Are You A Responsible Consumer?

By Dawn McGregor 15 October, 2015

CWR's McGregor mulls over the challenges of being a responsible consumer from fashion to food to plastic

Majority of consumers & public unaware of ‘destruction’ (of water, land) going on; waste levels are already sky high
4 parts to this: awareness still lacking, min. info from brands, limited eco-product choice & misaligned demands
Long way to go still but can take action now - be it as an individual or corporate consumer; need to consume less

Consumption is defined as “the act of consuming, as by use, decay, or destruction1. The last word, “destruction”, stands out to me most at the moment as this is what more and more I am becoming aware of as the result of many of our ways of life. What’s being destroyed? The world’s waters, land, forests, glaciers, wildlife and don’t forget about us (humans). The Earth is entering the sixth great mass extinction event. “If it is allowed to continue, life would take many millions of years to recover and our species itself would likely disappear early on”, said the study’s lead author.

Most likely the majority of consumers & the public aren’t aware of the ‘destruction’ going on as a consequence of consumption

I attended two events in the last four months that have really stuck with me. Why? They made me more aware of this ‘destruction’ as a consequence of consumption.
The first event is the premiere of the documentary film, “The True Cost’ – a story about the massive environmental impact & human rights issues from fashion. Whilst I already knew about the ‘costs’ discussed in the film (it’s my job & a personal interest) the film showed that most likely the majority of consumers & the public aren’t aware. Most of my friends hadn’t heard of the film until I mentioned it.
I believe there are three parts to this consumption blindness. One, though great work is being done on raising awareness (like the film and numerous organisations – check out Redress’s latest work on waste in a video here) many people are still not fully aware.

Information from brands is lacking
A simple “Made in Bangladesh” label is not enough

Two, is the lack of information from brands. A simple “Made in Bangladesh” label with the material percentage breakdown and washing instructions is not enough. How can we make choices without more information – food labels have far more information? Was the garment dyed/sewed in Bangladesh? What dyes were used? Where did the raw materials come from? (more on why this matters here). Could it be that the brands themselves do not know where all the materials of the finished garment come from?
As for the third part, there is a lack of eco-garments (‘cost’ the earth less than regular garments) from top brands & access to ecolabels/brands (not become mainstream yet).

Eco-garment offerings from top brands are limited
Pretty much no ecolabel/brand along ‘high streets’ but many tempting advertisements
How about an ad campaign on how the colour clothes you buy relates to hazardous chemicals?

Several of the top fashion brands do offer some eco-garments (use recycled materials, less water/energy/dye intensive materials, responsibly sourcing etc.). For example H&M’s conscious line, Nike’s FlyKnit shoes and Gap’s Wise Wash denim. Whilst such developments are positive, eco-garments remain the ‘minority’– H&M’s 2015 target for using recycled materials from collected garments works out to 0.2% of their total annual production.
When walking along Hong Kong’s ‘high streets’ you are met with the usual big brands, not an ecolabel (fashion brands with eco-friendly garments)  in sight. This makes it difficult to be responsible as not only is it hard to find ecolabels but also there is much temptation – especially with ALL the advertisements. It would be great if there were add campaigns on the ‘unseen costs’, like how the colour clothes you buy matter as some dyes use more hazardous chemicals than others.

Consumer demands for earth friendly fast-fashion are not realistic

And the fourth part, misaligned demands –  consumers seem to want a continuous & extensive selection of clothes at a ‘cheap’ price (a.k.a. fast fashion) that also aren’t ‘costing’ the environment – at the moment is this not possible and seems rather unrealistic. There are now practically 52 ‘seasons’ a year instead of the traditional four – spring, summer, autumn & winter.
Oh, and if you think that giving away your old clothes gives you a pass, think again. Places like Africa and closer to home Pakistan, are being overwhelmed with second hand clothes that factories are being shut down (no demand for new clothes) and excess clothes are being burned to dispose of them. This brings me onto the second event, the Zero Waste Global Summit.

China uses 1bn  disposable nappies a month and is expected to grow
Where are we going to put this waste?

With our exorbitant levels of consumption, waste levels are equally exorbitant. Dr. Christina Dean, founder of Redress, on clothing waste in Hong Kong, “We estimate that HK landfills may receive 12,000 garments every hour. Moreover, other research suggests that 80% of Hong Kong consumers don’t think they buy too many clothes. Consumers are clearly in the dark about their clothing consumption, or they don’t want to admit that they have an over-consumption and over-wastage problem.”
Another waste stat for you, recent estimates put China using as many as one billion disposable nappies a month and it’s believed the market could grow fourfold by 2017. Where are we going to put this waste?
Some good news from the Summit is that there are feasible ways to reduce waste (a lot has to do with sorting) and that people around the world are doing just that – sometimes even with the help of a donkey (the roads in a small Italian village were too narrow for a car to collect waste). Waste levels are forecasted to increase but already collection programmes, particularly for plastic, in many countries are not prepared. Doug Woodring, founder of Ocean Recovery Alliance, elaborates on this here.

