The climate emergency can be overwhelming to think about. Far from being a distant future, we’re seeing the impact of climate change in the here and now - and the need to cut our greenhouse gas emissions is more urgent than ever.

There’s no doubt that real solutions to climate change will require bold action from global governments. But that doesn’t mean that on a personal level, we can’t examine our own impact. Our collective power as individuals has the potential to make a significant difference - especially in wealthy nations, where our average carbon footprint is very high.

You probably already know some of the main ways you can shrink your carbon footprint, such as cutting down on flying, driving and eating meat. But we want to discuss another carbon source we often neglect to think about: our shopping habits.

Everything we buy has a carbon cost, but we’re buying and discarding stuff more rapidly than ever. This is a behaviour we can change. We want to make the case for taking on a ‘buy-once’ mentality - i.e. choosing long-lasting things that don’t ever need replacing - as a way to significantly shrink your carbon footprint.

The cost of a throwaway society

In the last few decades, our rate of consumption has escalated unchecked. We’re constantly encouraged to buy more, and companies are prioritising rock-bottom prices and big profits over making quality goods. We’re drowning in cheaply-made, throwaway stuff - and chucking it away at an unprecedented rate.

Take clothing, for instance. A third of young women in the UK view items of clothing as ‘old’ after wearing them just once or twice. Low-quality fast fashion garments are on average worn less than five times, and kept for just 35 days. They produce over 400% more carbon emissions per item, compared with garments worn 50 times and kept for one year.

Turning raw materials into consumer goods takes an enormous amount of energy. Imagine how many processes go into transforming crude oil into a viscose dress? Or mining ore and minerals, and making a smartphone? As consumers, this energy cost is something we’re completely disconnected from - and that’s reflected in our throwaway habits.

The power of product longevity

We usually tend to associate sustainable products with things like recycled materials. Often, people don’t see a connection between being an eco-conscious shopper and buying things that last forever. But when you think about it, looking for longevity makes a huge amount of sense. 

Instead of being replaced over and over, long-lived things only need to be made once. In carbon terms, this makes a huge difference - because a product’s carbon footprint is almost always biggest at the manufacturing stage. Other sources of carbon, like transportation and packaging, are usually much smaller. This means that compared to other considerations such as buying local or buying plastic-free, buying less overall saves far more energy.

Companies will often use greenwashing to keep us feeling good about ourselves whilst staying in a fast-paced cycle of consumerism. Choosing lower-impact goods is great - but the fact is, that jumper made from recycled bottles still has a carbon cost. Will you have it in ten years’ time?

If we buy things that last forever - or even just last a bit longer - we avoid spending a significant amount of energy and resources on creating new goods. Here’s an example. If you used a computer and monitor for six years instead of four, you could avoid the equivalent of 190kg of carbon emissions - the equivalent of burning 21.4 gallons of gasoline. This is why we should look for long-lived things, and keep the things we already own for a longer time.

Beyond manufacture

As we’ve covered, a product usually creates the most carbon emissions at the manufacturing stage of its life cycle. But there are some other energy costs that can’t be discounted - and long-lasting products can minimise these too.

The footprint of… transportation

Most of the products people buy come from overseas. Many have parts made in multiple different countries - and are assembled in another - before they reach their destination. It’s the inevitable result of a globalised world, in which outsourcing cheap labour makes it an economical choice to ship things thousands of miles.

Because most of this travel is done en masse, via boats laden with shipping containers, the carbon footprint of an individual product’s transportation is still low compared to its manufacture. However, it’s still a source of emissions that can be avoided by choosing long-lived products. Less bought, less shipped.

This can be further reduced by buying locally-produced products made of British materials. This also supports the local economy, and makes it far more likely that you’ll get access to good aftercare, such as a repair service.

The footprint of… disposal

Whereas long-lasting products can ideally stay in use forever, their throwaway counterparts are binned much sooner. They’re then destined to rot away in landfill or be incinerated, releasing more greenhouse gases as they break down or burn.

But it’s not all about carbon - this is a huge pollution issue. Often, we ship our waste to countries who can’t afford to say no, where it may be dumped or burned in enormously polluting ways. 

Aside from all this, a product’s disposal represents a tragic waste of the energy and resources that were spent on making it. When we buy a product, we should spend more time considering how we’ll keep it out of the bin for as long as possible. Can it be repaired easily? Are there spare parts available? Will the company take the product back into a circular system? Is it biodegradable?

There are products out there that can stay in use forever - across generations. If everything we owned was like this, we could save a staggering amount of waste.

The footprint of… use

Sometimes, a product’s carbon footprint isn’t biggest at the manufacturing stage - it can rack up more emissions during its use. This applies to things that use a lot of energy, like ovens or kettles. In this case, energy efficiency should be prioritised, with longevity coming second.

On large appliances, you can find their energy efficiency rating on a standardised sticker. Other products might require a little more research. And if you haven’t already, make sure your home is supplied by a green energy provider, so that the energy you do use comes from sustainable sources. It’s usually cheaper! You can compare green suppliers via the Big Clean Switch here.

Carbon emissions: just one part of the puzzle

Let’s not forget that when we weigh up the environmental and social impact of our purchases, we should look beyond carbon. Greenhouse gases are directly causing the climate crisis that we find ourselves in today. But as well as racking up a big carbon footprint, throwaway goods also generate more waste, and are more polluting.

A reusable coffee cup, for instance, may have a bigger carbon footprint than even a hundred single-use disposables. But it does prevent pollution, by diverting plastic waste from landfill and our waterways. That reusable cup will have a positive impact - but only if we can ensure that it is kept and used for a very long time.

Another thing to consider is the social impact of our purchases. Buying things that are made to last supports businesses who believe in quality, instead of big markups. Often, buy-for-life goods are made by skilled craftspeople and small businesses who rely on us not choosing the cheapest option on Amazon.

Cutting through the noise

Trying to make environmentally responsible shopping decisions can be incredibly confusing. With all sorts of ‘eco’ marketing noise out there, consumers have no real way of quantifying the environmental impact of their choices. Is it best to choose recycled goods? How about organic, plastic-free, carbon-neutral or biodegradable ones? The choices can be paralysing.

Looking for longevity instead is the most simple, effective way to shop sustainably - because ultimately, you buy less. It’s not that you shouldn’t look for eco-friendly products at all. But striving to buy once means first asking ourselves: will this item stand the test of time? And do I need it?

If we’re to tackle the climate crisis, our extreme pace of consumption can’t continue. And in a consumerist society that stands to profit from our dissatisfaction, buying once frees us from constantly wanting new things. 

Shopping more mindfully shrinks our carbon footprints, saves us money and ultimately gives us a better relationship with the things we own. We want everyone to be empowered to break away from throwaway habits - for the sake of our sanity, our wallets, and the planet. 

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June 06, 2022 — Jasmine Vorley