It was the last chance to save the world. But 2021 also saw us buy a lot of stuff. This shopping was counterproductive to our goal to reduce our carbon footprint. Consumption is responsible for about 60% global greenhouse gas emissions. The factories and ships that transport our goods generate emission, along with the other emissions from farming and mining raw materials. Amazon, for example, reported in June that its 2020 emissions rose 19% due to the boom in retail during the pandemic.
It can still be difficult for individuals or families to make the effort to alter their habits. Buying things has become one of the few sources of joy for many people since COVID-19 began sweeping the globe—and shopping online has become necessary for people trying to stay at home and avoid potential exposure. However, goods can be purchased online at such a low cost that you may feel comfortable adding one more item to your cart. Convincing yourself to be environmentally conscious in your shopping habits feels a bit like convincing yourself to vote—obviously you should do it, but do the actions of one person It is really matter?
While I was cooped up in my home buying the things I wanted, I began to wonder: How much did I, as an individual, contribute to climate change by shopping? Those pairs of extra-soft sweatpants, those reams of high density rubber foam that I use to baby-proof my apartment, those disposable yogurt bins and takeout food containers, all made from plastic and paper and other raw materials; was I—and other U.S. families spending so much money on stuff—making it that much harder to reach the COP26 goal of preventing warming from going beyond 1.5°C?
Learn more We are causing a literal stink from our shopping obsession
In order to estimate the carbon footprint of the shopping habits of families like mine, I asked four families in four cities—Denver, Colo., Atlanta, Ga., San Francisco, Calif., and Salem, Mass.—to track their spending the week beginning on Cyber Monday, Nov. 29, so I could try to determine what parts of their holiday spending were most harmful to the environment. I chose to calculate their carbon footprint rather than other impacts like the amount of water used to make the products they bought because scientists agree on the urgency of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to protect the planet’s future.
Measuring one’s carbon footprint is difficult, especially because much of the environmental impact from spending is upstream, at the factories that burn fossil fuels to make cars, for example, and at the farms that raise cows for our consumption and release methane. David Allaway, an Oregon Department of Environmental Quality senior policy analyst, helped me to determine the carbon footprint of my consumer spending. To figure out how much the consumption habits of Oregonians contribute to climate change, and what the state should be doing to remedy this, Allaway commissioned the Stockholm Environment Institute to produce the first state-level analysis of the environmental footprint of Oregon’s consumer spending in 2011.
Consumption-based emissions accounting is a method of estimating the emission from consumers’ purchases. It includes 536 specific categories such as books, beef cattle and full-service restaurants. It counts the emissions of all purchases by consumers, regardless of where those emissions were created—in Mexico, picking, packing, and shipping bananas; in Saudi Arabia, drilling for and refining petroleum. Allaway refined and updated the analysis in 2015, when it was completed again.
Allaway accepted to use his model to calculate the carbon footprint for these families based on the amount of money that they had spent. The families sent me their expenses, excluding housing, and I entered them into the categories in Allaway’s model. This is, of course, an inexact model: The families only tracked one week of spending, and their spending was self-reported, so it’s possible they missed an expense or two. The estimates provide a clear overview of emissions caused by different family behavior.
The only week they tracked was one, so I had to calculate their power and electricity costs. One family may spend more one week than the next. The estimates provide a clear overview of how individuals can reduce their carbon footprint and shed light on how spending affects emissions.
Although many consumers have a lot of guilt about disposing of things once they’re done with them, whether it be plastic packaging or a shirt that they’ve worn a few times and then stained, we just looked at consumption. That’s because the emissions from the disposal of goods is tiny compared to the emissions created from producing something in the first place. “By the time you purchase something, 99% of the damage has already been done,” Allaway told me. This means that the “reduce” part of “reduce, reuse, recycle,” is the most important.
Learn more: The Supply Chain: How American Consumers Break it
While buying less stuff can help reduce emissions, families can make the most of their carbon footprints by changing their travel and eating habits. Denver, which has solar panels and is vegetarian, left a smaller carbon footprint than others. Emissions were highest for families who ate meat and dairy, and also bought tickets to plane flights. There’s a reason the Swedish have a word “flygskam,” or “flight shame”: one flight can cancel out the most tightfisted family’s progress for a week.
Spending on experiences and services, such as tickets to concerts or subscriptions to museums, can be more eco-friendly than buying goods. This is because labor is part of the cost. According to Allaway, $100 of materials will produce three times as many emissions as $100 of services. Of course, there are exceptions—spending $100 on a steak dinner for two could have higher emissions than spending $100 on groceries to make a vegan meal at home.