Plastic waste from bottled water is contributing to ‘plastic walled cities’

Did you buy a bottle of water today? For Hong Kongers that’s quite likely. Bottled water is not only water intensive and energy intensive but the industry in China uses one Jinmao Towers of plastic a year. With much of this plastic waste not recycled ‘plastic walled cities’  are popping up across China. More reasons to drink responsibly here and a comprehensive overview of bottled water in China & implications for industry here.
And how about plastic bags, did you use/buy any today? In Hong Kong the amount of plastic bags reaching the landfill translate to more than three bags per person per day. Hong Kong now has a HKD0.5 levy for plastic bags. Many fashion brands now only provide paper bags. This would appear a good thing right? Well… yes and no as the paper industry is thirsty & dirty – more here.

Corporates are also consumers and so need to be responsible too

Corporates are also consumers and so need to be responsible too. Companies growing crops commonly use plastic mulch film to facilitate crop cultivation. Unfortunately, as Dirk Staerke from BASF shares a lot of the consumption is not responsible and has led to soil pollution, but BASF has a new biodegradable mulch film doesn’t pollute soil.
I am not sure how these issues and the events like the two I mention here are not getting more attention, especially in Asia which is frequently the largest market for many products but is also where the pollution is from the manufacturing of them. Asia, we need to be more responsible and make sure we aren’t paying the price for people’s more responsible choices in their home countries. China is trying for more sustainable livelihoods.

There is still a long way for us all to go, myself included.
In the meantime we can take steps be it as an individual or corporate

There is still a long way for us all to go, myself included.  In the meantime we can take steps to be more responsible, be it as an individual or corporate (see how BASF is tackling its plastic use here).
With fashion, go for the eco-garment ranges of brands and hunt for those ecolabels. For fashion brands, make more information available, step-up to the challenge & give consumers somewhere to buy clothes (be they more expensive) that doesn’t ‘cost the earth’.
Many brands are using The Higg Index (a suite of self-assessment tools that measures environmental, social & labour impacts of value chains and identify areas for improvement). This will help shift textiles to a circular economy, which is what the Chinese government has legislated for. Those that are using it need to make it Business-As-Usual and those that aren’t need to start using it, and fast. With F&B, buy a refillable water bottle or as a corporate use biodegradable products. And of course, consume less & package less.


Further Reading

  • Plastic Waste: The Vector For Change – USD13billion is the annual cost of impact of plastic pollution to our oceans. Doug Woodring, founder of Ocean Recovery Alliance, shares challenges ahead and strategies for a plastics-free ocean
  • Unwrapping Packaging Water Risks – China’s paper packaging industry discharges wastewater similar to its entire coal industry. Explore the dirty secrets behind paper & plastic packaging with China Water Risk’s Feng Hu. Also, see how shifting consumer attitudes can bring about new innovations
  • Biodegradable Films: Save Water & Soil – Plastic mulch films help save irrigation water but unfortunately, the plastic residue pollutes the soil. BASF’s Dirk Staerke expands on the damage caused and how biodegradable films can be a win-win solution for both water and soil
  • Bottled Water: Drink Responsibly – Know your bottled water – is it “fake water”? Is bottled water regulated? What is each bottle’s environmental footprint? Those “in the know” may be more inclined to go back to the tap. Hongqiao Liu walks you through how to drink responsibly
  • China’s Bottled Water: Boom Or Bust? – China’s bottled water industry stands at a fork in the road. Big expansion plans by the industry could be derailed by central policies to protect drinking water sources. Get ahead of these key risks
  • China Water Risk special report: “Bottled Water In China: Boom Or Bust?

Bottled Water In China - Boom Or Bust - Report Covers

  • Where Are The Top Fashion Brands? – Given tighter regulations for textiles in China, we review environmental initiatives of 10 top fashion brands from fast fashion to luxury. Are they looking beyond CSR to make their business more sustainable?
  • Still Exposed! Fashion Materials in China – With 32% to 75% of global hides, wool, cotton, chemical fibre and silk either produced in or passing through China via imports, exposure is sky high. China Water Risk’s Tan expands on the future of the industry
  • China’s Economy: Linear to Circular – China is the 3rd country globally to enact polices to move towards a circular economy. See how & why China needs to make this transition; which industries are affected, what is the role of industrial parks?
  • Water Ten: Comply Or Else -China’s new Water Ten Plan sets tough action on pollution prevention & control. While this is good for the water sector, less obvious is who or which sectors will be impacted. China Water Risk’s Tan on why China is serious about its fast & furious pollution reforms to propel China to a new norm
Dawn McGregor
Author: Dawn McGregor
Dawn leads CWR’s work to help corporates navigate increasingly disruptive & material risks from water & climate threats, as well as transitional risks in the supply chain arising from new regulations in China. Here, Dawn engages extensively with the global fashion industry delivering on-ground workshops in China to keynotes and strategic input at European HQs. She has written at length on the end of dirty and thirsty fast fashion and her report to overcome gaps between brands and manufacturers for a clean and circular future inspired the industry to create a new wastewater tool. Dawn also works closely with the property and tourism sectors where she not only conducts strategic assessments of their exposure but builds collective action toward resilience via closed door working groups and invite-only events. Having helped build CWR, Dawn is a frequent keynote, panellist & moderator at events, including being twice selected as the lead-rapporteur at World Water Week. Her articles are cited in various industry publications including the UN’s ‘World Without Water’. Dawn previously worked in a global investment bank assessing geo-political risk, crisis management and business resiliency. She was born and bred in Hong Kong and has lived in France, England, Singapore and Beijing.
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