The carbon footprint of shopping

One share of our emissions come from the category broadly defined as “shopping”. This is an area where we spend much of our energy thinking about how we can be climate or environment friendly. Perhaps this is because it feels like we can control it, and how we spend (or not spend) our money defines our identity to some extent. 

Where does your money go? This is not directly proportional to our emissions, but an indication of where your emissions come from. Also, the wealthier we are, the higher emissions we have. When looking at our bills and bank statements, we get proof of our consumption behavior. It is possible to estimate emissions based on the money spent, however, often what is best for the climate is to make one sustainable purchase and stick to it, rather than cheaper ones which need replacement. So a long-lasting investment looks like it has high emissions, even though it balances up over time. 

Let’s look at some of our main spending categories and their associated emissions!

Clothes and shoes

A lot has been written about the climate impact of fashion. There is even a specific fashion footprint calculator if you want to know the climate impact of your wardrobe! The footprint of a pair of jeans is approx 15 – 20 kg co2e, a t-shirt just above 2 kg. Weight of the item is a good indicator of the footprint, although material matters a lot too. Polyester has twice the carbon footprint of cotton.

Do’s: Buy long-lasting garments from sustainable brands. Buy second hand and resell/donate your used garments. Avoid tumble-drying. Mend what’s broken!

Borrowed, second hand, up-cycled?

Electronics

The purchase of electronics has a high footprint mainly due to the mining of minerals. The footprint of a new smartphone is around 70 kg co2e, a new laptop in the range 200-400 kg. Again, weight of the item is a good indicator of the footprint. Some major electronics companies are moving towards carbon neutrality! This is usually a significant investment for a person, so it is worth doing some extra research on the product’s sustainability before spending hundreds of dollars.

Do’s: Use your products for as long as possible, and repair them if they break. Purchase second hand or from sustainable brands.

Communication

Staying connected is good! The consequence is that the carbon footprint of the internet is ever increasing, which we have discussed elsewhere. In our calculator, the carbon footprint of your internet use is partially included in the home category, as this covers your electricity. The per capita carbon footprint of the information and communications technology (ICT) sector in Sweden was 140 kg co2e in 2015. This has probably increased by now, but is still comparatively low to other emission sources. 

Do’s: Use the internet mindfully! And don’t worry too much. 

Consider what you buy, but use it guilt-free.

Leisure, entertainment and culture

This category is so broad that it’s impact is near impossible to describe. The carbon footprint of an average American film is 500 tons of co2e, and the 2010 South Africa World Cup was 2.8 million tons. But how do you even measure how many people benefit from this? And at the other end of the spectrum is an acoustic concert at your local bar, which probably has a negligible impact on the climate. What sports do you practice? Do you need particular equipment for that? 

Do’s: Consider if your entertainment is fossil free. If you find that it isn’t, search for a way to improve it!

Pets

Animals mainly contribute to climate change via their diet. The good news is that their fodder is often waste/leftover from meat production for human consumption, so it’s impact is less than for human food. But it is still considerable – one study found that the annual carbon footprint of an average dog ranges from 349–1.424 kg co2e

Do’s: Beef has the highest carbon footprint, so consider fodder made from poultry or fish. If possible, consider a vegan/vegetarian alternative food. Don’t feed your pets more than they need. 

Natural meat lover!

Furniture, household items, maintenance

Swedes especially love to renovate and re-style their homes. Redo the kitchen, new furniture, fresh bathroom – construction generally has a high carbon footprint. Although wood and some other materials bind carbon, what we are generally concerned with is the turnover rate. A couch can have a carbon footprint of 90 kg co2e, and an office chair 70 kg. Material choice is key here, where steel and metals have higher footprint than other materials such as synthetic fibers and cotton. 

Do’s: Use your products for as long as possible, and repair them if they break. Purchase second hand or from sustainable brands. Consider if you can repaint or reuse something you have instead of purchasing new items. 

Irregular purchases

Some sources of emissions are more irregular, but have a high carbon footprint. Buying a home or a vacation house, for example, or buying a car or a boat, have high footprints – the carbon footprint of a conventional car is 7 tonnes co2e, and an electric car 10 tonnes. These purchases may only happen a few times in our lifetimes, but our recommendation is that whenever we make investments, we should consider the sustainability of it. 

Do’s: The more money you spend, the more time you should invest in researching the sustainability and climate impact of your purchase. 

Healthcare and education

In Sweden and some other countries, this is funded by taxes and thus not included in the private consumption. Because of variability in methodology and other factors, the carbon footprint of a university can range from 2507670 kg co2e per student. This depends among other things on campus facilities and investments. Healthcare makes up about 4% of carbon emissions in the largest economies, resulting in an average carbon footprint of healthcare of 600 kg co2e per capita. The US is a major outlier here with 1510 kg co2e per capita. 

How do you spend your money?

Considering all of the above, it is apparent that there are many factors to consider to understand our carbon footprints, and to use a calculator that takes all factors into consideration is near impossible. Another way to make approximations is to use CO2 emissions per money spent, where in Sweden the average euro spent causes emissions of 0,44 kg co2e (noting that a weighted average is slightly lower, 0,3 kg per euro).

It is worth mentioning that climate friendly and environmentally friendly, although strongly interconnected, does not always lead to the same priority of actions. Hence, sustainability requires us to keep several parameters in mind simultaneously, and that can often be confusing. What is important is to not fall into the trap of either/or, but stick to doing our best and hopefully do more/both.

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