A couple of quick disclaimers: These are families that have an annual income of over $100,000. I obtained them through friends, social media and from other sources. All of them are white which means that they have the highest consumption and the largest emissions in America. TIME gave them their names, along with the addresses of their homes to encourage open sharing about their habits and to not shame anyone.
The results varied widely, from a family in San Francisco that had a weekly carbon footprint of 1,267 kg of carbon dioxide equivalent—about the same as driving from New York to San Francisco in a gas-powered car—to the family in Denver whose weekly carbon footprint was just 360 kgCO2, the equivalent of driving from Denver to Tucson. Below are the detailed weekly breakdowns.
One Family Who Spends A Lot on the Internet
A.S. + W.H.
Localization: Salem, Mass.
Income from both householdsEstimated cost: $200,000
Emissions total: 819 kgCO2e
This family spent about $2,800 for the week and had a carbon footprint of 819 kgCO2e, the equivalent of a passenger car driving 2,058 miles, according to the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator. That’s the same as they would have emitted from driving from Salem, Mass. From Salem, Mass. to Charleston, S.C.
A.S. and W.H. They own their house in Salem (Mass. ), a coastal town. They have a daughter. Prior to becoming parents, they were used for buying and using things for years. But they’re finding that as their daughter grows, their pace of shopping has sped up.
“One of the things that makes having a baby so wasteful is that you need something, and when you need it, you need it urgently,” A.S. told me. “You need it for three weeks, and then you don’t need it anymore.”
W.H. has had a problem with online shopping. His spouse believes that online shopping is a waste of money and buys most things online. They have requested that their extended families cut down on the amount of goods they buy and instead gift experiences and services to them. However, relatives are resistant.
Online purchases were their single largest source of carbon dioxide emissions (138kgCO2e) Two subscription boxes of Little Passports were purchased for $298.99 to buy gifts for their family members. The box will contain crafts, puzzles, and books on different places around the globe for one year. This falls into the “dolls, toys, and games” category, which means the emissions-per-dollar would have been calculated the same regardless of what dolls, toys, and games they bought. Most of the emissions in this category come from the factories that make this stuff, rather than the materials mined or produced to create them, Allaway said, so it wouldn’t really matter environmentally whether they bought these toys at Amazon, Walmart or at a local toy store. A $269.20 wall light was also purchased, which produced 105 kilograms CO2e.
Aside from those purchases, their biggest emissions came from the food they ate—specifically beef and dairy products. A.S. & W.H. W.H. and A.S. shared a meal of pizza with their families during the week, as well as a couple of snacks and coffees from local restaurants. All meals taken out are considered services, regardless of whether they’re take-out or sit-down. They did purchase $40 worth of cheese, yogurt, and ice cream. Additionally, they took part in a food sharing program that gave them $28 each week of red meat. The emissions from dairy and beef are much higher than those of vegetables. Although the family did spend the same amount as on vegetables, the dairy produced more than twice the emission than their vegetables.
The couple told me that they’ve been trying to cut back on dairy but have had a hard time finding an environmentally-responsible alternative; almond milk uses up crucial water, for example, and coconut milk requires a lot of emissions-heavy transport to get from where coconuts are grown to New England. The couple also question whether it is worth cutting down on the enjoyment of things they like. The cost of $30 to buy beef is equivalent to driving approximately 120 miles. They shouldn’t stop buying cheese because their neighbor has to drive that distance every week to go to work. “That’s one of the big pieces of friction between me and my husband,” A.S. told me. “I think he sees this as too big of a problem for any individual behavior to change.”
The Family Who Eats Out A Lot
Location: Atlanta, Ga.
Children: 14 months and 3 ½ years old
Income from both households: $100k-$200k
Emissions totales: 757 kgCO2e
This family spent about $1,361 for the week and had consumption-based emissions of 757 kg CO2e, the same as if they’d driven a car 1,902 miles, according to the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator. That’s the distance from Atlanta to Las Vegas.
The Atlanta family’s emissions came in slightly lower than the Salem family’s. M.C. told me that this week was atypical for them because they usually buy diapers and fill up on gas, and they didn’t do either this week. They did eat out a lot—they were surprised by how much, once they started counting, but because of the way Allaway’s model works, restaurants are a lower-emissions way to spend money than buying a lot of goods. (The model doesn’t account for what you eat at a restaurant, but since so much of a restaurant’s bill is for service, rather than a tangible product, the spending often creates lower emissions.)
