Does Your Spending Kill Whales?
On the emissions caused by consumer purchases, and who should really shoulder the guilt.
If you’ve been reading my work lately, you’ve probably noticed that I am thinking a lot about how much stuff American families buy and the repercussions of those purchases. One thing that particularly interests me is that feeling of guilt I get everything I click “purchase,” especially on Amazon. I don’t really know where that guilt comes from—I’m not spending money I don’t have, and am usually buying something I need, like diapers, that I’d otherwise buy at a chain store like Target—but it’s constant, as if a whale cries out in pain every time I buy something online.
I think the guilt is mostly related to climate change, and the knowledge that whatever I am buying was produced using valuable and disappearing resources like water and trees, and that the cargo ships and trucks that got it to my house generated lots of emissions. For my latest story, I decided to look into that guilt by tracking the emissions caused by all the stuff that American families buy over the course of a week:
My first idea for this story was to track the trash of four families for a week, and see what they were throwing away and where it was going, as a way of measuring waste. I also feel a lot of guilt every time I put a plastic yogurt bin in the recycling, mostly because it might just end up in the trash.
But then I spoke to David Allaway, a senior analyst at the Oregon Dept. of Environmental Quality, and he told me that it’s not actually trash that creates climate problems. It’s the manufacturing of stuff, the farming of food, the powering of homes and factories, that causes the most emissions. He estimates that 99% of the damage is done before you even purchase something, and only 1% comes from the disposal of goods. That made me realize that it’s not what we’re throwing away, but what we’re buying, that was most worth tracking.
I found four families across the country who were willing to write down everything they bought for a week and share it with me (thank you to anyone who helped connect me with a family!). Their purchases varied tremendously, from a family in Denver that doesn’t eat meat and only buys used clothes and has solar panels, to one in San Francisco that bought a lot of stuff on Amazon and also purchased some travel. Below is an example of one day of spending for one family.
Then Allaway helped calculate the emissions from the various things they bought, and their whole carbon footprint for a week (minus housing). He has helped hone a calculation called “consumption-based emissions,” which measures the emissions produced around the world due to Oregon’s consumption of energy, goods, and services. (Read about Oregon’s consumption-based emissions here.) It takes 536 categories of spending on things as specific as Sugarcane and Sugar Beets, Sand and Gravel, and Explosives, and estimates how much emissions are caused by $1 of spending in each category. Using a complicated computer program, Allaway could very roughly estimate how much emissions someone might generate by purchasing $46 of poultry and egg products (25 kg CO2), or $400 on airplane tickets (436 kg CO2). The families varied from a footprint of 360 kgCO2, the equivalent of driving from Denver to Tucson, to 1,267 kg CO2, the equivalent of driving from New York to San Francisco.
Read my story to find out how the emissions differed, and what I learned about the role households can play in mitigating the worst effects of climate change. One depressing tidbit: the annual emissions of the highest-footprint family, 66 metric tons, is nothing compared to what it takes to power ONE supermarket for a year, 1,383 metric tons. Switching that supermarket to renewable energy could do so much more for the climate than 100 families giving up meat. Lots of other things are counter-intuitive, too, like getting coffee delivered in a recyclable steel container is actually worse for the environment than getting it delivered in a lightweight plastic bag that you throw away.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to reduce your emissions and change your behavior. It just means that other things are important, too.
Here’s the story again: