Do individual sustainable choices matter in saving the Earth?

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A woman shopping for produce at a supermarket with a mesh bag.
A woman shopping for produce at a supermarket with a mesh bag. (PHOTO: Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — If you think that you're making a significant environmental impact just by choosing the 'greener' product in your local supermarket, think again.

According to one expert, an individual's choice to consume eco-friendly products, or adopt environmentally sustainable habits, matters very little in the larger picture of waste reduction.

In an interview with Yahoo News Singapore in early March, Professor of Social Science (Environmental Studies) at Yale-NUS Michael Maniates took this journalist through the process of waste generation and pin-pointed just where the consumer figured in this chain.

Before an item is even produced, there is already waste produced in the mining of the raw material, Dr Maniates pointed out. 

"Think about a smartphone, for example. There is the mining for all of those materials, and there's an awful lot of waste generated (from) the point of mining, there is the production... there's the assembly, the dicing and the machining and then, the shipping.

"What we find is that for every kg of material that we might be using at the endpoint of consumption... there could be up to 99kg of waste generated well before you get the final end product," said Dr Maniates, who is the founding Head of Studies of Environmental Studies at Yale-NUS.

Consumers simply sit at the endpoint of the chain, he said.

"At times, the most successful intervention points may not be at that endpoint of consumption, but may be somewhere up that chain. So we're in a long chain of consumption and production, and the end consumption ... often hides an awful lot of waste, so called 'upstream' in that chain."

While there may be a lot of focus on making the ecologically friendly choice, such as buying products made from recycled material, these might actually be "orchestrated" for us, added Dr Maniates.

"We may have a choice between three or five different shapes of plastic bottles, but we don't really have a choice between let's say, a plastic water bottle and a glass bottle that we could return and would be washed out and re-use. Often, our ability to make a difference as individual consumers is limited because the real choices that might make a difference aren't for sale."

According to waste management statistics from the National Environment Agency (NEA), some 7.23 million tonnes of solid waste was generated in Singapore in 2019, and 4.25 million tonnes of this was recycled. Plastics and food waste accounted for 930,000 tonnes and 740,000 tonnes respectively.

Watch as the experts share more about managing the waste we produce:

Citizen consumers versus consumer citizens

Professor Michael Maniates speaking to Yahoo. (PHOTO: Yahoo TV Southeast Asia)
Professor Michael Maniates speaking to Yahoo. (PHOTO: Yahoo TV Southeast Asia)

Having said that, individuals can definitely make a difference, but this is through collaborative action that "changes the rules of the game". Or as Dr Maniates puts it, when individuals act as citizen consumers rather than consumer citizens.

A consumer citizen imagines that their power comes from the purchases they make, he explained, while a citizen consumer knows to change rules of the game, so that producers will behave differently and create better products.

"We need to help producers behave in ways that will contribute to the long-term sustainability of the planet... and that's difficult, if we are trying to influence them one micro-purchase at a time," he added.

"Consumer initiatives like targeted boycotts of particular companies that we want to have change can be effective, but that's more of us acting as a citizen."

He referenced single-use plastic bans across Australia, certain states in the United States and nations within the European Union as examples of citizen movements that have come together to produce results.

"(This affects) not just the single-use plastic that we might reuse in our bottles, but the production and consumption stream, all the way back to the mining of the oil, to the production... it then incentivises producers to think about better ways, about better products, about substitutes," he said.

"Ultimately, when as consumers we do buy something, all we see are good options. It's not that we're confronted with good options and bad options."

Not an 'all or nothing': Other experts

Pek Hai Lin speaking to Yahoo. (PHOTO: Yahoo TV Southeast Asia)
Pek Hai Lin speaking to Yahoo. (PHOTO: Yahoo TV Southeast Asia)

Other experts think that taking baby steps towards a sustainable lifestyle could still make a difference, especially if it pushes corporations and governments in the same direction. These experts think that small efforts are cumulative.

Pek Hai Lin of Zero Waste SG, a non-governmental organisation and charity that promotes the zero-waste lifestyle, said that consumers must know that it is not an "all or nothing" and that an environmentally sustainable way of life is a process.

Zero Waste SG aims to lead the drive towards zero waste in Singapore through education and advocacy. One of its movements, Bring Your Own Singapore, was started in 2017 in a bid to have consumers and retailers reduce the use of single-use disposables.

"I know many of us feel that we need to do a lot of things in order to reduce our (waste) footprint... But ultimately, It is about starting somewhere."

"The whole idea is that it is a constant journey and the main concept behind it is about mindful use of resources."

It's more important that many people consumed in an ecological manner that's not perfect, rather than a small group of people do it perfectly, she said.

"When everybody moves collectively, then it also paves the way for policy changes. (It) signals to companies that (they) can maybe remove certain items, or certain things that might be wasteful or excessive because customers are ready for it."

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature Singapore, eight Singapore retailers that joined an initiative – started in 2018 – to charge consumers for single-use bags saw a 300,000 reduction in bags on a monthly basis.

The organisation reported on 28 January that over 60 per cent of customers at Decathlon, H&M, LEGO Certified Stores (Bricks World), SaladStop!, The Body Shop, Uniqlo, Watsons, and Wing Tai Retail, refused single-use bags and chose to bring their own reusable bags.

Spurring change by behaving differently

National University of Singapore's Centre for Nature-based Climate Solutions' Debby Ng said that if consumers can show they want "something else", it can motivate suppliers to alter their production processes.

One example the ecologist – a researcher at the Department of Biological Sciences – gave was the emergence of vegetable-based proteins, such as Impossible meats, in the food industry.

"Twenty years ago, you probably wouldn't have seen, you wouldn't have imagined that there would be plant-based protein that you can find at supermarkets. Or that restaurants that sell steak would provide vegetarian alternatives."

"This didn't emerge simply because restaurants thought, 'Oh, I should have this item on my menu'. It happened because people are making small choices every day for a long period of time."

She pointed that this "different" behaviour spurred change.

"This is not one single, organised group that is talking to each other and telling each other 'Oh, I'm going to do this, you should do it, do join my group,'. This is many small groups, many individuals working independently but towards the same objective," she said.

At the end of the day, while being "superhero green consumers" may not make an empirical difference, Dr Maniates accepts that it still serves a purpose.

"It strikes me that it's a way of reminding ourselves daily of what's important," he said. "A small act that reminds us that we're all in a pickle here."

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