The Downside to the 'Buy Less Stuff' Philosophy

Posted by Sarah Laskow

clothing
Often, the best green lifestyle advice boils down to a simple principle: “Buy less stuff.” 

But according to a new analysis [PDF] from the Stockholm Environment Institute, scaling back consumption has negative consequences, too. Greener purchasing choices could cause the average gross domestic product of low-income countries to drop by more than 4 percent—the average amount a country’s GDP might be expected to grow in a given year. The GDP of the world's least-developed countries could take an even bigger hit, of more than 5 percent. 

It’d be convenient if the world’s social and environmental problems didn’t overlap. But policymakers and researchers looking at climate change are increasingly realizing that addressing climate change requires addressing poverty and economic growth. In the past, economic development caused huge releases of greenhouse gas, and in recent rounds of international climate negotiations, developing countries have been reluctant to sign onto carbon commitments that could limit their growth. In international climate change negotiations, the importance of sustainable, low-carbon development has gained traction, and the Rio+20 conference in June will focus on sustainable development

But SEI’s Peter Erickson, the lead author of the new study, says he hadn’t heard development discussed among leaders focused on decreasing consumption. “We had not seen it be much a part of the conversation in this strong but growing group of policymakers and researchers focused on consumption,” he says.

While decreasing consumption alone won’t stop climate change, it can help—and in the absence of a global or even national system to deal with carbon emissions, state and local leaders are looking to the “buy less stuff” strategy as a manageable way to take action. But all that stuff comes from somewhere, and its creation helps drives economies. The potential impacts on the economies of the least developed countries “are driven overwhelmingly by reductions in clothing,” SEI reported. 

Erickson and his colleagues suggested a few ideas that could reduce consumption-driven greenhouse gas emissions without hurting lower-income countries. Clothing made in China, for instance, has a higher carbon footprint than clothing made in Romania. Buying clothes from a country like Romania could do just as much to reduce emissions as buying clothing that lasts twice as long, the SEI researchers suggest. Right now, there’s not enough information available about the emissions associated with specific products—for example, a t-shirt made in Romania versus one made in China—but with more research, consumers could start choosing lower-carbon goods.

For state and local policymakers, that’s not the most obvious solution, though. “It runs counter to some messages that are still quite popular around buying local,” Erickson says. In SEI’s analysis, consumers compensated for buying less stuff by buying more local services—like a car share service instead of a car. Those purchases increased the GDP of the higher-income countries that are usually the consumers and generally not the creators. 

But high-income countries shouldn’t necessarily view those GDP boosts as a positive. “If we're going to solve the climate problem, we're going to need to address equity,” Erickson says. 

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Thing Three