Amidst the geopolitical and economic chaos introduced since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s easy to lose ourselves in the endless grief around us. But is there a potential silver lining in the clouds though? With the country beginning to reopen, it’s time we shift our attention to how we can use this pandemic as an opportunity to produce long-term change.
With companies shut down and people quarantining at home for months, COVID has dramatically cut down environmental harms, particularly fossil fuel emissions. Indeed, since December 2020, fossil fuel emissions have decreased around seven percent globally. The impact is particularly pronounced in the United States, which has recently experienced a 12% cut in emissions. As a result, companies reopening and the economy restarting present an opportunity to create a more environmentally-sustainable society.
What can we do, as consumers, to cause a shift? Contrary to popular belief, a significant portion of emissions arise on the consumer-side. Emissions during the goods’ production process only account for a fraction of total emissions. Instead, downstream emissions, pollutants released after a good’s production such as in usage and transportation, account for approximately 90% of emissions. This means that the majority of the emissions we traditionally blame companies for are in reality coming from consumers. As Canada’s National Post put it in 2018, “ExxonMobil gets blamed for the emissions from the gas in your car.” This leaves consumers, like you and me, with considerable power to lead the change.
With that in mind, here are five tips to shop sustainably:
OK, yes, this is the most common tip. Purchasing locally produced goods helps small businesses, but how does it help the environment? Why does it matter if my handbag was made in China or Atlanta, if producing it still hurts the environment? Well, the answer takes us back to downstream emissions. When purchasing products manufactured internationally, tons of fossil fuels and natural gas are consumed simply to transport the goods across the globe, which all factors into downstream emissions. Shopping locally eliminates the entire transportation process, chopping off a considerable portion of downstream emissions.
Buying your fruits and vegetables in the season where they best grow is the way to go! For example, strawberries are typically in season during late spring and early summer. It’s all good and well when the weather is warm in Atlanta and strawberries are transported from a nearby farm to Walmart. What happens when I want to buy strawberries in winter, though? If it’s winter in Atlanta, it’s summer in the other hemisphere. As a result, buying strawberries in winter encourages spending fossil fuels to transport it here from the other side of the globe. Again, this transportation process contributes to downstream emissions. Buying seasonal goes hand in hand with shopping local!
The amount of waste produced by the fashion industry has doubled since 2000, thanks to wasteful purchases. Each piece of clothing results in the same amount of emissions, from production to transportation, regardless of the number of times you wear it.
An easy way to think about this is that you should have as little emissions “per wear” as possible. If I only wear a T-shirt one time, then all of these emissions go into that one wear. If I wear a T-shirt 30 times, then the emissions are distributed among the 30 wears, resulting in less emissions per wear. A common baseline to minimize emissions “per wear” is the 30-wears test. If you won’t wear a garment more than 30 times, don’t buy it. More emissions, less utility.
Avoid Pre-Washed Foods
Prepackaged salad, chopped and ready to eat, can be quite the temptation. The green, leafy vegetables seem fresh and convenient. This couldn’t be further from the truth. When pre-washing produce, companies generally fill tanks of water to the brim and simply dunk the vegetables in there. This practice not only wastes water, but also leads to water pollutants as many companies add environmentally harmful chemicals, such as chlorine, to the water tanks. Buying fresh vegetables and thoroughly rinsing with your own hands is far more economical and cleaner.
Still not convinced? Might as well go fresh for your own benefit. While pre-washed vegetables give a clean and fresh appearance, they are far more likely to be contaminated. The tank of water used to wash the produce is only changed once a day at most factories, meaning your salad is being “washed” in a tank filled with mud, bugs, and chemicals. Because of these unhygienic processes, over 90% of bacteria remains in the salad after the pre-washing process. Help the environment, help yourself, go fresh.
Buy Reusable Items
Most people underestimate the value of going reusable, but diapers provide a compelling example. Each diaper produced causes emissions in the production and transportation process, just for a mere six to eight hours of usage. After the diaper is used, it’s wrapped up in a plastic bag (another layer of disposables) and thrown into the trash can. The waste management company then takes this waste to landfills, creating more downstream emissions in the transportation process, where they rot for years, spreading bacteria and contaminating groundwater. And this cycle repeats every time a child’s diaper is changed.
Instead, reusable diapers have one-time production and transportation emissions, but can be used for months on end. While cleaning reusable diapers does require water, the environmental repercussions of this is far less than the environmental harms of emissions, both upstream and downstream, for each additional diaper purchased.
This same thought-process applies to all disposable items. Take water bottles for example. Every time a disposable water bottle is manufactured, not only are pollutants released during the production process, but also when the bottle is transported (sometimes internationally) to your city and then again when the waste is transported to landfills.
Whether it’s diapers, water bottles or disposable bags and plates, going reusable can save more emissions than you think.