inforgraphics on the climate and environment impact of fashion, food-tech
The long, dark journey of the products we consume. Image: Jordan Lee
Environment

How Your Favorite Everyday Products Are Damaging the Earth

Everything we consume comes from somewhere and ends up somewhere. Here’s a look behind that journey.
JL
illustrated by Jordan Lee
SR
illustrated by Saranporn Rarunron
OL
illustrated by Owi Liunic
September 27, 2021, 8:29am

This story is part of the VICE Creators Summit, a series of panels and workshops to co-create futures for a habitable planet. Find out more here.


It’s impossible to ignore that our streets, stores, and homes are filled with stuff. Lots and lots of stuff. And yet we take many of them for granted. In fact, we’d need an equivalent of 1.6 Earths to have enough natural resources to keep consuming at our current rate. And if this linear economy continues, it could possibly lead to a 3- to 6-degree Celsius increase in global temperature, according to the latest Circularity Gap Report.

“Most businesses are aware of the need to respect human rights and the environment in their operations,” Sean Lees, business and human rights specialist at the United Nations Development Programme, told VICE in an email. “However, there are certain industries and places where workers rights are not a high priority, and the environment has been adversely affected. This is especially true in places where respect for the rule of law is weak, and where enforcement of laws is not consistent.”

Whether it’s what we eat or where we sleep, all our essential commodities have come a long way to get to our hands, with their own environmental and social impacts at every step. Here are just a few of these products, the journey they go through, and the lives they’ve affected.

Concrete Walls

The walls that make up your home may have destroyed others. Concrete is made from ingredients including limestone and sand, which are mostly found in riverine ecosystems that are home to not only treasured species, but also communities whose livelihoods depend on freshwater fisheries and agriculture. At least 24 small islands in Indonesia have been removed from the map since 2005 as a result of illegal sand mining—often involving deadly conflict between “sand mafia” and local community members—much of it used for land reclamation projects in places like Singapore.

To extract these materials, explosives and excavators are used at a rate in which rivers and lands can’t keep up to restore themselves. Carbonation, which involves intensive use of energy, fuel, and water, is used to crush the limestone and sand with additives and fuel at controlled temperatures to turn these materials into cement. This process releases extensive amounts of emissions and air pollution.

Advertisement

During construction, wet concrete can leach toxic substances into the soil and water. Once dried up, they result in hard, impermeable surfaces which often create urban heat islands—areas in cities which are much warmer than surrounding rural areas—and cause urban flooding.

As urban development expands, natural habitats are cleared and paved over with concrete jungles, further exacerbating the loss of wildlife amidst a biodiversity crisis driven by climate change. And as these ecosystems break down, so do the natural functions—from regulating the climate and maintaining water cycles, to providing food and shelter—which keep us alive.

What can we do? 

Various new alternatives to concrete are being tested around the world. From roads paved with recycled plastic to houses built with hempcrete, more and more material innovations offer hope to sustainably revamp and construct our cities.

Cotton T-Shirts

Freshwater is one of the world’s most valuable resources. It’s necessary for growing food, building cars, and of course, sustaining all life, but each year, we use way too much of it just to make clothes. 

From its birth, it takes about 10,000 liters of water to produce just a kilogram of cotton. The Aral Sea, once the fourth largest body of inland water in the world, has been reduced to merely 15 percent of its former size due to mismanagement and cotton farming irrigation, leaving people in Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan struggling with a decline in agriculture and fisheries.

Advertisement

During textile production, cotton is blended, carded, combed, pulled, stretched and twisted into ropes of yarn. The world uses 5 trillion liters of water a year just to dye these fabrics, according to the World Resources Institute. Along with dyeing, various chemicals during farming and fabric treatment contribute to a fifth of global water pollution.

What can we do? 

Although more brands are beginning to recycle post-consumer textiles, ultimately, the most effective way to reduce the environmental impacts from this industry is to reduce the overall production and consumption of fast fashion. Simply shop less. When you do shop, buy from sustainable labels that are transparent about their production process, or head to your local thrift shops. 

Smartphones

Smartphones are a relatively new invention that have become the center of many people’s daily lives. These devices carry with them a complex combination of components and labor from across the world.

