Although transportation, housing and food are often considered the main source of greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore, the elements of our economy that incur the heaviest environmental cost, they are far from the only source of pollution. In September 2018, the French Agency for the Environment and Energy Management (ADEME) published a study on the impact that electronics but also furniture and clothing (too often forgotten) have on the environment and its natural resources.

The study focused on the following elements:

  • Electrical and electronic equipment with a strong electronic component: TVs, laptops, PCs, screens, tablets, smartphones, modems, decoders, e-readers, printers, etc.
  • Electrical and electronic equipment with a low electronic component: Ovens, dishwashers, washing machines, dryers, fridges, freezers, breadmakers, vacuum cleaners, etc.
  • Furniture: Chairs, tables, sofas, wardrobes, beds and mattresses
  • Textiles, clothing and footwear: Shirts, jeans, shoes, sweaters, coats and dresses
  • Sports Equipment: Backpacks, rackets and balls

A significant impact

ADEME estimates that every household in France accumulates an average of 2.5 tons of items. What is truly worrying is that to produce those 2.5 tons of goods, 45 tons of raw materials had to be extracted, processed and transported, generating CO2 emissions equivalent to six Paris-New York return flights.

A few figures from the report…

  • To make an 11 kg television, 2.5 tons of raw materials are necessary and CO2 emissions equivalent to a round trip Paris-Nice by flight are produced.
  • To build a 56 kg refrigerator, 1.75 tons of raw materials are processed and CO2 emissions equal a round trip Paris-Marseille by car.
  • A 50 kg wardrobe containing clothes and shoes requires the use of 2.5 tons of raw materials and a round trip Paris-Montreal by flight worth of CO2 emissions.
  • To manufacture a 79 kg washing machine, 2.1 tons of raw materials are used and a round trip Paris-Toulouse by flight worth of CO2 emissions is produced.      

The impact of furniture on the environment greatly depends on the choice of materials. Provided it comes from sustainably managed forests, the impact of the use of wood is relatively light on the environment compared to polyurethane foam, metal or plastic. However, every year seven billion large trees are cut down for immediate economic needs without being replaced. That is equivalent to 200,000 km² of forest. produce those 2.5 tons of goods, 45 tons of raw materials had to be extracted, processed and transported.

As for clothing, the fashion industry emits 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gases every year (about 2% of all global greenhouse gas emissions). This is more than international flights and maritime traffic combined.

And the environmental impact of textiles doesn’t stop at air emissions…

  • 4% of the drinking water available in the world is used to produce our clothes;
  • 70% of globally produced synthetic fibers come from oil, a limited resource;
  • With each wash, synthetic clothes release plastic microfibers, which is how 500,000 tons of plastic microparticles (equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic bottles) are released into the oceans each year.    

Consumers at fault?

ADEME’s study points out that although French households believe that they own around 34 items of electrical and electronic equipment, they in fact own an average of 99, of which six are never used. Of course, this lack of consumer awareness goes beyond French borders and the issue is a global one. ADEME advocates for consumer awareness as the first step towards more responsible consumption. Among others, the agency recommends the following to consumers:

  • Avoid overequipping and maximize the duration of goods by finding alternatives to new products, including buying secondhand goods.
  • Avoid oversizing such as buying a family-sized fridge for a household of two or buying a television with the largest screen available.
  • Buy more sustainable goods by looking at information on their production: resources used, respect for the environment, compliance with regulations and social criteria (such as a decent wage for local producers), transport conditions, etc. More and more labels are available to guide consumers in their choice, including the European Ecolabel, the European Energy Label for household appliances, as well as the GOTS certification for organic textiles.

Corporate responsibility

Although consumer awareness is undeniably necessary, can we always hold consumers responsible for oversizing when the trend is to produce everything bigger? Bigger phones, bigger televisions, bigger tablets… Can buyers be blamed for purchasing a new mobile phone every two years when there is such a thing as planned obsolescence, coupled with increasingly aggressive marketing strategies convincing consumers every day that buying more and bigger will make them happier and more successful?  

By resorting to planned obsolescence and designing consumer goods with a limited lifespan so that they become obsolete and require replacing, marketers knowingly push consumers towards overconsumption and are greatly responsible for the resulting environmental degradation and increased waste.

Sustainable brands are an option, both from a manufacturer and consumer perspective.

Beyond the promotion of consumer awareness, another way to support a sustainable use of materials and sound consumption of goods is to ban planned obsolescence and hold marketers accountable through legislation designed to promote the increase of products’ use of life and the transparency of information to consumers on the amount of time a given product is designed to last and how long spare parts will be produced.

Currently, most European countries have a legal warranty for products of only two years. France is the first country in the world to have officially criminalized planned obsolescence through its 2015 law on energy transition.


Moving towards a responsible consumption

As consumer awareness grows, buyers will be more and more drawn towards brands which prioritize an environmentally sound use of resources and make environmental compliance and best practices a top priority in their processes. The awareness of companies that reputational damage can be far greater than any court decision and that a positive brand image starts with a solid sustainable development strategy, is therefore essential.

Many brands are developing this culture of responsibility and have put an environmental management system in place. The Group SEB guarantees to repair its products for 10 years; IKEA has invested in sustainability throughout its entire business operations including using renewable energy sources and raw materials from sustainable sources; Patagonia initiated several environmental campaigns and continually works on reducing its own role as a corporate polluter up to releasing ads encouraging people not to buy products they do not need, including their own; Mud Jeans promotes zero impact jeans through responsible processes, take-back and repair services…

The list is long and proves that sustainable brands are an option, both from a manufacturer and consumer perspective.

With the clear current focus of European law and policymakers on circular economy initiatives, we expect this to be a hot topic for regulators in the years, even decades, to come. And what starts in Europe often spreads globally…