The debate on climate change is progressing with more intensity than ever before. And no, it is not a question of debating its origin: we now know that it is man-made. What is under discussion at the moment is the part that each one of us plays. Can we really do something, even individually, to save the planet? Does it make sense to engage on a personal level, if we know that most of the activities that are harming the planet and causing climate change are actually linked to the heavy industry? The European Commission believes so, which is why it has published some guidelines on how to adopt healthier habits that are as good for us as they are for the planet, especially – but not only – when it comes to food choices.
How to become responsible consumers
The first thing we must bear in mind, when we talk about ethical consumption, is that practically nothing we can buy is “carbon-neutral”. There is no such thing as a footprint-free product. Everything we consume, from clothes to food, from electronic devices to cosmetics, is produced using raw materials whose extraction, production, and processing requires the use of water, electricity, and chemicals, which in turn are produced in the same way. At the end of each supply chain, there are always significant CO2 emissions that contribute to global warming. The fact that there are no products that do not affect the environment, however, does not mean that we can ignore the fact that there are significant differences between the many options we as consumers are offered.
Reducing waste is the first step
The easiest thing any of us can do to fight climate change and prevent pollution is to reduce waste by buying no more than we can consume. Every time we throw away food, we should bear in mind that we are wasting all the elements that went into its production. In fact, we are allowing tons of CO2 to be released into the atmosphere and thousands of cubic metres of water to be squandered on something that ends up in our trash without having been consumed. This also applies to electronic devices, which we tend to replace much faster than necessary, as well as to clothing and any other mass-produced goods. Throwing stuff away is not something we should do lightheartedly. We should all consider buying less, fixing rather than replacing damaged products if possible, recycling the items and using them in as many ways as possible, and buying second-hand products if we can.
Distribution and transport matter
In order to be distributed, products must be transported, which constitutes one of the most polluting stages of the supply chain. Bearing this in mind, when we choose to buy something we should check its origin. Long-haul cargo flights generate far higher CO2 emissions than road or rail transport. How do we know if the product we are buying has been transported sustainably or not? The easiest solution is to buy local products that have been processed within a 50 km radius of the point of sale or at least within the same region. In the case of Italy, it has to be said that practically all domestic products are transported by fleets of lorries, therefore all national production can be considered relatively sustainable. If we choose to buy exotic ingredients, that have been grown or manufactured in another continent, we must be aware that, in order to deliver them while they are still fresh, distributors have undoubtedly needed to generate substantial amounts of CO2 and use plenty of power, wasting water and fossil fuels.
Watch out for packaging: climate change goes hand in hand with pollution
Our planet, as we now know, is struggling to support us. Climate change is not the only major issue our civilisation is facing: we must also tackle the huge amount of single-use plastics that are discarded on a daily basis and end up contaminating land and marine ecosystems. We have all seen footage of the colossal plastic islands floating in the Atlantic Ocean, and the beached bodies of seabirds or large cetaceans, with their stomachs full of lighters, bottles, and plastic nets. What can we do to tackle this issue? To begin with, we can choose products that are sold without plastic packaging and replace single-use plastics with biodegradable materials such as paper and cardboard. Many supermarkets nowadays offer the option of buying products such as cereals, rice, pasta, and soap in bulk, by bringing your own container from home and paying for the product by weight. Regularly choosing this option reduces non-recyclable waste.