Overconsumption: The onus lies elsewhere

A few weeks ago I was sitting in a dusty attic shifting boxes, looking for the bright red plastic box that has nearly every photograph my family have taken from the moment they immigrated to this country, sometime in the mid-1950s.Within it, plastic wallets, hold the oldest of pictures, the more recent are organised in photo albums that are lined up inside. Pictures of my extended family as children, posing in distinctly familiar yet seemingly otherworldly places in Newcastle in the 70s and 80s, that are all tinged orange – a faulty camera or just slightly withered with age?

There are many boxes like this up there which are filled with records and books. For me, these boxes bring a lot of comfort; not only are they physical mementos of family history and past culture, but I find solace and reassurance in physical items. It is a difficult and often irrational feeling to attempt to explain.

This is perhaps because I have been following the news and progress on the effects and combating of climate change, especially the extreme weather conditions that it has been causing over the last couple of years. But much of what is reported incites anxiety and helplessness. Even on the morning in which I am writing this, I opened Twitter to news that Russia’s permafrost is thawing which holds 1.5x the amount of carbon currently in the atmosphere. This is just one of the many signs of our spiralling into natural disaster , from the Texas Cold Snap, the flooding in Germany to the news that the Amazon Rainforest is emitting more CO2 than it is absorbing.

Over 100 people were killed during severe flooding in Germany (Credit - The Economist)

On a personal level I want to be environmentally conscious. Deep down I *know* that my phone can stream any song that I want to listen to, it can be the device I use to read books and essays on, where I can write notes, take pictures and call my family. And, if I am conscious about my carbon footprint, I will keep it for as long as physically possible before it needs to be replaced rather than upgrading yearly.

So then, why do I have a record player in my bedroom? Or bookshelves full of books? Notebooks and pens and pencils?

I simply enjoy holding physical items. And, maybe I am sentimental and nostalgic about a time gone by. I feel comforted by having physical objects that I can look at, like physical photographs. This probably stems from the time my father factory restored our family computer and we lost three years’ worth of digital photos which we didn’t have stored anywhere else.

There is "a sense of complete stagnation to address a crisis that will displace so many people globally and have catastrophic implications on the most vulnerable people’s basic necessities."

I try to buy everything second hand where I can. I like opening books to find dedications of marginalia; I like buying used records, especially those that have the original pricing and store name on them. To me they are small parts of social history. When I play a new record that I’ve found in a second hand shop I like to think about the circumstances that lead someone to buy it new – was it a present, their favourite artist, did the record have sentimental memories attached to it, were they like me sat here on a Sunday afternoon in their bedroom trying to escape responsibility for a while?

However, I have definitely fallen into a trap where I place a lot of pressure upon myself. Whilst personal responsibility can be good, and arguably it does make us feel better about our habits, but when only 45.7% of all recyclable materials are recycled in the UK, it does make so much of it feel completely futile.

When only mass change and government intervention and investment in green jobs is the only way forward in ensuring that climate targets are met in time. According to Caroline Lucas MP, “the government again postponed a plan for reducing emissions from the UK’s notoriously leaky housing stock – millions of gas boilers in people’s homes need to be replaced, and those homes properly insulated to reduce energy bills and keep them warmer in winter”. Many of the steps to achieve these targets seem so common sense and necessary, which demonstrates a sense of complete stagnation to address a crisis that will displace so many people globally and have catastrophic implications on the most vulnerable people’s basic necessities.

Are young people more anxious about over-consumption than other generations? (Credit-Unsplash)

We have all been confronted with our purchasing habits, from the seemingly very small such as the plastic bag tax to only having paper straws. This always seems so hypocritical when you realise that our way of life is intrinsically dependent upon the 100 companies that are the source of 71% of global greenhouse emissions since 1988, and yet there is still little consensus or pressure on these organisation to strive for greener and cleaner output and services.

"we are made to feel as though the responsibility is solely on individuals who must deprive ourselves from enjoyment and access to the resources around us."

We are very much plagued with articles and data on our own individual carbon footprint. For example, I had read a number on weighing up e-readers to paperback books and the greenhouse gasses that are emitted in the production of each. It is estimated between 25 to 36 percent of all books in bookstores are returned to the publisher, wasting tremendous amounts of energy in transportation and disposal. Whilst an e-reader’s total carbon footprint is approximately 168kg, and an average book’s is 7.5kg, it would be more environmentally conscious to, if one were to read more than 23 books, to buy an e-reader.

Of course, these are small and minor tweaks that we can make, the individualistic recommendations and the onus on personal responsibility still has mileage in mainstream discourse. Not to mention the initial cost of an e-reader, or that many fail to mention that there are now a multitude of online sites and shops dedicated to re-homing used books for a fraction of the retail price and that of an e-reader. Yet we are made to feel as though the responsibility is solely on individuals who must deprive ourselves from enjoyment and access to the resources around us.

Furthermore, what is sold to us as ‘breaking fast fashion’ by buying clothes in charity shops sounds great, especially considering how fashion cycles have, have shortened in length and the number of different styles and pieces that are available from retailers have exploded. retailers like ASOS release at least 5,000 new styles a week, and Shein, 700 to 1,000 new styles daily. As a result 235 million garments went to landfill sites in 2017 alone, this cannot be combatted by buying second hand from charity shops and reselling sites like Depop.

Wanting to consume products is not an inherently bad thing, and whilst we are told that we can vote with our wallets, companies that are as large and dominant like Amazon (which has recently been featured discarding brand-new stock in their warehouses) have become entwined in our everyday lives with their low prices and their convenience, often making it difficult to find alternatives.

So, whilst it is important that we try to consume consciously, fighting the climate crisis is not individualistic. Enough are the articles about how we should buy vegan. Instead the onus lies on providing better and more environmentally friendly ways to travel on public transport; on fixing homes that are lacking adequate insulation; on holding companies to account that are ruining our planet (such as Southern Water which dumped raw sewage into seas and rivers). We can all do our bit by reducing food waste and recycling, but we live in a system often with limited options due to financial or geographical restraints that often leaves us reliant on their services.

Further Reading: Gen-Z relationship with fast fashion.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in this piece belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of Demographica Limited as a company.

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