M.C. told me that because they’re in their car so much, they often stop by quick-service restaurants like Chick-Fil-A to get a fast dinner if they don’t have time to prepare something at home. They feel guilt about eating out because they are forced to eat on disposable plates and use plastic utensils.
But their biggest source of emissions for the week was something out of their control—electricity generation. According to the family, their electricity bill averages $200 per month and can rise as high as $500 during summer and winter. This resulted in 254 kilograms CO2e per week. It is one of the most significant single sources of family-wide emissions. (That’s the equivalent of a car driving from New York to Detroit.) Allaway explained that the Atlanta and Denver families had greater emissions due to their natural gas and electricity bills than other two families. This is partly because they are less dependent on coal-fired power stations.
N.A. works as a financial analyst and takes the public transport to work. N.A. and her family have been trying to spend less on stuff and more on experiences. M.C. said that it can be difficult to cut back on red meat and pay more attention to the quality of products purchased. said. There is enough for her. “With two little kids, I don’t think about it,” she said.
Families that travel
A.A. & M.T.
Location: San Francisco
Combination household incomeOver $300,000.
Emissions totales:1,267kg CO2e
Wealthiest families produce more emissions than others. That was definitely true for the San Francisco family. It was the largest-earning and produced the most greenhouse gases. A.A. told me she thought the family had been buying way too much stuff online, and they did buy more stuff online than any of the other families —$60 on clothes from Target, $23 for a baby float on Amazon, $48 for diapers on Amazon, $21 for baby wipes. They also shopped at brick and mortar stores—$26 at a local bookstore, $37 at CVS for razors and snacks, $18 at a local hardware store. And they spent a lot on restaurants—about $300 in total.
However, none of the purchases generated the vast majority of their carbon emissions. The bulk of their emissions came from $400 spent on round-trip flights from San Francisco to Los Angeles. That purchase generated 436kg CO2e and was the biggest purchase by the four families. Because prices were discounted when they bought the tickets, that’s probably a low estimate of the emissions from their flight; the emissions calculator run by myclimate, an international nonprofit, estimates that a roundtrip flight for two between those two cities would generate 614 kg of CO2e, more than the 333 kg the family would have created by driving. Although it would have reduced their carbon emissions, the train ride would have been 12 hours long.
The couple also spent $400 to book hotel rooms, which resulted in 123kg CO2e. This is intuitive—we all know that flying creates a lot of emissions. It was surprising to discover how much more than any other thing. That one trip to LA bumped the family’s emissions from 708 kg in the week to 1,276.
A.A. told me they haven’t flown much since the pandemic started and bought the tickets to attend a close friend’s wedding. In the last two years, they’ve flown far less than they did before the pandemic and before having children. Instead, they’ve stayed home and explored San Francisco, or driven to destinations within an hour or two. Their feeling of luck is what they say. They will not buy plane tickets on impulse, although they may find it difficult to resist a trip if the cost goes up.
The family that buys used
Children:9 and 7 years, respectively
Income from both households:Over $200,000
Total emission350 kg CO2e
The Denver family has been trying to be more environmentally-conscious for years, and they had the lowest emissions, despite having the most family members (although they were the only family without a kid in diapers.) They had emissions that were lower than the others, which is equivalent to a trip from Denver to Tucson. M.C. does almost everything she can to lower their emissions. doesn’t eat meat or cook it at home; her husband and children only eat meat if it’s served at a friend’s house. The family tries to avoid dairy products (one of the items they bought this week was vegan “egg”nog); they buy used clothes from ThredUp; their home has solar panels.
M.C. According to M.C., the family is conscious of reducing waste, but they became more focused on it after their friend’s move to Denver. It was possible to walk from home to get to work. “The driving we were doing was more impactful than the plastic wrap on a bag of pasta,” M.C. said.
The couple knew they would have to make some sacrifices when they had children, but they didn’t want to give up on their environmental goals. The couple decided to take control of their lives. “We realized that we could make some more intentional choices, set up our life in a way that not only decreased environmental impact, but also made our life happier,” she said.
It is a joy for them to be able to go to many different places. M.C. She has never really liked meat. She used to cook for her children but gave up three years ago. They’ll treat themselves to real cheese or real eggnog occasionally, but usually they go vegan.
Their biggest emissions came from their use of natural gas—they spend about $44 a month on natural gas, despite their solar panels. Because solar power is so variable—it may be sunny one day, and then cloudy for a week—most systems that run on renewables like solar also use some natural gas.
