We can no longer ignore the climate impacts of shopping

26 November 2021

Photo: Pixabay/ElisaRiva

By Kelley Dennings

By now you may well have heard the warning that a strained global supply chain threatens to leave store shelves bare just as holiday shopping begins.

The combination of workers sick with Covid-19, a lack of shipping containers for transportation, snafus like the ship that got stuck in the Suez Canalcyberattackslabor shortages and natural disasters caused by climate change have all translated into rising prices and empty shelves for consumers.

For the climate, they translate into rising emissions that will only make supply-chain problems worse.

The process your Black Friday deal goes through to become the holiday gift you wrap up for loved ones is supposed to be invisible — and when the supply chain runs smoothly, it usually is. But these supply-chain issues are shining a spotlight on the fact that we can’t afford to ignore the enormous climate impact of our consumption habits any longer.

Creating a product for Black Friday shopping begins with the extraction of raw materials that are transported to a factory where the item is made. Then that product — most likely manufactured overseas — is transported to the United States or Europe, offloaded at port from a large cargo ship, and transported again by truck or rail to a warehouse. From that warehouse it’s then transported to a retail store or the consumer’s door.

Every step in the supply chain to get a product to your home — whether it’s a plastic toy, video-game system or reindeer pajamas — uses fossil fuels, increasing greenhouse gas emissions and driving climate change. Yet we rarely stop to question whether it’s worth the climate cost.

Our dependence on the global supply chain is making climate change worse and, ironically, climate change is worsening supply-chain problems. For example, Western Europe and China’s Henan province, two global transportation hubs, are struggling to deliver holiday goods due to devastating climate-driven flooding.

And in the United States, hurricanes, wildfires and floods are damaging our transportation infrastructure, increasing the shipping container shortage and decreasing worker availability, making domestic delivery of holiday products more difficult. It’s a hamster wheel where one problem leads to — and drives — another.

But we don’t have to stay on that hamster wheel. Experts predict that this holiday shopping season will be affected by these supply-chain issues with fewer and smaller Black Friday discounts, higher prices overall, longer shipping times and limited inventory at stores.

Even buying new, environmentally friendly gifts may be difficult due to supply-chain problems. Bikes, electric vehicles, energy-efficient appliances and durable clothes will be hard to find.

So instead of lamenting fewer discounts and higher prices or giving in to Black Friday sales, let’s consider these holiday shopping woes a wake-up call. Our supply chain problems are only the tip of a melting iceberg if our consumption habits, and the systems that drive them, don’t change.

This holiday season, you can free yourself from the Black Friday frenzy and create a new tradition — one that protects the environment, supports your local community and embodies the spirit of the season. Instead of buying new gifts, buy secondhand or refurbished goods.

Or buck the stuff altogether by purchasing a non-material gift like an experience or donating to charity in a loved one’s name.

Our economy is based on unsustainable resource extraction, global supply chains and endless growth. To avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we need to challenge the way we think about holidays and shopping in general.

And companies and policymakers need to lead the way — not with earlier Black Friday sales, but with solutions that support reuse, right to repair laws and local economies. We need to recognize supply-chain disruptions for what they are — a canary in the coal mine — and create new holiday traditions that aren’t so dependent on carbon emissions.

Kelley Dennings is a campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity and leads the Simplify the Holidays campaign. She holds a bachelor’s degree in natural resources from NC State University and a master’s degree in public health from the University of South Florida.

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