Where does all this stuff we buy actually come from? There are a staggering number of nonrenewable materials and toxic chemical processes that are involved in nearly every single consumer product on the market today. And for all of these things that go into making our stuff, so very little of it is properly disposed of for reuse. Our planet is running out of resources, but the price of consumer goods continues to drop. This is because companies are externalizing costs* so that everyone pays for it, but not just monetarily. The price of most products today, from food to oil, do not reflect their true costs because someone other than the purchaser is paying in some other way for the goods being produced (1). The goods that are being made are created at the expense of the environment, of those in third world countries who are paid next to nothing, and at the expense of the health of every single organism, including humans, who inhabit this planet.
The current system of consumption our global society has invested in is far from a sustainable one. It is digging us deeper into a hole from which we may not be able to escape.The demand for a variety of cheap products continues to go up as our supply of resources decreases, both of which at exponential rates linked to population, industrialization, and consumption (2). This downwards spiral is depleting the Earth and replacing it with garbage.
When a consumer is ready to buy a new computer, the old one is not sent to be stripped down so that the valuable metals they contain might be reused in the next one. Instead, the old one is chucked in the dump and a new one is purchased. Our linear system of extraction, production, distribution, use and disposal results in tons of perfectly reusable resources such as gold, copper and mercury being thrown into a landfill and sealed up for future generations to deal with.
Computers and phones both are made with many processes and components containing mercury. The average computer contains as much as 0.7 grams of mercury (3), which is vastly higher than the EPA’s minimum “safe” dose of .1 microgram (4). Investigations are finding that many unexpected products, including children’s toys, contain far more mercury and other potentially toxic compounds that could could have potentially devastating and lasting neurological impacts.
The very things we wear are made of synthetics material that can leach toxins into your skin, the air, and the ground. A common detergent used by many brand name textile manufacturers has been proven to affect sexual maturation and reproductive abilities of both the individuals in the factory working with them, and in the consumers who wash them, releasing the chemicals into the water in which all of their clothes are (5). This is a great example of an externalized cost: the shirt you buy at the mall is sold for less money than its total cost because now included in the cost is the price of healthcare for everyone exposed to the toxins, and the loss of productive workers since people are getting sick and having fewer, less healthy children due to the product design decisions made by the producer. The lesson to learn from this is to look into what may be hiding in the products you buy before you contribute to the system that put them there in the first place.
I hope that all of this scares you because it certainly scares us. The good news is that there is a simple way that each of us can contribute to the solution to ensure that humanity can coexist with our planet for generations to come. In order to stop this destructive, linear system of consumption, we must become more conscious of the products we purchase and of the companies who we patronize. By not buying into the current system, we put pressure on corporations to change their selfish ways, and can encourage smaller, environmentally concerned companies to make greater progress in sustainable goods. Next time you’re looking to buy a new computer because yours is not running the latest software, or a new pair of shoes since the old ones are out of style, consider what went into those products and how it affects the entire world just to make a new one. The only way to conserve the limited natural resources we have left is to buy fewer products, and make the most of the ones you do.
Article by Justin Smith
Some additional resources include:
An ethics index of many well known producers of consumer goods
More information about externalized costs
Information about electronics waste
Discussion about the relationship between world human population and environmental decline
More information about mercury
Article about NPE’s and other toxins found in clothing:
A great book that argues to remake the way we make things:
Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart.