Book isolates main environment-damaging consumer activities

Only a few consumer activities – primarily the use of cars and trucks, consumption of meat, and choice of homes and appliances – are responsible for the vast majority of consumer-related environmental harm according to a new book from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).


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The book, The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices (Three Rivers Press), examines the full range of consumer activities to identify which cause the least and most environmental damage.

“Some consumer decisions, like whether to choose paper or plastic grocery bags, are insignificant,” said Dr. Warren Leon, Deputy Director at the UCS and co-author of the book. “Our book shows people how to focus on those environmental choices that make the biggest difference.”

UCS developed an economic model to analyse the impact of household spending on the most significant consumer-related environmental problems: air pollution, water pollution, alteration of natural habitats, and global warming. After grouping 134 consumer spending choices into 50 categories (furnishings, clothing, computers etc), the authors discovered that most environmental degradation is linked to just seven categories: cars; meat; produce and grains; household appliances and lighting; home heating and cooling; home construction; and household water and sewage. Cars and light trucks (including mini-vans and pickups) cause the most environmental damage overall, and are responsible for nearly half of the toxic air pollution and more than one-quarter of the greenhouse gases traceable to household consumption, the authors found.

“Driving less and buying a cleaner car are the best things people can do for the environment,” said co-author Dr. Michael Brower, a physicist and expert on energy and environmental issues. “Because cars cause so much harm, even modest changes matter.”

Food is second only to transportation as a source of consumer-related environmental problems. Red meat causes especially high amounts of environmental damage for the nutrition it delivers. According to the book, cutting the average household’s meat consumption (both red meat and poultry) in half would reduce food-related land use and common water pollution by 30 and 24 percent, respectively.

“Replacing beef with grains and produce, or even chicken, can significantly improve the environment,” said Brower. “People can also help the environment by buying organic foods.”

Some consumer activities and purchases that are highly damaging – like lawn pesticides, snowmobiles, large powerboats, and fireplaces – did not make the “dirty seven” because they account for very small shares of total consumer spending. Consumers should either avoid using these items or take precautions.

On the other hand, UCS suggests that people stop worrying about choices, like cloth versus disposable nappies, that involve alternatives whose differences are insignificant.

“The book sweeps away confusion over what matters and doesn’t matter for the environment,” said Leon. “No one should feel guilty about modest use of such things as spray cans, paper napkins, and polystyrene cups.”

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