buy less, buy better
When shopping, ask yourself: “Do I really need this?” If the answer is "yes," then buy a quality product that will last.
Think of all the products you own and buy each year and you can start to imagine the total greenhouse impact from buying “stuff.” That impact extends well beyond use of the product to include its manufacture and distribution. The good news is that just by making better consumer choices, we can affect the climate right now.
a laptop computer
About 620 pounds of CO2 are generated in the production of a laptop computer (sources) - that’s more than 200 times the weight of the computer itself! Most companies don’t publish the carbon footprint of the products they make, and it’s no wonder why.
Apple estimates that a Macbook Air generates 339 kg of CO2 equivalent emissions over its life, of which 83% is for production. This equates to 620 lbs of CO2e (vs. MacBook weight of 2.96 lbs).
Keep in mind that Apple is also a very green company. With 100% of the energy for its global facilities coming from renewable sources, Apple's emissions per product may very well be less than for other manufacturers.
Embrace a simpler lifestyle that will leave more space for adventure, leisure, and fun. If you need something, can you borrow instead of buy? Or refresh something you already own? Search for maker spaces, reclaimed material yards, craft supply thrift stores, tool libraries, and stuff exchanges. You might be amazed at what is right in your own community, and they come with the bonus of meeting new friends.
If you really need something new, focus on quality to cut emissions. The climate change impact of making a high-quality product is not much different than a poor-quality one. But if the high-quality product lasts a lot longer, you have substantially reduced the overall impact.
Prolong the life of your products in sustainable ways. For example:
Make it a goal to keep stuff out of the trash: trade it, donate it, or recycle it instead. Although recycling should be the last step, it's a crucial one. For example, making an aluminum beverage can from scratch takes a lot of energy. But making a can from recycled aluminum requires just 5% of the original energy and produces only 5% of the greenhouse gas emissions (Columbia University factsheet on mitigating emissions from aluminum - PDF file).
70 lbs of texiles
go to U.S. landfills
per person per year
The average American tosses 70 pounds of textiles (clothing, footwear, towells, bedding, etc) every year (sources).
The 70 pound/person/yr number is from the Council for Textile Recycling , who calculated it using EPA data on municipal solid waste disposal (MSW), specifically the post-consumer textile waste (PCTW) divided by US Census population.
That number has been rising rapidly for decades, including a 40% increase just from 1999 to 2009 when data are readily available (PTR). Meanwhile, recycling/donation rates are rising much more slowly (i.e 2% increase from 1999 to 2009).
This textile waste has a large impact. The apparel industry produces 8% of global carbon emissions, as well as industrial pollution and poor labor conditions that entangle with climate change (Measuring Fashion Report - PDF file). It’s a high price to pay for clothes that don’t seem to make us happy for long.
When you buy from a company for their action on climate change, let them know it, and share on social media. You have more influence than you think.
We take inspiration from some of the brands from whom we get our outdoor gear, like REI’s #optoutside campaign and Patagonia’s close focus on a sustainable supply chain and lifetime repair.
Help make the fashion industry a force for good. Join the revolution.
Products contribute about 9,000 pounds of CO2 annually for every American. That's enough gas in 12 months to fill about 80% of a hot air balloon 60 foot tall. And it adds up to about 26% of U.S. CO2 emissions. (Calculation details)
The text above and the graph below are based on percentages of carbon emissions across four source categories from a Union of Concerned Scientists 2012 report and a table in that report . Those percentages are multiplied by the ~36,000 pounds of CO2 per person per year (2014) value assembled by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and later reorganized and visualized by World Bank.
The above graph shows emissions for the average American. But your personal graph of emissions might be quite different. You can estimate your overall carbon footprint, including products, using one of the many carbon footprint calculators online. Most of them will also give you hints on how to reduce your emissions. We like the Berkeley CoolClimate calculator. Different calculators use differing categories and assumptions, so your numbers may not seem to fit with the above graph [ ]. That's OK. What's more important is that your calculator can still help you reduce emissions.
Percentages listed in one place on this website can seem to contradict numbers listed elsewhere. But there isn't any contradiction and the percentages aren't wrong. Instead, the numbers come from studies that aren't directly comparable because of different categories, different assumptions etc. For example, the pie chart on our Science page is based on emissions from five U.S. economic categories: electricity, transportation, industry, commercial+residential, and agriculture (EPA calcuation). Those percentages cannot be directly compared to the ones we show on the home page for a similar, but different set of U.S. categories: energy, transport, products, and food (UCS calculation). In other cases, we discuss global average percentages, which can vary substantially from corresponding U.S. values.
Greenhouse gases come in many forms such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, and nitrous oxide. CO2 is the largest overall contributor to climate change. But less common gasses like methane have a much more powerful effect per pound of gas than CO2. In order to have comparable numbers, we convert all the greenhouse gases into a “CO2 equivalent” for this website. For example, when we state the CO2 emissions for beef, the number includes the methane produced by the cow converted into an equivalent amount of CO2.
A 7-minute video from Boulder's EcoCycle program focusses on an emissions source we often overlook - the emissions associated with producing and disposing of stuff that we buy. The video includes ways we can reduce these emissions. It also references an EPA web page on Climate Change and Waste, which has additional information on emissions across product life cycles (Note: the EPA link is a snapshot of the EPA website before some of its climate change pages were removed by the current administration.)
"Fast fashion" is the rapid movement of design trends from catwalk to store (often multiple times per year via cheaply made clothing, shoes, etc). The environmental costs of creating clothes (Economist Magazine) succinctly explains the human and ecological impacts. For a more in-depth view, watch The True Cost, a 90-minute documentary on fast fashion.
The UK based group The Carbon Trust has a unique analysis on how “Consumer purchasing decisions are the ultimate driver of carbon emissions”
For me and my family, when it comes to getting products, we absolutely see that less is more.
Home cleaning? Most of the time I use a plant-based all-purpose cleaner that contains no harmful synthetic chemicals or petroleum products. It does the job well and only takes up one storage spot under the kitchen sink for all my floor, counter, stove, and other cleaning needs.
Neighborhood parties? Birthday celebrations? We try to stay away from paper and disposable products. Re-usable picnic plates, cups and utensils, and cloth napkins make the gatherings just as enjoyable and less waste to landfills. Yes, we bring our own plates and other things along when we go to picnic parties too.
Laundry? When living on the east coast, we used to line-dry laundry when the weather permitted. Here in Colorado we discovered that we can get away without having a dryer at all. Occasionally, we have to make a trip to a laundromat. But with a little ahead-of-time checking the weather, it has been less than once per year.
Car? A bigger impact on reducing our carbon footprint probably would be the choice we made about our car. More than 17 years ago, we carefully did our research and bought a new Corolla. Indeed, it has been giving us over 40 miles per gallon and running very well. Still, it’s old. I would love to have a cool new car. About a year ago I heard about a very good deal for getting a new car. I was very tempted! But that’s when I learned that, given our living style, it’s actually better for the environment to keep our old car rather than buying a new one. On most days, my husband and I bike to work, and our kids take public buses to school. Further away from home, if there are buses available to where we’d like to go, we definitely prefer to maximize the use of our bus passes. Between a well-run, fuel-efficient car and alternative transportation, it would be hard to offset the carbon emissions generated from manufacturing and transporting a new car to us. So, we kept the old one for now. I’m sure someday when it has to be replaced, we’d do our research again to find the best car for us and for the environment.
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