“We’re drowning in information, but starved for knowledge.”
As a consumer, I put a lot of effort into aligning my choices with my values—until the decision fatigue sets in:
Should I shop at small businesses in order to have a local impact, or support responsible corporate brands to have a global impact?
Should I buy the organic blueberries that come in plastic packaging, or the conventional ones offered in bulk?
Should I make DIY green cleaners for my home or buy the ones branded as eco-friendly? And are they really eco-friendly?
Directing my buying power to support these values certainly feels nice, but with so many choices to make and variables to consider, it’s hard to determine which ones actually have a collective effect.
Looking for specific answers doesn’t necessarily help, as I'm often lead down online rabbit holes of conflicted debate that end up at the same underwhelming conclusion: it depends.
And if I’m really honest, most days I’m just as likely to make choices by casting a sideward glance at my circle of peers than by looking through an intersecting prism of rational arguments. For example, compared to the stereotype of a meat-grilling, SUV-driver who is so often maligned as the enemy of the environment, I might feel like Citizen Green, but the comparison is misleading. A more useful frame of reference would be to a rural family of eight living in Namibia.
What if instead of breaking our heads trying to determine the optimal choices, we go for something radically simple and just cut our consumption rates by half? How much of an impact would this have on the pressing environmental issues we currently face? How would it influence our personal wellbeing, our children’s wellbeing, or that of workers in emerging economies who produce much of what we use?
The information below attempts to answer these “big picture” questions. It’s based on basic number-crunching that slashes in half five goods and services that we consume regularly, and replaces the remaining half with better viable alternatives.
Screen Time Consumption Statistics
Although current and credible numbers are difficult to obtain, the most commonly-cited screen time averages in the U.S. are 10.5 hours daily for adults and 7 hours daily for kids. For adults, 4.5 of those 10.5 hours are spent watching movies and shows. The children’s statistic is calculated for entertainment purposes only and doesn’t include the use of digital media in educational contexts, such as completing homework.
Too much screen time has been linked to various cognitive, emotional, and social disturbances in children, leading the American Academy of Pediatrics to set new guidelines in 2016 that recommend no more than an hour of screen time per day for children ages 2-5, and none at all for toddlers and babies 18 months and under.
Advertisers unfairly target children, primarily, via screens, as super consumers-in -training. How much could we reduce our children’s exposure to advertising if we cut those numbers in half? And what could we gain by replacing screen time hours with things like outdoor physical activity or simply being more present and connected in the physical world?
According to this infographic from AdWeek, kids ages 2-11 are exposed to 70 digital ads on a daily basis from both online and television media. It’s estimated that over 50% of those ads are for candy, sugary cereals and fast food. At an average of 7 hours of screen time daily, that’s 10 ads an hour. Reduce it by half and you’d also be cutting out about 35 ads a day.
Even better would be to replace those junk food ads and stagnant screen time with outdoor physical activity, which both facilitates social interaction and develops our connection to nature. With one in six U.S. children ages 2-19 suffering from obesity, those replaced hours could be the critical factor in offsetting the development of asthma, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure.
As the percentage of children diagnosed with ADHD in the U.S. continues to rise (current estimates for kids 4-17 range at about 11%) so does the connection between screen time and chronic irritability. Whether the two are related or not, unplugging helps kids remain more focused and reduces stress reactions.
What If We Cut Screen Time by Half?
Screen time is somewhat of an outlier in this series, as it relates more to personal well-being than to environmental or social concerns. The tangential relations, however, are quite apparent when you consider the effects of advertising on consumption, or how screens impair our connection with nature and our ability to communicate with other people.
Fast Fashion Consumption Statistics
The average yearly amount of discarded clothing in America has risen in the last 20 years from 40 lbs per person to 80 lbs per person. That’s 14 million tons of clothing every year. 80% of unwanted clothes end up in landfills or incinerators where they release toxic chemicals into the air and water supply from synthetic fibers, treatments and dyes used in the manufacturing process. Beyond the environmental impacts, fast fashion is also complicit in workers’ rights abuses such as the one that led to the collapse of Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza garment factory in 2013, claiming 1,138 lives.
What if we reduce our consumption of fast fashion by half and consumed the remaining half through second hand items or by choosing apparel companies that have a proven track record of transparent workers’ rights policies?
What If We Cut Fast Fashion by Half?
Cut the amount of cheaply produced clothing we consume by half and we could reduce CO2 emissions by 560 million tons a year, which is the equivalent of removing 119 million cars from the road or nearly 10% of the world's cars.
Replace the remaining half with second-hand clothing only, and we’d avert 5.6 million tons of waste from landfills, which is equivalent to 15.3 Empire State Buildings.
And if we only supported companies working actively towards a transparent supply chain? The difference in cost to consumers between paying 'living wages' or 'poverty wages' to garment workers has been estimated at an increase of just 1%. The average American family spending $1,700 dollars a year on clothing would end up paying an extra 70 cents a month.
Plastic Toys Consumption Statistics
At $21.5 billion, the U.S. toy market accounted for 26.9% of annual global toy sales in 2010, with an average amount of $280 spent per child and 90% of the market dominated by plastic toys. Most of these toys are unsuitable for recycling because they are made of a mixture of plastic materials that cannot be separated. What’s worse, only an estimated 1% will remain in use after six months.
If we cut our expenditure on plastic toys in half, to $140 per child, what might the environmental, personal, and social benefits be?
