Often, we only consider the afterlife of a product – what happens after we dispose of it. But to be a conscious consumer, there are other steps of a product’s life cycle that we must consider if we want to be sure that our purchases are sustainable. Every level of a product’s life cycle can have an impact on the environment, and some levels may be worse than others. Although the life cycle of a product is complicated, this simplification should get you thinking about the various ways materials can impact different ecosystems.
Resource Extraction. Resource extraction is where any product’s life starts. Resource extraction can include the mining of lithium for technological or electric car batteries, the logging of wood for the construction of homes, or any other type of human activity that can be harmful to the environment in the preparation of materials. Everything you have ever bought or used has come from a resource somewhere, whether that resource be renewable or non-renewable, domestic or imported. Resource extraction can be dangerous for the environment in a variety of ways, from habitat loss for wildlife via deforestation, the emission of noxious chemicals that threaten our health and the health of ecosystems, or the leaching of toxic chemicals into watersheds. Resource extraction can also threaten social and human rights. For example, in the Amazon Rainforest, Indigenous peoples in Brazil are seeing their land being deforested for agriculture resource production. To help you get started on your conscious consumer journey, you can check out Ethical Consumer, which rates companies on a variety of features from respect to the environment, treatment of employees and animals, and so forth.
Production and Manufacturing. This next step in a product’s life cycle also has detrimental consequences in terms of ecological impact, damages to human health, and human rights violations. The production of plastics, for example, releases sulfur oxides, nitrous oxides, methanol, ethylene oxide, and volatile organic compounds – which are all pollutants. Sulfur oxides in particular can harm trees and plants by damaging foliage and decreasing growth and can contribute to acid rain which can harm sensitive ecosystems. Not to mention, it is extremely harmful to the human and wildlife respiratory system. Generally, residents who live near factories or other production sites see higher levels of heart, respiratory, and skin and eye problems and have their water sources polluted by factories, which can cause many other health problems including cancers. And unfortunately, the majority of people who live near these factories are often marginalized racial groups and people in poverty. Individuals who work in production factories are also exposed to these same dangerous chemicals. If your clothing, for example, is imported from Bangladesh, it can probably be assumed that the individuals who made that garment faced unsanitary and unsafe work conditions, with long hours and unfair pay – maybe even a child made your clothing. When possible, choose fair trade to ensure employees are being paid fair wages and look into the production process of your purchases.
Packaging. We have already discussed how plastic production is harmful to environmental and human health – but what about cardboard packaging? Often, paper and cardboard is seen as a quick-win to our plastic problem. However, paper requires three times as much energy as plastic to produce, and it is heavier to transport, releasing more emissions. Furthermore, our single use packaging is frequently off-shored, creating an even larger waste problem in other countries which affects their local ecosystems and health. Sometimes, our packaging even ends up in waterways or the ocean. For multiple years, Mumbai has seen many floods exacerbated by the pollution of plastic blocking their waterway systems. Every year, at least 800 marine species worldwide are affected by plastic pollution, often ingesting it or becoming entangled in it. When possible, choose items that are package-free, that come in minimal packaging, or that are packaged in recyclable or compostable materials.
Shipping and Distribution. The shipping sector emits large amounts of CO2 (about 3.1% of our total emissions annually). During shipping, sulfur dioxides and nitrogen oxides are also emitted – which as we concluded earlier is harmful to both the environment and humans. Commercial vessels also create noise pollution, which can cause hemorrhages, internal organ damage, and death of dolphins and whales. So when purchasing any product, always choose local first. Rail travel is also consistently one of the ‘greenest’ ways to ship products, so if possible, choose products shipped via trains. Also, when shopping online, never choose fast-shipping options. These items are often packed in half-empty trucks, which creates even more unnecessary emissions.
Consumption and Use. Overconsumption, even of unnecessary products, is quite rampant in our society. It’s even common to buy cheap items that will end up in landfills sooner because of their competitive prices. Between 60-80% of the impacts on the planet come from household consumption. In order to reduce your impact on the environment, buy less; buy quality products; make your items last longer with proper use, servicing, and storage; repair what you can; and buy versatile and multi-use items.
Collection. Collection is often a contentious topic in the world of items. There are battles on whose job it should be to collect garbage and recycling; should it be placed on the producer of the item? The consumer? Governments? Garbage and recyclable collections are yet another source of emissions – a truck has to drive around the city every day of every week. When possible, it’s best to limit what you place in your black and blue bins. It’s as simple as reducing what you consume and reusing what you can. This can also set an example for your neighbours; and who knows, maybe in the future, the garbage truck will only have to make its rounds once a month!
Disposal and Proliferation. The last step in any product’s life cycle is what happens when you’re done with it – whether you compost it, recycle it, incinerate it, or send it to the landfill. Unfortunately, many of the items we trash can proliferate for dozens, hundreds, and even thousands of years in the environment. When you are done with any item consider other ways you can give it a second life; this might be upcycling, regifting, reselling, and donating. If you are unable to give it a second life, choose the most sustainable option for its disposal. Give it back to the Earth if it’s a compostable organic, recycle it if possible, or send it to a biofuel or incineration processing plant. Your last option should always be sending items to the landfill. Landfills are designed so that our trash is packed compactly, so that air can’t enter and break down our materials. Essentially, our landfills are only increasing in volume and are not places where items are sent to breakdown. Landfills are even the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions!
Remember, before buying any product, to always do your research, to the best of your ability. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a completely ethical and sustainable company or product. But you can always choose the most sustainable option based on life cycle analysis. So, get to researching!