What On Earth

To help fight climate change, give your shopping habits a makeover, advocates say

Though the buzz of economic recovery and loosened public health restrictions is drawing people back to shops, malls and even car dealerships, it’s hard to ignore the climate costs of returning to our pre-pandemic consumption habits.

Changing our relationship with stuff may be one of the most powerful ways to address a warming planet

Corrie Chow, left, and Kyra Tapp, members of a Facebook Buy Nothing group in Vancouver, throw a bunny-themed birthday party with donated decorations and services, including balloon animals and a professional photographer. (Submitted by Mauree Aki Matsusaka)

Mauree Aki Matsusaka would like you to borrow a tent.

She's an administrator of Buy Nothing Mount Pleasant West, a Facebook group that promotes giving, receiving and borrowing goods in her Vancouver neighbourhood, instead of buying new or sending things to the landfill.

Though the buzz of economic recovery and loosened public health restrictions is drawing people back to shops, malls and even car dealerships, it's hard to ignore the climate costs of returning to our pre-pandemic consumption habits. 

In a summer already made tragic for Canadians by deadly heat waves and devastating wildfires, hundreds of which are still burning in British Columbia, came the UN's damning new report on climate change this week. The report says humans are "unequivocally" to blame for the climate crisis, and that the Earth's warming has already come dangerously close to the 1.5 C maximum temperature increase that humanity can manage. 

WATCH | UN climate panel sounds alarm over major 'irreversible' climate change:

Some climate change impacts 'irreversible' now, says UN climate panel

1 year ago
Duration 1:16
The world must act to stop climate extremes from getting worse, says a new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

For some it's harder to feel good about a celebratory fast-fashion splurge or smartphone upgrade when so much of the world is quite literally on fire. 

"Extending the life of our things is a huge part of combating climate change and really reducing our ecological footprint," Aki Matsusaka told What on Earth host Laura Lynch. "And you know, the more that we can connect with other people, the more that we can share in the abundance that we already have in our communities instead of going out and just conspicuously consuming."

Mauree Aki Matsusaka is an administrator of the Facebook group Buy Nothing Mount Pleasant West, with members based in her Vancouver neighbourhood. (Submitted by Mauree Aki Matsusaka)

Next to eliminating our reliance on fossil fuels and eating more plant-based diets, that kind of shift could be among the most powerful individuals can make to stem the tide of a warming planet. 

Environment writer J.B. MacKinnon, author of a new book called The Day the World Stops Shopping, points to an earlier UN report released in 2019 that found global population growth isn't damaging our environment as much as the resource-gobbling habits of people in countries like Canada and the United States. The next year, a group of scientists warned in the journal Nature that per capita consumption, especially among the affluent, is now "the strongest accelerator" of global environmental impact, said MacKinnon, who lives in Vancouver.

"We really need to bring it back and put it at the centre of our conversations around sustainability and climate change."

Though any one fast-fashion purchase may seem insignificant, for example, a study by the Stockholm Environment Institute found that one kilogram of cotton — enough to make a T-shirt and a pair of jeans — uses almost 10,000 litres of water. Additionally, the Canadian Wildlife Federation says cotton plants account for five per cent of the world's agriculture and clothing waste is a big contributor to landfills, a source of one-quarter of Canada's methane emissions.

WATCH | How fast fashion adds to the world's clothing waste problem

Aki Matsusaka said the Buy Nothing group came up with a more sustainable way to find something new to wear by putting a "travelling suitcase" into circulation.

"Especially during the pandemic, we can't have a big clothing swap. But we can pass on some of our clothing items from person to person, and they can take a look and then contribute their items and pass it along," said Aki Matsusaka. 

Individuals can also turn to thrift shopping and other avenues for acquiring upcycled or second-hand goods. There's some evidence the pandemic did create more interest in buying and selling things privately, where it was easy to arrange a contactless pickup for a set of dumbbells on Craigslist, or a gently used pair of kids' rain boots found on Facebook Marketplace. Although Facebook doesn't break out Marketplace user data, its "other" revenue category — which includes the online sales platform — spiked 156 per cent year over year in its fourth quarter of 2020, according to a report in Modern Retail.