Many smartphones begin their journey in southern Africa, where there is an abundance of rare earth elements used to make phone components. There, adults and children are forced to work in fatally unsafe working environments with high levels of toxicity for up to 12 hours a day, getting paid as little as $1 to $2, according to a report by Amnesty International. Similar human rights violations continue in factories where smartphone components are manufactured and assembled, largely in China where there have been allegations of long work hours, low wages, and discrimination.

What can we do? 

The proper recycling of e-waste, like offering more mobile trade-in programs or making recycling centers more accessible, can help extend the lifespan of these devices and alleviate this vicious production and disposal cycle. Also, there’s no need to buy a phone whenever a new one drops. 

Beef Burgers

The negative effects of meat production go far beyond cow farts with methane gas, and the largest impacts happen even before the animal is brought into the process.

To raise a cow, you need to feed it, and to feed it, you need to grow its food. For that, vast forests are cleared for crops such as corn and soybean, which are key ingredients in animal feed. The demand for meat has been increasing in many developing countries, spurring land conversion and leading to the destruction of natural habitats. Today, just over 21 percent of Brazil’s Cerrado savannah—where half of the plants are unique to the area—remains, according to Mongabay’s rainforest database.

Advertisement

Crop cultivation accounts for the largest part of water consumption in beef production, while the use of agrochemicals results in runoff which can cause “dead zones” in natural water sources and habitats. A study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America suggests that beef production required 28 times more land, 11 times more irrigation water, five times more greenhouse gas emissions, and six times more reactive nitrogen (from fertilizer) than dairy, poultry, pork, and eggs.

Once grown up, cows take a huge toll on the land as they graze over topsoil and degrade it. If not allowed to wander in the open, these cows are kept in “factory farms” where misused antibiotics and growth-promoting hormones are released in wastewater that go on to affect humans.

What can we do? 

There is a wide consensus that avoiding meat may be the single most impactful way for an individual to reduce their carbon footprint. However, taking into account varying environmental impacts from plant-based foods, the goals should be to focus on eating locally and seasonally as much as possible.

Toilet Paper

Logging is clearing out land around the world, from temperate forests in America to rainforests in Asia, and a large chunk of these trees are used for tissue. It’s not just any tree we’re cutting down: industrial forestry often replaces old-growth forests, which are far more capable of sequestering carbon and regulating the climate. Every minute, the Canadian boreal forest, the largest intact forest left in the world and home to over 600 Indigenous communities and rich wildlife, is losing about the size of a small city block to logging for products like toilet paper.

Logs are sent to mills where they’re stripped of their bark and chipped, cooked with chemicals, slushed, screened, cleaned, refined, formed, drained, and pressed. They go through a series of energy-, water-, and chemical-intensive processes which can leave surrounding environments devastated. And after this lengthy journey, toilet paper arrives at our supermarkets and homes, where it is used for mere seconds before clogging up our sewers. 

What can we do? 

One simple solution to this is to use less tissue paper, but if you don’t quite like the idea of bidets, watch out for certain certifications or brands which verify the sustainable sourcing and production of toilet paper rolls.

Ultimately, experts say the solution to these environmental issues is not for individuals to entirely boycott these products, but rather to demand more sustainable and regenerative practices and changes in policy. 

“Labor-, migrant worker-, and land rights abuses are among the most commonly cited problems in some supply chains,” said Lees. “But we are increasingly seeing better monitoring and oversight of businesses now, given that environmental degradation and climate change are a priority.”

Advertisement

With new progressive laws emerging in various countries, more businesses are required to disclose their social and environmental risks and conduct due diligence to assess their operations.

“There is now a widespread willingness and investment to improve our supply chains. What we need now is mass adoption of these new systemic changes,” said Amorpol Huvanandana, who owns a sustainable fashion startup. 

Although consumer consciousness is difficult to estimate, surveys show that there is now more awareness and concern for the impact of overconsumption, particularly among the youth. While consumers’ decisions are affected by what’s available on the market, preferences also shape what and how manufacturers produce.

“Consumers, too, can become activists,” said Huvanandana. “And with technology, anyone can now become an entrepreneur and create new, disruptive, sustainable supply chains without dependence on large corporations.”

Follow Nanticha Ocharoenchai on Instagram.