week to its 1,670 stores around the world, adding up to more than 10,000 new designs each year (compare that to the usual 4-season fashion cycle that was, until recently, the norm).
Endless fashion & consumer choices can actually result in choice anxiety, as this year’s Nobel Laureate in Economics Richard Thaler so insightfully demonstrated in his research. You heard it correctly: having too many choices (i.e. choice overload) can actually bring about reduced wellbeing and satisfaction.
So what can you personally do to help address these issues?
- Step 1: Be a Smart & Responsible consumer:
Ask yourself whether you really need this (flashy) new item and whether it was sustainably and organically sourced. This can contribute to improved working conditions in apparel factories and you can make sure you are not putting harmful chemicals so close to your skin.
- Step 2: Think before you buy
Impulse shopping: we have all been there. Using shopping as a therapy that distracts us from other problems has become commonplace. My advice: try not to find refuge in the first Flash Sale when you need a serotonin boost and aim to tackle your problems head-on (as this is the only way to truly resolve them). Your wallet can thank me later. J
- Step 3: Go vintage
Thrift and vintage stores do have this romantic appeal and you can find pieces that are truly unique (unlike the run-of-the-mill fast-fashion products that have no real character). Plus, you can save a fortune by buying higher quality durable products that have stood the test of style and time.
- Step 4: Donate & Declutter
At least once a year, go over your wardrobe and pick the clothes that you haven’t worn during the past year. You can donate them to your nearest clothes bank or charity store (like the Salvation Army). Or you can organise a clothes swap sale with your friends.
- Step 5: Consider a non-material Christmas/Holiday
What could be more magical than giving the gift of time and dedication? In our age of attention span deficit, our time is the most valuable gift our friends and family can receive. Treasure experiences and not material belongings. Organise a road trip, book a sports class together or take care of your loved ones with a spa treatment – there are so many possibilities that will not only help the environment, but will also bring you closer, leaving many memories to treasure for holidays to come.
We live in an age where everything has become disposable, even human relationships (read here: Tinder-fuelled dating, no judgment). Real, long-term value and life satisfaction do not just happen overnight: we need to work for them. A thousand-mile journey starts with a single step, and today seems a pretty good day to set off.