How to shop without costing the Earth
Consumerism is undoubtedly bad for the planet, but with Singles Day and the forthcoming season of goodwill and unbridled spending, here are some eco-friendly ways to shop
As more than 100 world leaders wrangle over renewables and greenhouse gas emission targets for their countries at COP26, the lone individual can start to feel pretty helpless. As of early November, some 80 nations were reportedly on board with a commitment to slash methane emissions by 30% by 2030. But how can you and I reduce our personal carbon footprint? Can it even be done?
In 2019, scientists at the Grantham Institute for climate change at London’s Imperial College recommended nine ways in which an individual could make a difference “as a consumer, a customer, a member of the electorate and an active citizen”. They were good suggestions, ranging from social activism to eating less meat, turning down the heating and replacing light bulbs with LEDs. The scientists even tackled shopping, pointing out that “everything we use as consumers has a carbon footprint.”
Culture of consumption
But shopping is a complicated and contested issue, considering the culture of consumption that has been encouraged in the West since the 1890s. As Columbia University professor of history William R. Leach noted, big department stores became institutions in their own right in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and totally transformed the philosophy and practice of shopping.
The department stores, he wrote, seemed to be “not stores at all but theatrical havens, imaginative mediums”. They “did not simply ‘sell’ commodities: they intervened with advertising skills to amplify the excitement of possibility inherent in the commodity form. They attempted to endow the goods with transformative messages and associations that the goods did not objectively possess.”
Leach quoted the advertising used in 1912 by Marshall Field’s, a 19th-century Chicago department store that went on to become a large chain: “Through the development of ideas this store becomes a vast repository of possibilities to the individual customer.”
It’s no coincidence that Emile Zola’s 1883 novel ‘Au Bonheur des Dames’ (The Ladies Paradise) is about the rise and rise of a modern department store in Paris (Zola’s model was Le Bon Marché) and the continuous stoking of consumerism.
So, as the holiday season nears, and assuming that we’re going to continue giving gifts, how can we shop ethically?