Aki Matsusaka's partner, Natalie Chan, at a tool library workshop. Aki Matsusaka says home decor and DIY tools and supplies have been popular on the Buy Nothing group during the pandemic. (Submitted by Mauree Aki Matsusaka)

While MacKinnon said it's no surprise that people are returning to shops as the economy re-opens — after all "people have gone through a period of austerity and they do want to celebrate a little bit" — he senses a new reticence to return to "full-throttle consumption."

"I'm just hearing a lot of people saying, 'I don't necessarily want to get back to shopping and spending and travelling nonstop.'"

"What I'm hoping is that this period of mixed feelings and ambivalence about consumerism opens up an opportunity to talk about ways we might do this differently." 

Holding corporations to account

That could mean pushing elected representatives — and the companies that manufacture goods — to put an end to planned obsolescence, the practice of making goods with the intention that they'll need to be replaced before long.

"We've been heading in the direction of more and more disposable goods, but we have the option of moving in the direction of more and more durable goods," MacKinnon said. For instance, lawmakers could mandate lifespan labelling on products, or that products be made to be repairable and updateable, he said. It could even mean building the "social environmental costs into the price of those products."

J.B. MacKinnon is a journalist and author of The Day the World Stops Shopping. (Submitted by J.B. MacKinnon)

Consumers can also vote with their wallets, choosing to buy from companies that are transparent about how goods are made and innovative in their pursuit of a sustainable production cycle.

Circular economics

Economist Tima Bansal, a professor of strategy at Western University's Ivey School of Business in London, Ont., and Canada research chair in business sustainability, studies circular economies — those that reduce or even eliminate waste.

In the conventional "take-make-waste linear economy," Bansal told Lynch, companies take materials from the earth, and manufacture them into a product that winds up in landfill at the end of its life.

"The circular economy says, well, let's redefine waste as something that's actually usable, and then put that back into the economy."

And that's not all blue-sky thinking. 

Bansal points to some real-world examples where consumers can support companies that set up their own circular production systems. One is a program called Loop, by Ontario-based recycling company TerraCycle, which launched a pilot project in January with grocery giant Loblaw to provide a host of food products in refillable packaging. Another is beer-maker Wellington Brewery in Guelph, Ont.

WATCH | Loop and Loblaws put reusable packaging for groceries to the test:

Loop and Loblaws put reusable packaging for groceries to the test

2 years ago
Duration 2:07
Loop, an online store selling well-known food brands in reusable, returnable containers, has partnered with Loblaws to put sustainably packaged groceries to the test in Canada.

"Their spent grain that would normally go to the landfill is actually taken to a producer of insects," she said. Those insects are fed to locally farmed trout, and the trout poop is used to fertilize fields at a nearby potato farm. Any other spent grain is used to make sourdough bread, said Bansal. 

"So now there's a Guelph restaurant that serves trout, fish and chips, potatoes, with beer and bread," all sourced from within this sustainable cycle, she said.   

"Circularity is almost a no-brainer. But it requires a very different way of thinking."

That said, it can also take really simple forms. Since becoming involved in the Buy Nothing group, Aki Matsusaka said she's given away electronics, sporting goods and clothing that were sitting unused in her storage room. In other cases, she lends gear to members "so they don't have to go out and buy a new pair of snowshoes when they use [them] maybe once every five years."

The group has helped her find creative ways to repair and replace things as well. "I've gotten items where I've upcycled them, and used them to, say, fix my bike trailer, which didn't have a cover anymore, and it was just using someone else's tent material." 

Written by Brandie Weikle. Produced by Rachel Sanders, Molly Segal and Serena Renner, with a file from the CBC's Christine Rankin.

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