Shopping Costs the Earth

Bravely or foolishly, we went to Meadowhall shopping centre on Saturday afternoon. It was a good afternoon, actually, as we took my mother-in-law with us, who can’t walk far. We were able to borrow a mobility scooter at no cost for as long as we needed, meaning we could have an outing all together, which is otherwise often difficult. She was able to take her grand-daughter shopping for clothes for her birthday, a lovely shared experience which doesn’t happen very often.

But sometimes these places are too much for me! I stood in the crowded shop amidst rows and rows of cheap clothes and wondered what on earth we were all doing there. No wonder our planet is groaning under the strain of our over-consumption when every Saturday is full of people buying clothes they will wear a few times and then discard for a newer, trendier outfit. And on this is our whole economy predicated. We all shudder when Marks and Spencer’s profits drop, and yet their profits will only remain buoyant if we keep buying clothes. The Chancellor is pleased with the apparent economic recovery driven by people spending money. He is concerned that we are too reliant on a consumer-driven recovery and would like to see more exports. But what are exports other than consumption by people in other countries?

On Monday, the IPCC published a report demonstrating that climate change is no longer something we need to worry about in the future, but a problem which is already happening now. The report details the devastating consequences of extreme weather in poor countries where people do not have the resources to adapt and manage the changes. As Rowan Williams puts it, we thought the floods in the UK were difficult to deal with, but we have so much more capacity to cope than those living in typhoon-prone Philippines for example. The report also describes how climate change is already reducing food production and sketches out the likely consequences of food scarcity, leading to rising food prices, mass movement of people looking for food and potential riots and war. Scary stuff.

The energy involved in the production, transportation, retail and purchase of clothes is only small proportion of the UK’s carbon footprint. Supplying energy to homes and businesses produces 41% of our CO2 emissions. But the same principle applies to our desire for cheap food available all year round regardless of season, and our economic context which allows the energy companies to shift the blame for high prices onto the part of our bills which pays for investment in renewable energy and get away with it. (As an aside, I’m very sceptical about SSE announcing they will freeze their prices by cutting investment in renewables.) The chart below shows the share of carbon emissions by sector in the UK in 2012, which energy supply being divided between the end users.

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Information taken from the Department of Energy and Climate Change report 2013 UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Provisional Figures and 2012 UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Final Figures by Fuel Type and End-User, page 20.

Somehow, we need to think about facing up to climate change at a much more fundamental level. We know that buying stuff doesn’t make us happy on one level, but buying stuff is the basis of our economy, and therefore our wellbeing is reliant on consumption. How do we move forward and build an economic system which ensures people are in work and paid enough to look after their families, but doesn’t rely on a permanent striving after growth and material things? When is anybody who might actually be able to come up with an answer actually going to ask this question?

I guess I’m still looking for an alternative to capitalism, and no-one’s come up with that yet. But here are a few ideas for a start. We could move on from this disposable age where things are built not to last and technology comes with built-in obsolescence. I’m all for a bit of make-do and mend, but I realise not everyone is keen on the hair-shirt aesthetic! We need to invest our time and money into things which don’t burn fossil fuels. And I don’t just mean renewable energy, but spending our disposable income, after the essentials, on non-material things. Some of this already goes on, as we can see with the proliferation of nail bars and hair salons on our high streets. Perhaps we can build our economy on creative and service industries like art, music, film and theatre, on locally produced food and drink enjoyed with family and friends, and on sport and leisure pursuits. Things which don’t cost the earth, in more ways than one.

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