Things we buy, like clothes, electronics, and even hobbies, all have their own carbon footprints. In Nordic countries where consumption is high, purchasing products and services often accounts for over 30% of our lifestyle emissions. But where exactly do these emissions come from and what can we do about it?
Many of the things we do every day involve consuming: it can mean anything from spending money on a cup of coffee or a gym membership to using electricity to do laundry and wash the dishes. As consumption is a broad category, we at Spark have decided to distinguish between consumption of the kind that you need to survive — like housing and food — and other consumption, which is what we refer to in this blog post. As such, it includes new clothes, the latest electronics, home decoration and our choice of hobbies. All of these are more or less additional in our lives, and something we as individuals have direct control over.
At Spark, we don’t include public spending, such as healthcare, education and infrastructure, in our definition of consumption. Even then, consumption often accounts for over 30% of the average Nordic citizen’s lifestyle emissions.
The largest share of consumption-related emissions are formed during the manufacturing of products (or services). Once a product has been manufactured, it has to be transported to the place where it will be used, which adds to its carbon footprint. The usage of a product often causes emissions as well, and so does the disposal at its end-of-life. However, it’s the manufacturing that causes the largest share of emissions by far, and these are often emissions we don’t even notice.
Consumer goods are generally manufactured through industrial processes. The majority of emissions from the industry arise from electricity consumption in the factories and the sourcing or production of raw materials. Electricity is often obtained by burning fossil fuels, and so is the energy required to produce raw materials. As fossil fuel burns, the carbon captured by the fossilised plants is released back into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide.
What does it look like in practice? Let’s take a cotton t-shirt as an example: the production of cotton used for the t-shirt causes emissions if trees have been cut down to make room for the cotton field, thus releasing the carbon they’ve stored back into the atmosphere. More emissions arise if the cotton farm uses fertilizers, tractors, or other machinery running on fossil fuels. Furthermore, the manufacturing of the t-shirt itself requires lighting, sewing machines, and an entire production hall to protect everyone and everything from wind and rain. This in turn requires electricity as well as material for the production hall.
The process is quite similar for services: the climate impact of a gym membership includes the construction of the actual building, heating or cooling of the gym, the production and transportation of all the weights and other equipment, and electricity for lighting, to heat the sauna, and to heat the water for your shower after a workout.
The manufacturing of products and services is only a part of the problem, though - another is in the way we consume products and services. Today, we live in a society where products seem to appear on shop shelves and disappear into garbage bins after only a few times of usage. In our throwaway society it’s socially acceptable and economically possible to buy things we don’t need, of bad quality, and with an invisible production chain, just to throw them away whenever we feel like it.
When something is thrown away before it has been used until its end-of-life, the whole manufacturing process and all the raw materials used for it have been almost for nothing. Besides being a waste of work hours and natural resources, it also causes emissions for no reason at all.
Only in the past 10 years, the time that we use things like clothes and electronics has become shorter and shorter. For example, the planned lifespan of an iPhone is just three years, and they often break long before that. In the year 2000, mobile phones like the Nokia 3310 seemed to be indestructible!
When it comes to waste, the problem is not what we consume but how we consume.
Materialwise, the environmental and health effects of plastic in particular have caused concern around the world. However, climatewise, plastic outperforms many other materials. It is light, cheap and easily forged into complicated forms. The low price of plastics in comparison to e.g. metal means that solar panels, for instance, can be produced at a lower cost. In cases where technical plastics substitute metals or cement, the emissions from producing these materials are avoided altogether.
Instead of focusing on the material of different products, we should pay attention to our consumption habits: can we drink that coffee in the café instead of using take-away? Do we really need that product, and if so, is it necessary to buy, or can we borrow or rent it instead? Becoming more aware of why we’re making certain purchase decisions is already a good first step towards a more climate-smart life.
Consuming more consciously brings multiple benefits in addition to just emission savings: when we only buy stuff we really want and need, we get a less cluttered home, save money, surround ourselves with only things that we love, and can focus on collecting experiences instead of stuff. Sustainable lifestyles are not about living with less, it’s about living more!
Check out the picture below to get some tips on how to get started.
Curious to know how your consumption habits affect your lifestyle emissions? Download The Donut to get the answer!
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The industry and the emissions it causes are often highlighted in climate change discussions. Yet, the topic can often feel very distant — the industry is not something individuals can impact, right? When reading about the carbon footprint of the industry, we have to remember that the industry is usually producing something for customers. These customers are either states, companies or individuals, but in many cases the individual is the one consuming a product or a service in the end. If there would be no demand for a product, it would not be manufactured, and there would be no emissions.
It does not always work like that, though. For example, when the industry is producing cement for a tunnel between Helsinki and Tallinn, or when it is strengthening the power grid between Germany and France, it does so because the state has decided to invest in infrastructure. As individuals we sure feel thankful, but we can only affect these decisions indirectly in the voting booth.