Curbing our own consumption is the only way to kick climate change.

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By Josh Fardell - Planner

Why materialistic consumerism should be the first to go if we’re to avoid hitting 2C.

“There’s always next year.” You’ve likely heard these words after a match. At the stadium. In the pub, scarf-sporting supporters drifting out the door. A consoling slap on the back; another round ordered.

But the phrase has found a new arena: global summits. This year in Glasgow, the 26th meeting of the Conference of Parties will take place to discuss global action against climate change. While the annual nature of the summit may diminish its significance in the minds of those attending, this year’s summit is a critical moment for humankind if we are to achieve the Paris Climate Agreement’s goal of avoiding 2C, and the severe ecological fallout that entails. 

The G7 summit in June this year was a general disappointment, with the world’s most developed nations flailing in their commitments towards decarbonisation. Now that the latest reports out of the Met Office are predicting we’ll hit 1.5C in the next decade1, it’s clear that the long term promises of governments won’t be enough. True impact will take action from society as a whole. Yet it’s easy to disassociate ourselves from the problem on an individual level. Our research shows we’re concerned about climate change, with most Scottish adults expressing significant concern. But most also believe we as individuals can’t do anything in comparison to government and big business, or that we already do enough2. So while concern might be high, most of us are not ready to admit we have a real and active role in the climate emergency. There’s a societal deferment of responsibility to the greater powers. 

This year, large-scale carbon pollution from industries such as energy and transport dominate headlines with very little mention of our own material consumption. Circular economy experts, Zero Waste Scotland, noticed this omission in the lead up to COP26. In response, they have partnered with our team at The Union to disrupt the narrative and position carbon from consumption front and centre in consumers’ minds. Zero Waste Scotland have identified that four-fifths of our carbon footprint comes from the things we consume – that’s 80%3. And yet, most of us will think that by recycling, conserving energy, and considering a hybrid vehicle, we’ve done enough to reduce our carbon footprint. But unfortunately that’s incorrect. Reducing what we consume is the only way to truly reduce our carbon footprint, because there is a carbon cost associated with everything we buy and consume. It’s inescapable. 

Yet research shows very few Scots are aware of their consumption directly contributing to climate change4. By illuminating carbon as our invisible waste, Zero Waste Scotland and The Union hope to show the nation that they do in fact have a significant role in the climate emergency. 

Curbing our consumption to steer ourselves away from climate change isn’t a novel concept by any means. The idea of a lower-consuming society is being considered outside of the realms of circular economy aficionados as well. Canadian author and journalist J.B. MacKinnon’s recently published book ‘The day the world stops shopping’, shines a light on what would happen if materialism were to suddenly end. Spoiler alert: economies spiral – but a new system is formed where we are more self-sufficient, brands produce slower, better quality goods focusing on durability, and most importantly, the environment recovers. Humans learn to live more harmoniously with the earth and each other (and they’re happier for it). 

Futurism aside, the idea of collective individual impact still stands. Individuals can have a considerable role if they’re aware and willing to make changes to their behaviour. Just as consumer buying power can make or break big business, so too can conscientious consumption. While we can’t blame COP26 for focusing on governments and industry as the big carbon offenders, their emissions are just reflections of our insatiable needs. It’s no wonder that their flimsy commitments at previous summits have crumbled under the weight of consumer demands, and why they’ll likely do so again. 

COP26 will attempt to tackle the symptoms without diagnosing the underlying issue, which is why the climate emergency isn’t likely to be solved by a top-down approach: it also needs to be ground up. Explaining why it is crucial that we, as a society, need to be made aware of the true cost of our own consumption. 

The Zero Waste Scotland ‘Carbon from consumption’ campaign went live in September, developed in partnership with The Union.

By Josh Fardell, Planner, The Union

1BBC, ‘Climate: World at risk of hitting temperature limit soon.’ by David Shukman, 2021.
256 Degree Insight, The Union, and Zero Waste Scotland, Carbon from Consumption National Survey, April 2021 n=1020
3Zero Waste Scotland, 2021.
456 Degree Insight, The Union, and Zero Waste Scotland, Carbon from Consumption National Survey, April 2021 n=1020