While extreme weather events around the world are linked, for the most part, to man-made climate change , there is one story that continues to be overlooked: the connection between these climate changes and the products we buy. .
Recent research shows that throughout the life cycle of a product - from the extraction of raw materials to manufacture, distribution, use and disposal - the total emissions of embodied carbon represent 6 , 3 times the weight of the product. Interestingly, it's the product supply chain, or what we don't see related to the manufacturing and distribution of products, that is particularly carbon emitting.
In the context of human history, changes in our relationship to the material world have happened in the blink of an eye. Our ancestors lived in direct connection with the earth which supported them physically and spiritually.
It is only in very recent human history that so many of us live our lives so far from these fundamentals. Today, consumerism on all counts is contributing to climate change that affects us all.
Always buy more
Since the industrial revolution introduced mass production, companies have done very well. They have spent a tremendous amount of time and money educating crowds about the value of the ever-increasing quantities of things to sell. They taught us what to covet. They convinced us that what we have says a lot about who we are, our social status, our place in this world and therefore, why we have to buy again and again. As marketing consultant victor Lebow wrote in the Journal of Retailing in 1955, "We need things consumed, burned, worn out, replaced and thrown away at an ever increasing rate ."
The calls to consume more things - clothes, electronics, appliances, toys, cars, etc. - previously only found in advertisements. In the 1990s, the average American received 3,000 commercials per day.
Today, calls to consume are impossible to count. They are everywhere, intruding into all the compartments of our screen-filled lives. We are constantly bombarded with it in a more or less insidious way; arriving by SMS, personalized pop-ups and social media posts supported by a multitude of licensed influencers who celebrate the virtues of consumption.
Haul videos from social media influencers grew in popularity between 2008 and 2016. In these, the person shows clothing, housewares, jewelry, and makeup, sometimes from a particular store.
Our business and climate change
Over the past few decades, those who live in wealthier parts of the world have enthusiastically added more things to their lives and thrown them away just as quickly. For example, in the United States, average product consumption has doubled over the past 50 years, and in 2019, North Americans disposed of nearly 21 kilograms of e-waste per person .
The consequences of our thirst to consume are found in the ecosystems of the planet. Consumption in "developed" countries has led to massive exploitation of the Earth's forests , leaving only three percent of the world's ecosystems untouched. The widespread production, use and disposal of plastics has led to an estimated eight million tonnes of plastic waste in the world's oceans each year.
These results have always been experienced as what the American biologist and environmental activist Garrett Hardin calls. : "The Tragedy of the commons". Since its publication in December 1968 in the journal Science , this text has had a great influence in environmental thought, but also in economics, political science and more applied fields such as agronomy and natural resource management.
The reasoning of "The Tragedy of the Commons" comes in the form of a thought experiment. Hardin starts from the example of a pasture operated jointly by several breeders. Everyone grazes their animals there. When one of the breeders adds an animal to this meadow, he derives an additional income (+1), linked to the sale of this animal. However, the grass used to fatten this beast is no longer available to other animals. Each animal loses a little weight, which involves, for each breeder, a shortfall which corresponds to the fraction - 1 / N ( N being the total number of animals on the pasture).
The result for the breeder who had introduced an additional animal is therefore a gain of + 1 and a loss of - 1 / N. As this last fraction is always less than 1 (since it is 1 divided by the total number of animals), the profit for this breeder always exceeds the loss. This means that each breeder always has an interest in adding an animal to the shared pasture. However, from one add to the next, the pasture becomes overexploited and ends up being destroyed. Aware of this unfortunate outcome, the breeders are caught in an inexorable logic of increasing their profit, which leads them to disaster, to "tragedy".
This “tragedy of the commons” reasoning allows Hardin to conclude that there is an incompatibility between common property and sustainability.
The parallel between climate change and overconsumption is quite obvious. The consequences are not for "the others" but for everyone. Climate change has muddied the waters. He changed the game. It takes lives, means of subsistence. It destroys houses and entire cities. It generates extreme heat, drought, wind, fire, floods.
Life cycles are important
Consumption begins with the collection of “resources” - minerals, metals, petroleum, water and timber - and continues with their assembly into products, distribution, use and often rapid elimination. Each stage of a product's life cycle has significant environmental consequences and a carbon footprint.
For example, trees are the Earth's carbon store. However, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) reports that 10 million hectares of forests are lost each year . Furniture and wooden debris collected from municipal waste reception centers amounted to nearly nine million tonnes in 2018, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, nearly five times more than what had been put in. landfill in 1960. Yet old-growth forests continue to be felled and consumers are unaware that many of the wooden furniture they buy was also made from ancient trees.
While producing or buying differently can reduce our carbon footprint, ultimately the wealthiest on the planet will have to produce and consume less.
A recent study found that US demand for furniture from China was contributing to the loss of forests in Central Africa. Gabon supplied the most timber to China until a 2010 law curtailed the export of unprocessed logs. (Shutterstock)
The need for large-scale and small-scale change
Making an effort to buy less during the holidays could have a significant impact. Americans, for example, produce 25% more garbage between Thanksgiving and New Years. During this period, they throw away half of their paper waste generated over a year: Christmas packaging and decorations - totaling around eight billion tonnes. Likewise, Canadians will be sending over 2.6 billion cards and wrapping gifts using 540,000 tonnes of wrapping paper this holiday season. For every kilogram of paper, 3.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide are produced.
In reality, the consumption / climate change equation could, in large part, be resolved if the richer countries recognized that their excessive consumption of all commodities leads to the climate upheavals that threaten us today. UNEP points out that the richest 10% of the planet contributes almost 50% of global carbon dioxide emissions, while the poorest 50% of the planet contributes only 12% of global emissions.
We must put back everything that encourages fast and “cheap” consumption and instead demand from all responsible actors that the links between our abundant consumption and the devastating effects of climate change be precisely explained and shared. We must elect leaders who will do the difficult and perilous work of transitioning from an economy of endless growth based on the excessive consumption of products which are monetarily cheap but expensive for the planet. We must demand vital product information, such as the life cycle carbon footprint. And we all need to make a commitment to resist the constant calls to eat fast and cheap. Buying is fun and sometimes reassuring. Buying as a gift creates the social bond we all need. But times have changed and we must be aware of it.