Let’s make a gross estimate by looking at Mattel, the world's leading toy manufacturer and the makers of the doll that feminists have long criticized for its distorting effects on young girls' perceptions of beauty. If we cut the number of Barbie dolls sold each year by half we could avert 1200 tons of unrecyclable plastic from eventually making it to a landfill, without calculating all the packaging waste we’d save. That’s equivalent to almost 8 blue whales - the largest mammal on earth!
Consider replacing those plastic toys with “experience gifts,” which psychology research has shown make people happier than material gifts because their value is less likely to be measured in comparison to others. All that without accumulating more clutter in our living rooms and oceans? Talk about win-win!
Donate the money to a children’s literacy organization, such as roomtoread.org, which transforms the lives of millions of children in low-income countries by focusing on literacy and gender equality in education. According to Project Drawdown, which models the 100 most substantive, existing solutions to address climate change, educating girls ranks in at an impressive number six, with an estimated reduction of 59.6 gigatons of atmospheric CO2.
What If We Cut Plastic Toy Consumption by Half?
Palm Oil Consumption Statistics
Palm oil is used in half of the consumer packaged goods we buy, including most processed snacks, personal care items, and cosmetics. Both its versatile application and vastly efficient crop yield make it the most attractive source of vegetable oil for leading consumer goods manufacturers, including Unilever, Procter & Gamble, and Nestlé.
The majority of the world’s palm oil is currently grown in the biodiverse rainforests of Southeast Asia, where its mass cultivation threatens the existence of native orangutans, tigers, and elephants. But as global dependence on palm oil increases rapidly, oil producers are looking to expand to Africa where local endangered species such as silverback gorillas stand to fare just as badly, if not worse.
Most of the big players campaigning in this field, including Greenpeace, RSPO, and PanEco, agree that tightening the rules governing sustainable palm oil certification is the way to go. But sustainably produced or not, what if we just used less of the stuff? Do we really want to be eating all those instant noodles and packaged cookies or exposing ourselves to the potentially toxic synthetic fragrances found in deodorants and fabric softeners?
What If We Cut Palm Oil Consumption by Half?
Although palm oil is the poster child of the sustainability movement, U.S. consumption rates make up just 2% of the global total, so even our best-laid plans won’t make a big dent in actual numbers. India is the world’s biggest consumer, where palm is imported for use as a cheap cooking oil. In the E.U., it’s used for making biofuel.
Still, if we take 2% of the estimated 112,000 endangered wild orangutans remaining in Borneo and Sumatra and cut that number in half, we could prevent 1,120 of these magnificent apes from being displaced or killed.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, everyday consumer goods that contain palm oil include: lipstick, detergent, shampoo, fabric softener, soap, pizza dough, ice cream, packaged cookies, packaged bread, margarine, and instant noodles. Let’s consider just the food stuffs in that list and assume that you don’t want to give up the occasional pizza and ice cream. Fair enough. But would you really miss the rest of those packaged foods?
Meat Consumption Statistics
Meat eating is a touchy subject that relates to a wide range of views, including ethical, cultural, and religious—all of which are highly subjective. Environmental impact, however, is one aspect of meat where there’s consensus. Particularly when it comes to beef. Switching to grass-fed is a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough to sustain current Western consumption levels, which are spreading rapidly to developing parts of the world.
According to Project Drawdown, the Western meat-centric diet is “responsible for 1/5 of global emissions… [and] if cattle were their own nation, they would be the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.” That’s without considering a host of other dangerous side effects of conventional agricultural feeding operations, including deforestation, groundwater pollution, and acid rain.
Over the next year, the average American will consume about 56.6 lbs of beef. Let’s cut that amount in half and divide it into two weekly portions so that we’re left with approximately two quarter-pound portions of beef a week, each of which provides 283 calories. For the purposes of this thought experiment, we’re not going to ask anyone to restrict their caloric intake by half, so let’s see which plant-based alternatives would make the best replacements for the remainder of those calories.
5 weekly ½ cup servings of beans
According to the preeminent nutrition research site NutritionFacts.org, the most comprehensive analysis of diet and cancer, based on some half a million studies and published by the American Institute for Cancer Research, cites eating legumes with every meal as one of their main cancer-prevention recommendations. That’s three times a day. Surely, we can work them into one meal, no?
1 daily 1 ¼ cup serving of blackberries
Although blueberries are commonly touted as the king of berries, blackberries take the cake when it comes to antioxidant activity, with nearly double the levels of blueberries or strawberries. A 1 ¼ cup serving also provides more than the full daily recommended allowance of vitamin C.
1 cup daily serving of broccoli sprouts
Replacing two portions of beef with a daily 1 cup serving of broccoli sprouts will shave off about 280 calories from your weekly diet, but doubling the caloric equivalent to 2 cups a day for our experiement seems a little hardcore. Is it worth it? If you or someone you know is battling with autism, listen up. In an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the active phytonutrient in broccoli sprouts was found to benefit autism in a way no drug ever has in a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study.
The Bottom Line on our Current State of Consumption
Although many of the above-mentioned consumption debates are now considered common knowledge, we’re still far from implementing any cut and dried solutions for any of them on a mass scale. Perhaps the greatest value in pursuing conscious consumption lies in the clear intention to better understand what motivates us as individuals and what connects us as global communities.
We may not have the answers, but our questions are setting an example for the next generation of young consumers. We’ll at least be pointing them in the right direction.