Still, the Denver family avoided a lot of emissions in places where other families didn’t. They spent $156 on clothes, but all from ThredUp, a used clothing site, which generated only 17 kg CO2e, according to Allaway’s estimates. San Francisco families spent $61 to buy new clothes. This resulted is 26 kg CO2e. (Allaway’s model treats used goods as having a very low carbon footprint because it assigns the carbon footprint to the previous user, who bought them new; but buying used clothes does have some carbon footprint since the clothes are transported from the warehouses where they’re stored.)
M.C. said she knows her kids might resist wearing used clothes as they get older and that there may be a day when they don’t want Christmas gifts from the thrift store. But they’re trying to teach their children not to be consumed by materialism, she said. She believes that happiness should come from more than just new objects.
M.C. I asked M.C. if her sacrifices had been worth the effort. She said yes. Her family’s choices allow the couple and their children to focus on relationships, she said. She hopes to have inspired some family members and friends to be more responsible. But ultimately, it’s about being aware of the urgency of environmental awareness, she said.
“By trying to reduce my own emissions, that helps me stay in touch with the broader issues and think about the ways I can be an advocate for change in the areas that really will have an impact,” she said.
How Your Family Can Help
However, the Denver family could have saved more emissions than the San Francisco one. One person would wipe out all of them. Hourlong flights on a private jet. When reducing emissions individually can seem futile, it can be difficult to justify making drastic behavioral changes. Even the annual emissions of the San Francisco family—around 66 metric tons of CO2—pale in comparison to the electricity use of just one U.S. supermarket over the course of a year: 1,383 metric tons of CO2. Allaway says that it is possible to change your behaviour. Even though individuals may not be able make the greatest impact to reduce climate change’s effects on our planet, it is possible to do so collectively.ut collective action—lots of individuals working together—might.
Nevertheless, there are many things that we can do to improve our lives.Preconceived ideas about the best products to purchase can lead to confusion. Allaway discovered that Oregonians who choose to buy tomatoes from British Columbia are more likely to have their carbon footprint increased in the winter than consumers who go far away from Mexico. The reason is that the Canadian tomatoes were grown in energy-hungry greenhouses. New Zealand apples outside of season may be less carbon-intensive than apples grown locally and kept in cold storage for several months. Delivered coffee beans in a fully recyclable steel container have a higher climate impact than beans delivered in non-recyclable plastic because of the steel container’s weight.
There are many behavioral modifications that you can make to reduce emissions. It is possible to cut down on your flying and driving. Renewable energy can be used. You can buy lighter goods, which use less materials than heavyweight goods, and buy things that have to travel a smaller distance to get to your home (although that in itself is hard to parse out, because a “locally-made” toy may have been created from materials imported from China, which negates the benefits of buying something local). There are many options. You could buy goods made out of plant materials, or you can purchase used products. (Of course, there’s a caveat there, too—buying a used car that is a gas guzzler would be worse than buying a new electric vehicle.)
But if you’re trying to choose individual products that were created with lower emissions, you’ll have a tough task ahead of you. The only way to determine which products are the most carbon-efficient is to review their life cycle assessments. This document measures the product’s environmental footprint from cradle through grave. According to Sarah Cashman (Director of Life Cycle Services, ERG), an environmental consultancy group, there are many European companies that offer Environmental Product Declarations. They are abbreviated life-cycle assessments. These documents are hard to decipher, dotted with words like “eutrophication potential,” (the nutrient runoff from farming or manufacturing).
It is not possible to see in a report card which products have lower carbon emissions. Amazon is an example of this. labeling some products as “climate-pledge friendly” so that shoppers can choose green products that have received a third-party sustainability certification from a qualifying organization. Even so, it is a burden for the consumer to carefully read all labels on each product they purchase. The consumer already has a lot of responsibility in reducing waste. It is unreasonable to ask them for one more, like the family above.
However, there is an answer. There is a way for consumers to demand greater responsibility from businesses, so they can reduce emissions at every stage of their product development. It Supply chains for eight industries around the worldAccording to Boston Consulting Group, more than half of all greenhouse gas emissions are caused by companies. Companies have an advantage. Patagonia estimates that 86% its emissions stem from its raw materials and supply chains. It has a Supply Chain Environmental Responsibility Program which aims to ensure it only uses renewable or recycled materials in its production by 2025.
Most companies won’t do this unprompted, but if consumers start shopping at places that are reducing emissions in their supply chain, companies will start looking at their supply chains in order to stay in business. This would make it easier to identify companies who are working in this area. It may feel like there’s nothing you can do as an individual or as a family, but collective action could look like millions of families preferring to shop at places that are working to dramatically reduce emissions in their supply chain. While it may seem impossible for some families to purchase less, Americans are smart shoppers and have proven it.