Buying fewer new things

Last updated Friday 24 October 2008

Climate-smart shoppers resist the urge to splurge

The average Brit spends about 4,400 a year on new goods and services that generate an average 3.5 tonnes of CO2. You can cut those costs by buying quality gear that lasts or has already been used.

Making shiny new things from scratch is one of the most carbon-heavy and polluting processes on Earth, using about a third of the world's energy. Yet on average we chuck out about 80% of everything we buy after a single use, according to the UN. Disposing of it in landfill, incinerators and even recycling plants uses more energy, and produces more greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course we still need to buy stuff. But choosing durable or second-hand goods can reduce demand for new ones. With a growing range of reclaimed and recycled products available, and the vintage and retro trades the height of fashion, does it make sense to buy into a new way of shopping?

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Saves up to 1,000 kg of CO2 a year

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It's Not Easy Being Green: second-hand furniture

Lauren Laverne and an expert spruce up some wooden furniture bought at an antiques auction

In this article:

How will it make a difference?

About 15% of UK emissions are caused by manufacturing, according to the Office for National Statistics. The ONS also claims that a pound spent in Britain emits about 1 kg of CO2 - about as much as the average Pakistani emits in a year.

  • Buying second-hand electronics and furniture is the most effective way to cut the climate impact of your shopping, because these are among the most emissions-intensive goods to produce
  • You can save about half a tonne of CO2 (the same amount emitted by a return flight to Malaga) simply by buying a vintage piece of furniture from the local market instead of a new one

Emissions aside, second-hand goods are usually cheaper than new ones, and selling your old stuff can be a nice little earner too. The Centre for Economic and Business Research estimates that the average house could make 3,000 by selling off old possessions lurking in the loft.

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What's stopping me?

Pub Fact

  • According to the European Union, about half of 14- to 18-year-old girls in Scotland, Italy and Spain are addicted to shopping, and 8% have symptoms of 'pathological compulsion'
  • Some 90% of stuff bought and consumed does not actually end up in the sold product, according to the United States National Academy of Engineers
  • The average Brit spends about 4,400 a year on new goods and services, generating an average of 3.5 tonnes of CO2
  • Every year Brits throw out 1 million tonnes worth of fridges, TVs, computers, mobile phones and other appliances, equal in weight to 2,400 jumbo jets
  • Experts at the IEA suggest that the developing world emits about a quarter more CO2 manufacturing a product than the developed world
  • Some 90% of stuff bought and consumed does not actually end up in the sold product, according to the United States National Academy of Engineers

"I need a fridge-freezer. Is it better to buy a second-hand one?"

Not if it isn't A-rated. When it comes to energy-heavy appliances like tumble dryers and washing machines, using an old, inefficient model could do more harm than manufacturing a new one. Of course, second-hand A-rated appliances are the ideal solution.

"But buying new things makes me happy"

Not according to New Scientist. Its World Values Survey finds no positive correlation between materialism and happiness. In fact, it goes so far as to describe the desire for material goods as "a happiness suppressant." (Read the BBC article here).

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How do I do it?

  • Auction your possessions on a website, and find bargains there yourself
  • Check out local car-boot sales and charity shops for books and furniture
  • Give your old stuff to charity shops so it can be used again (and recycle the things that can't be reused)
  • Join a free-cycle website so you can give and receive goods free of charge
  • Swap your stuff online for free: ISwap, Swapz, Swapstyle, Swapshop and the Freeconomy Community.
  • If you're buying electronics, it's probably best to go for a first-hand model that's A-rated - or a recent second-hand one. Integrated Digital TVs offer a lower carbon alternative to plasma screens with set top boxes, and laptops offer a low-carb alternative to desktops
  • Read our article on reducing the climate impact of your clothes
  • If there's a baby on the way buy you can get second-hand cots, buggies and toys from toy libraries, charity shops and the National Childbirth Trust
  • Where something is manufactured can make a big difference to its manufacturing emissions. Experts at the IEA say that goods made in the developed countries - e.g. Canada, the US, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Northern and Western Europe, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Israel - can be lower-carbon than ones made elsewhere
  • In general, seek out hand-crafted, well-made products that are sourced sustainably and built to last. Read our article on sustainable timber

You could even try spending more time and money on gigs and other cultural stuff rather than on buying things. Read more in this 2007 report by the Comino Foundation, an Educational Trust (Global Growth without Disaster).

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Anonymous 2009-03-06

I think green shopping is one of the key things to realising positve green changes. However, whilst a lot of conversation is around reducing consumption, I think this is largely ineffective, because people like going on holiday,buying foriegn food, driving. What we need is to make more eco products cool and fashionable

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