To buy or not to buy, that is the question. Bridget Ginnity highlights some changes we can make as individuals that will help reduce global carbon emissions by thinking before we buy.
Have a look around you, perhaps at the paper or device you are reading this on. Consider the human skill and ingenuity that goes into making the things you see. Trees planted, minerals mined, inks blended, products assembled, shipped and sold. So many stages, so many people involved, it’s truly impressive.
Just about every stage of manufacture and sale of things we use involve fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions. This gives rise to the extreme fires, floods, storms and heatwaves that are encircling our world.
Making and shipping products, including food, causes over 40% of the global carbon emissions. It doesn’t take a research project to figure out that buying fewer goods will reduce carbon emissions. But realistically, we need to buy essentials and want to buy some luxuries. So how can we shop and also reduce our carbon footprint?
We got a vivid picture of the huge amounts of goods shipped globally when the enormous container ship the Ever Given got stuck in the Suez Canal last spring. Large diggers were like toys beside it. Shipping accounts for typically 3% of global carbon emissions and they use the poorest quality, most polluting fuel. Air and road transport contribute a further 7% to global emissions.
Simple sums show a 10% reduction in products transported gives a 10% reduction in carbon emissions. So buying less and buying local can reduce transport emissions.
Online or Instore
Lockdown gave a huge boost to online shopping, and now that we have the choice of buying in an actual shop or online, it’s worth considering how it impacts on the climate.
The impact of shop buildings compared with online warehouses tend to balance out. Shops buy in bulk, whereas items are individually packaged for us when we order direct. It uses more carbon to transport individually packaged items compared with bulk packaging due to the increased packaging and volume. This applies more to fragile products like laptops with lots of packaging compared to items like t-shirts.
How far you travel to the shops, how often and how you get there makes a difference to the carbon emissions. Driving between Galway, Limerick and Ennis to compare products and prices doesn’t get the best deal for the planet. Doing your research online or by phone is better.
The ideal is going to the shops in a low impact way – on foot, by bike or public transport if you have that option. A little planning can help reduce the number of car trips, perhaps by sharing the journey with a friend.
The worst of both worlds is if you drive to the shops, look around, try on the shoes or the clothes or whatever and go home and order online because it’s a bit cheaper. You have the same carbon emissions as if you shop in-store plus the carbon emissions of home delivery.
And that’s not considering the impact on retailers who have the expense of shop, stock and staff and don’t have the benefit of your purchase.
The last mile
A major difference in carbon footprint between retail shops and online shopping can be at the delivery stage – often referred to as the last mile.
The further you have to drive to the shops, the better home delivery can be as an environmentally friendly option. One van making 20 drops on a 100 km round trip is more efficient than 20 people driving about 20km to the shop and back.
Examples like this have been used to fly the green flag for online shopping. However the low density and large area in Clare means that a delivery van can do long rounds with relatively few deliveries. Also, if you still plan to go into town for some other reason, there is no saving in having a van deliver your goods.
The environmental benefit of home delivery drops off completely if you request a fast delivery and the courier trip is not optimised. It’s also reduced if you are not there and several calls are made; or if the package is left at the door and the dog eats it.
Online delivery companies are working hard to reduce their fossil fuel usage. An Post, for example, has an electric fleet. Drones and ground based robots that look a bit like R2D2 are all at trial or early introduction stage.
This will certainly tilt the equation in favour of commercial delivery. Retailers could also offer environmentally friendly local delivery – perhaps going back to the way it was 50 years ago with the messenger boy on his bike, as immortalised in the Christie Hennessy song.
Whether instore on online shopping, how we look and feel when we try on an item of clothing doesn’t always match the expectation. Wrong colour, wrong size, too heavy, too light… and it happens with tools, household furnishings, sports goods and the myriad of things we buy online.
Online stores have made it easy for us to return goods at no or minimal cost in order to get over that big disadvantage of buying without trying. Customers have responded by buying an item in several sizes or colours and the return rate is over 10%.
I had imagined that when I sent back an item it would be checked, repackaged and sent out to another customer and was shocked to discover that a lot of returned items get dumped – a whopping 25%. Think of the wasted energy input to manufacture, ship, deliver, return and dispose of that sweater I didn’t like the colour of.
Changes to the system
Shopping is an area where our individual actions makes a big difference but as with all climate related measures, government action is crucial to influence the behaviour of us all.
If the true cost of carbon was applied to freight and manufacturing, potatoes from Egypt or medicines from India would not be on the shelves. Fast fashion would be out of fashion. It helps to achieve system change if we show the climate matters to us any way we can.
Collective action could help to reduce emissions from deliveries. Imagine if you could get your grocery shopping, your pharmacy needs and those nice candles from the craft shop delivered to your door in one drop by an electric van.
This ticks a lot of boxes – it offers convenience, supports local businesses, reduces traffic and lowers carbon emissions. Initiatives such as this need drive and support by local authorities, businesses and communities.
I give up
When there isn’t an easy answer to a question on how to reduce your carbon footprint, it is tempting to give up. But shopping accounts for a significant part of carbon emissions for most of us and how we shop has a direct and indirect impact.
And the most environmentally friendly option overall? If you don’t need it, don’t buy it. Spend your money on a local service instead where the footprint is low and the benefit is high – everything from getting your house or your nails painted, your hair or your lawn cut. Spend money on going to events that create memories, not waste.
Consider how much more enjoyable a child’s birthday present is to spend time together on a beach or animal farm instead of buying another plastic toy from China. Music, language or driving lessons can become a lifelong gift – for yourself or for a loved one.
Small changes now to what and how we buy can make a difference, changes that help to control the changes to our climate.
MAKE A CHANGE – MAKE A DIFFERENCE
• Buy fewer goods
• Buy Irish and locally made products when possible
• Buy services rather than products
• For online purchases, avoid using fast delivery and separate shipping
• Avoid returning online purchases
• Walk or cycle to the shops if possible
• When driving to the shops, make it a multi-purpose trip
• Avoid driving long distances to compare products and prices
Design Studio and Gift Store
My shop sells my own range of digitally printed homewares – lampshades, cushions, aprons and tea towels – as well as a range of products from mainly local and national makers and designers.
My customers are very keen to buy things made in Ireland and especially locally. What’s great is that the money goes straight into the local economy.
As my suppliers are Irish based, most of them ship to me using An Post. This is climate friendly as all of their delivery vans are electric now. A pleasant exception is one maker from Dublin whose partner brings the goods down from Dublin on the train in person – definitely an environmentally-friendly way to deliver and it’s a lovely opportunity to meet.
Most of my online sales of my own designs are within Ireland and I use the An Post electric fleet for delivery. I also source the materials for making all of my own products in Ireland. Having all my suppliers within Ireland has been a big advantage in post-Brexit times, when a lot of other businesses are having difficulty with supply lines.
I’m a co-founder of CELT (Centre for Environmental Living & Training), based in East Clare.
The ethos of CELT is to encourage individuals and communities to live a more sustainable way of life by providing skills and knowledge.
We hold regular “Weekend in the Hills” skills training events. The courses include willow weaving, jewellery making, bush craft and making fairy houses and doors. Many participants make repeat visits. Some have used skills they have learned to develop employment opportunities.
We also have a Native Tree Nursery, including hedging, fruit and nut trees and shrubs. We can provide advice and help with planting. If you don’t have room in your garden to plant, you can sponsor a tree for €15 for yourself or as a gift. All profits from the nursery go to our education and training programmes. We have an online shop on our website at www.celtnet.org
Another activity of mine is engaging with government bodies to push for climate change mitigation actions, especially related to floods and drought.