Conscious Consumerism: Why Shopping in Sales May End up Costing More than You Think

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It’s that time of the year again. I see the signs everywhere, on the street, in the flyers, in my e-mail inbox – retailers are holding end-of-season or clearance sales. Trust me, I know how hard it is to resist all the seemingly great deals. Everything in the store up to 70% off looks awfully good when you’re a lowly university student on a tight budget. But besides the damage it will do to your wallet, have you ever considered how buying one more thing just because it’s cheap can put pressure on the environment or the society?

Just think about it. How can an item made from resources mined or grown from different parts of the world, manufactured on the other side of the planet, and shipped across the globe to be sold here cost so little? A consequence of globalization is that we don’t really know what happens at the “cradle” or “grave” in the life cycle of a product. How are multinational companies dealing with the workers and communities in developing countries? Are the municipalities really processing the collected recyclables in a sustainable way? Or just shipping them off to a place with less stringent environmental regulations? Even when everything is done according to sustainable and ethical principles, more stuff always means that more resources (whether renewable or not) are consumed, but it is invisible because the low prices never reflect the cost of the environmental and social impact.

Take clothing, for example. It takes energy, water, and [gasp] chemicals to grow the cotton, and more energy to transport it from the farms to the textile manufacturers to retailers. Within the manufacturing process, washing, de-sizing, bleaching, rinsing, dyeing, printing, and finishing also require energy. When you throw away your unwanted clothes, shipping them to landfills takes energy, too, not to mention the space they take in the ever more precious landfill location. In addition, cotton is the most pesticide-intensive crop in the world. Extensive pesticide usage leads to soil acidification and agricultural run-off that causes hypoxia, which is a fancy word for low or depleted oxygen in a water body often due to algae bloom. This results in a dead zone where aquatic life is limited, causing significant disruption to the ecosystem. Water demand of the clothing industry is huge. On average, a cotton T-shirt requires 2,500 litres of water and a pair of jeans takes over 10,000 litres of water to produce. Take a look at your wardrobe. How much water goes into all the clothes you own? Probably A LOT. As water shortage is becoming a pressing issue, it is important to conserve water usage even in not-so-obvious places.

And that is just one example. It’s not something that most of us think about, but from the computer I’m typing on to the coffee in my mug, everything we buy had to come from somewhere. The resources required for their raw material extraction, manufacturing, transportation, lifetime in use, and ultimate disposal are astounding if we really delve into the details. I’m not saying we should all become dumpster divers and never buy anything ever again in order to minimize human impact on the environment, but being more thoughtful when we shop is always a good idea. Yes, shopping local and voting with your dollars is a great solution. I have another suggestion: visit your local thrift stores!

Too many people wash their hands clean just because they recycle, but remember that recycling comes at the end of the 3R’s principle (because the recycling process – you guessed it – also requires energy), while reusing is number one! We’ve all been there, buying something impulsively but never using it. Declutter your space. Get rid of what you don’t need and donate back into the community. Your trash could very well be another person’s treasure and vice versa. You can not only save money but also the environment. You eliminate a big chunk of resource consumption when you opt for a perfectly good used item rather than a brand new one.

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Did you know that there is a thrift shop right here on campus where you can donate your unwanted items and also browse for something you just might need? Best of all, it’s all free! UBC Free Store is located on the second floor in the Nest in room 2102, right next to the Hatch Art Gallery. We are always accepting donations and open whenever the Nest is open.

To learn more, visit: https://www.facebook.com/ubcfreestore/

Other Resources:

  1. Life Cycle Assessment Commons
  2. Water Footprint Network
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