Consuming Less Reduces Emissions More Than Any Other Technology

December 3, 2021

Emission drops more than any other Green Technology

Making a new product requires a lot of materials and energy - raw materials must be extracted from the earth, and the product must be fabricated then transported to wherever it will be sold. The most effective way to reduce emissions is to not create it in the first place.  

When people buy less stuff, you get immediate drops in emissions, resource consumption and pollution, unlike anything we’ve achieved with green technology.

JB MacKinnon, The Day the World Stops Shopping.

The Story of Stuff

Annie Leonard unpacked our problem with "stuff," in her groundbreaking documentary.  The Story of Stuff exposes the connections between a huge number of environmental and social issues, and calls us together to create a more sustainable and just world.  The average U.S. person now consumes twice as much as they did 50 years ago.

We discard 416K cells phones a day, and over $57 billion of valuable metals without recycling. Precious metals are estimated at $14 billion, with only $4 billion recovered.

We covered in our previous blog, how three times more food waste occurs during the winter holidays, but here are some of the other excesses that occur during the holidays.

Trash Increases by 25% During the Winter Holidays

The biggest holiday offender is wrapping paper (58%), with gift bags (57%), tissue paper (53%), food waste (53%), and plastic or boxes from presents round out the top five sources of waste during the holidays.

And, while not specific to the holidays, half of the paper consumed in the U.S. in a year is used to wrap and decorate consumer products.  

Avoid shiny gift wrap — it is usually not recyclable because it includes foil, heavy ink, or glitter, which is usually made of microplastics.

There are many ways to make gifts look presentable and sustainable at the same time. Wrap presents with brown paper wrapping, string, decorate with dried fruit and springs of evergreen.  Or wrap them in old fabric with Japanese furoshiki techniques.  
When plastics bags began to be used in Japan, furoshiki declined substantially.  A resurgence in the artform has occurred as environmental awareness is increasing.

Plastic Toys

The toy industry is the most plastic-intensive industry in the world.  For the last 50 years, a lot of the profit in the toy industry was driven by the disposable nature of the business.  

Americans buy more than $18B worth of toys annually.  Forty percent of the toys gifted to kids during the holiday season are broken by the Spring. 80 percent end up in a landfill, incinerator or the ocean.  

Maybe instead of buying a new toy, give gifts that create memories, a trip to the zoo or a great show, game day at the park (frisbee, kite flying, etc.), throw an art party, go camping, volunteer together.  

Overproduction in the Fashion Industry

Clothing is one of the top three holiday gifts, according to the Basel Action Network.  Many people update their wardrobes during the holidays, resulting in about 80 pounds of clothing tossed out each year.

The fashion industry is the 2nd largest polluter after the oil & gas industry.  Eighty-seven percent of all textiles will be landfilled or incinerated, never getting sold or kept by shoppers.  Some of it has to do with inexact matching of supply & demand (30-40% is overproduced).  And most major brands produce in developing countries, where there's a long lead time, and a minimum order quantity, making it more economical to produce larger quantities.

Many brands have become giants by selling cheap fashionable garments, "fast fashion," and setting seasonal trends which are meant to be swiftly replaced by new ones.  

In 2018, news of Burberry burning unsold products scandalized media outlets. The company admitted that demolishing goods was part of its strategy to preserve its reputation of exclusivity.

Holiday Returns Come with a Massive Environmental Footprint

Following Covid, online retailers relaxed return policies increasing the value of returns to somewhere between $47 to $57 billion.

To put things into perspective, the average return travels over 1,200 miles, that’s the same distance as driving from New York City to South Florida!

And while we’d like to believe that our returns are being restocked and resold, the truth is that most end up on pallets destined for landfills. The 5 billion tons of landfill waste from holiday returns is 3x the amount of waste the entire city of Seattle generates in a year. Emissions from landfill waste from returns of 15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide is as much CO2 as 3 million cars driving for one year.

Gifts of Time and Handmade Items

Individuals sometimes feel that their actions are too insignificant to make a dent in climate change, but individual actions can become social trends that make a difference.

Consider involving the family in donating usable clothing, toys, household items, and other items to local charities. Building reuse centers will accept usable building materials, tools, and hardware; many will also accept appliances.

Give gifts of time and handmade items that are sure to be used.

Start by Consuming Less Electricity

We can all start consuming less by using less electricity. We can switch to energy efficient appliances, turn off the lights, reconfigure our electronic devices so they can be powered down at the wall outlet in order to prevent them from using power when not in use.

To get alerts on when these behavioral changes matter most, join our FREE program so you know when powering down has the most impact on reducing our CO2 emissions and we will pay you for your contribution: