Green consumerism is part of the problem

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With climate change an ever-looming anxiety, whole industries have sprung up dedicated to help alleviate the stress. Tote bags. Metal straws. Existing companies are trying their best too: clothing retailer Zara has announced that 100 per cent of the fabrics it uses will be sustainable by 2025 while Apple has said it has plans to eventually stop mining.

Woman and child picking apple from a construction line (Original art Chris Johnson)All of this looks great on the surface, but it doesn't help the underlying issue: We are still buying way too much stuff.

Australia — as a rich, developed nation — buys a huge amount of product. In 2016, Australian households spent AUD$666 billion on general living costs, including AUD$20.4 billion on clothes and fashion alone.

The UN Alliance has estimated that the average consumer is buying 60 per cent more clothes than 15 years ago, but those clothes are only kept for half the time. This is mirrored in a number of other industries including electronics — we are buying more, and using it less. And at the end of these products' life, most of this isn't recycled or reused — instead it ends up in landfill, and we dig up more resources to create more products.

So, how do we lower our resource footprint? And will doing so crash the whole economy?

Dr Ed Morgan, a policy and environmental researcher at Griffith University, explained to me over email that it's possible, if hard, to imagine a sustainable society, because it means a shift of lifestyle and economic systems, which we are currently so stuck in we can't imagine any alternatives. 'But no one in a monarchy could imagine being in a democracy!'

The first step is buying less stuff, and what we do buy needs to be used many times. Think a well-used mug instead of a disposable coffee cup.

 

"Businesses — even those pushing more 'sustainable' products — have no incentive to sell less, and therefore are always inherently part of the problem."

 

The second step is significantly harder. Experts call for the creation of a circular economy. This is a system where everything we make and use can be reused, repaired, remade, and recycled. No products are 'new' so much as remade from other products. This would heavily reduce waste, and use significantly less resources to produce these 'new' products.

To do this, our phones, clothes, and even our buildings would be designed to be easily repairable and recyclable at the end of their life.

Despite all the talk of sustainable fashion, electronics, and products, we are still far away from making this a reality. Our products are made to have a short lifespan. Every year there's a new model of phone, and even one that is a few years old is seemingly obsolete. The rare earth metals inside them are ending up in the trash instead of being reused or remade.

Despite companies like Apple saying otherwise, once the latest product is broken (or we've moved onto the next thing), it's still likely destined for the rubbish heap.

And on top of that, according to geologist Oliver Taherzadeh and environmental researcher Benedict Probst, the idea of 'green growth' is a red herring. They argue that green consumption is still consumption, and while we can make a small difference as individuals, the big difference will be through government regulation.

Businesses — even those pushing more 'sustainable' products — have no incentive to sell less, and therefore are always inherently part of the problem.

So unfortunately, as good as a metal straw or reusable cup might look, it's part of the problem unless it's encouraging us to buy less, and reuse, repair, and recycle the products we currently have.

 

 

Jacinta BowlerJacinta Bowler is a science journalist and fact checker living in Melbourne. Main image credit: olindana/Getty

Topic tags: Jacinta Bowler, climate change, consumerism, waste, Covering Climate Now

 

 

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Existing comments

Jacinta thank you for reminding and encouraging us to buy less, reuse, repair, and recycle the products we currently have. Every time we make a purchase to ask ourselves do I or we really need this?
Terry Fitzpatrick | 16 September 2019


There a few experimental villages or suburbs that try hard to use less energy but a major problem is population increase way beyond what the planet can sustain.
Karis | 16 September 2019


Well said, Jacinta. We can be overwhelmed by "planned obsolescence", even when we try to avoid being sucked into relentless consumption of new products.. So often it is hard or impossible to manage repairs for items like shoes whose uppers are perfectly comfortable but with worn heels and soles. From time to time I am advised that a program on my computer is no longer supported unless I update my computer. When I try to do this, I learn that I can't update it because of the limits of its existing capacity. And on it goes, ,,,
Chris Watson | 16 September 2019


Jacinta, You are absolutely spot on! In Economics 101 (yes 101) at Uni we were taught about "planed obsolesce", in other words products are manufactured with a designed in "fail point" . Since it was deemed "beyond economic repair", one had to purchase a new product. That was back in 1976! The argument advanced by my Economics Lecturer was that if "things" were made to function for a 'life time', then no one would buy products and companies would go pout of business, the 'economy' would crash ; unemployment would result, etc, etc. New models, new fads, bigger houses are still the rage-all eventually ending up in land fill. We need to buy less , repair rather than replace. Sadly Capitalism forces us to buy , buy, buy! There must be a better way.
Gavin A O'Brien | 16 September 2019


Well said Jacinta!! Thanks for the challenge. The need to live with less is what we have to think about. My granddaughter taught me last week to place the word "refuse" in front of the regular, reduce, reuse, recycle! My mission for the coming year.
Cathy Jeffery | 16 September 2019


Capitalism requires ever increasing consumption. To increase consumption, advertising steps in to make us feel inadequate or envious so that we feel we have to “keep up” with others. It’s hard to even imagine having a different form of economic arrangements in Australia.
Margaret | 17 September 2019


Well thought out article that clearly defines the problem. We are a consumer society. That is what puts money in our pockets, food on our tables and enables us to have the latest in the latest technology to impress our friends. We may be willing to give up all the "new" technology and recycle, but, are we willing to have less food on our tables or money in our pockets. Taking into account that people will not consume recycled products the same way they consume the latest "new" ones, how do we transition? those most affected in any transition stage will come from the lower ends of our social ladder and most of our middle class will suffer a significant drop in living standards with high levels of unemployment and, even for those still in work, a squeeze on wages due to these high unemployment levels. What government is willing to risk it's chance of re election and who among us is willing to be the first to reduce our lifestyle? I have been asking these questions for a long time but no seems willing, or capable, of answering.
Brian Leeming | 17 September 2019


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