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What Can We Do as Consumers About Climate Change?

June 4, 2019

This Guest Blog is provided by Terri Goldberg, Executive Director, Northeast Waste Management Officials' Association (NEWMOA)

For much of my life, shopping has been a form of recreation. I learned good shopping techniques from the best, my grandmother, who was a real pro. She shopped largely for value, quality, and the brands she liked. So that’s what I have usually done. But that’s changing.

I was recently involved with writing a new NERC and NEWMOA handout, “What Can We Do as Consumers About Climate Change?” This short write-up is intended for a general audience and focuses on the climate change impacts of the stuff we consume. From what NEWMOA and NERC staff could find online, there are no other short fact sheets on this topic targeted for consumers. For me, the most powerful statements in the fact sheet emphasize that, “for most products, the greatest contributions to… greenhouse gas emissions happen during production… 42 percent of all green gases are associated with the production, transportation, and disposal of materials and products. Studies…have revealed that greenhouse gas releases from consumption are increasing even as those from the direct use of energy by consumers in their homes and for transportation are decreasing.” These simple statements are a compelling call for much greater attention to the climate change impacts of what we buy.

I particularly love buying kitchen gadgets. Take me into one of those stores filled with all sorts of shiny gadgets designed to make your life in the kitchen easier, and I’m ready to spend lots of money. I’m suddenly interested in a new peeler of some particular fruit or vegetable, just because it sounds necessary and cool, or buying a new electric device to help me chop nuts. Never-mind that I rarely have occasion to use these kinds of devices. They just seem awesome!

But after learning more about the climate impacts of what we buy, now when I go into the kitchen gadget store for my ‘fix’ I think about all of the greenhouse gases that went into making the products and getting them to the store shelf, and I pause for a moment and ask if I really need them.

Even if I decide I want to buy something, one thing I do know - the product packaging will not be helpful. There’s nothing there to inform me about the greenhouse gas (GHG) impacts of the product or its packaging. While I have not done an exhaustive survey of product websites, I’ve not seen many (at least in the U.S.) that help illuminate the carbon footprint or total GHG emissions associated with products or materials.

That said, there are some useful certification programs. For example, many household appliances are certified under the federal Energy Star program, and that’s helpful when buying those products. But Energy Star focuses on energy used during the use of the product not on the carbon footprint of the product itself. It’s helpful for high-energy use products, but that isn’t the whole picture. There are also a host of private product certifications for sustainability, including EPEAT for computers, monitors, televisions, and cellphones, Green Seal, ECOLOGO, and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Without these certifications, claims of ‘greenness’ may be nothing more than greenwashing. Nevertheless, these sustainability certifications are most helpful if you know what they evaluate. As a consumer, I find that understanding what’s behind sustainability certification labels is challenging, and it’s not always clear if the certification includes an evaluation of a product’s carbon footprint. But there are many products that are not covered by these certifications, which makes it hard to know how they measure up. I’m generally inclined to seek out products that have achieved one of these certifications, as noted on the product’s label, but I also understand that they may be missing some important elements of sustainability.

So even for people, like me, who try to stay informed and be ‘smart’ consumers, it’s complicated, and without a systematic and consistent labeling system like we have for nutrition on food products we remain in the dark…

What can we do as a consumer in the face of confusing and non-existent information and labels? The NERC - NEWMOA Fact Sheet lists ten “things you can do to make a difference.” Starting with “buy what you need and buy for durability” and “borrow and share.” These are not new ideas, but they mean a change in behavior, which can be challenging for me and my family as modern consumers. It’s not always easy striking a balance between what I want or need and my desire to minimize the climate impacts of my choices. But I plan to start by taking some simple steps. For one, I can plan better when I shop online or in the store and really think about whether I need something new, can repurpose something I already own, or can figure out a way to borrow it. For another, I can pay more attention to products’ labels, seeking out certified products and trying to better understand what those certifications mean. I can spend more time researching the options I may be considering before I shop, being sure to use reliable information sources.

I think we sometimes underestimate the impact we can have as consumers on the choices we have. If, for example, we have an opportunity to interact with product brands, we can join the growing call for more and clearer information on the carbon footprint of the things we buy. That would help everyone be more informed consumers.  

NEWMOA and NERC designed the handout for sharing with anyone that is interested in having a brief conversation starter on climate and consumption and have posted a version where users can add their contact information to it and publish it or repost it on their website or through social media. So, feel free to share it through your networks as-is, or as your own!

NERC and NEWMOA are continuing our discussions among ourselves and with colleagues in the West Coast Climate and Materials Management Forum about other projects we can undertake to get the word out on the climate impacts of consumption. Stay tuned to this Blog as we share more ideas in the future.

We’d also appreciate hearing about your experience with trying to have discussions about climate and materials and implement any of our ten suggestions for what consumers can do to impact climate change. We’d love to publish more blogs on this topic with useful insights and experiences. So share your thoughts and ideas with us.

NERC welcomes guest blog submissions. To inquire about submitting articles contact Lynn Rubinstein.

Disclaimer: Guest blogs represent the opinion of the writers and may not reflect the policy or position of the Northeast Recycling Council, Inc.

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