Rethink the ‘buy and throw’ mindset

Environmental issues are dominating headlines and scientists say that we are facing a climate emergency. Rising global temperatures mean that some cities may be underwater by as early as 2050.

Heat-related deaths will increase across Asia. Waste is produced at an alarming scale and countries are struggling to deal with processing and recycling it.

Land that is able to sustain the expanding human population is decreasing.

We are destroying the planet and it is getting harder to ignore climate warnings, especially when they hit closer to home.

Notable environmental news stories that have garnered Malaysians’ outrage include the dumping of plastic waste in our country by developed nations, Lynas’ waste management processes and the pollution in Pasir Gudang, Johor.

One of the major drivers of the climate emergency is our consumption habit. A study in 2016 by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s Industrial Ecology showed that consumers are responsible for more than 60% of global greenhouse emissions and up to 80% of global water use.

To produce goods and services to meet this demand, huge amounts of resources and energy are required. A focus on profits by companies mean that these goods and services are produced in a way that incurs the lowest cost, which may often cut corners at the expense of the environment.

Environmental regulations often do not go far enough to penalise such companies due to economic and political interests.

The ideal solution would be to use and buy less stuff so that we can reduce individual consumption. Failing that, the next best thing would be to demand that the stuff that we do buy is produced and able to be disposed of in as sustainable a manner as possible.

We cannot sit back and solely rely on the government to enact a one-size-fits-all policy. Widespread change does not usually come from top-down initiatives.

Governments are unwieldy and hamstrung by various political processes. Legislation can be highly effective as a blunt tool, but it takes a long time and relies on political ideologies and economic factors at play.

In time, we may undergo a complete overhaul of the economy and regulatory environment. For instance, a report has claimed that a four-day work week will reduce our carbon footprint very significantly. However, for now, we can start with our individual purchasing decisions.

Consumers have far more power than we give ourselves credit for

Profits are the drivers of companies. And consumers are the determinants of the levels of profits. If we exercise the right of choice to choose a more sustainable product, companies will tailor their offering in that direction too.

Take an extreme example. If everyone stopped buying bubble tea because plastic cups and straws are not biodegradable, I reckon that the bubble tea shops that have mushroomed everywhere would quickly be looking for solutions.

Consider the alternative — waiting for the government to push through a plastic cup tax. That would require consultative processes, a draft bill, a parliamentary debate and amendments before a bill can be passed (and then even more time before it is enforced).

As consumers, we have the ability to choose to reduce our own consumption, or alter our purchasing choices to be more sustainable. Inevitably, it will mean some inconvenience and sacrifice.

It is not just taking your reusable cup to the cafe whenever you want a takeaway coffee. It is forgoing that coffee when you don’t have your reusable cup with you.

Or choosing not to invest your money in companies known for environmental degradation. Or choosing not to partake in the sales because you don’t need that new item. Or paying 20 sen extra for your bubble tea to be served in a biodegradable cup.

We also have to demand that companies take steps to increase sustainability and are transparent about their production methods. Then we have to make the purchasing choices to support the companies that do.

This involves going deeper than the branding campaigns that companies adopt to conform to the new sustainability trend. It seems that every other large corporation purports to have a sustainability initiative, but it is unclear how many of them actually make a difference.

For example, fast fashion conglomerates such as H&M and Zara all have some form of sustainable initiative with environmental-friendly-sounding publicity campaigns such as “Conscious” and “Life”.

However, the fashion industry is the second biggest industrial polluter (behind oil) and accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions.

It is unlikely that fast fashion can ever be sustainable because of the resources required in producing new lines endlessly, season after season.

A Danish documentary revealed that H&M burned its unsold clothes —which throws suspicion on their much hyped loop recycling campaign.

A choice we could make is to stop buying clothes from H&M, especially when we don’t need them. And when we do buy clothes, research sustainable alternatives that have environmentally-mindful production methods and use natural materials. This may mean venturing beyond the ease of big brands and shopping malls.

What about the poorer folks who cannot change their consumption patterns at will? The accusation is often that only the middle and upper classes have the money and the time to implement these lifestyle changes.

I acknowledge that lifestyle changes may be more labour-intensive (think sorting waste) and expensive (buying biodetergents).

However, this makes the case stronger for consumers to change purchasing choices en masse. This may pressure companies to change their production methods and offer sustainable, yet affordable, alternatives. And perhaps the middle and upper classes do need to lead the way on this.

Thought breeds curiosity. When we stop to consider each decision to consume (from an environmental perspective), I believe that a happy spillover effect will be to consider other environmentally-friendly choices. And perhaps, relatedly, whether the product has been produced in an ethical manner from a labour perspective.

We as consumers have the power to demand change with each purchasing decision. Let us heed the call to arms against consumerism and “buy and throw”.

Claire Lim Yu Li is an FMT reader.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.