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Rethinking our ‘zero-waste’ consumerism

Arinta Pratiwi
Arinta Pratiwi

Jakarta-based lawyer interested in environmental issues

Jakarta  /  Wed, June 19, 2019  /  10:54 am
Rethinking our ‘zero-waste’ consumerism

Reusable bags and water bottles can help cut down plastic waste. (Shutterstock/File)

As a young and growing economy, Indonesia has been one of the fastest markets to catch up with global trends. This includes the use of eco-friendly and zero-waste products, a market trend that originally became popular in Western and developed countries.

Just go to any Indonesian e-commerce site or briefly scroll Instagram feeds and you’ll be met with advertisements for cotton shopping bags, steel straws, reusable cotton pads or wooden cutlery that not only look sleek but also promise to help save the Earth. On a surface level, this might indicate growing awareness for environmental issues, which is a good thing for developing countries such as Indonesia. However, when it comes to saving the environment, the truth is often far more complicated.

A study published by the Danish government in 2018 found that the production of a single cotton shopping bag resulted in significantly higher environmental cost than that of a plastic bag. The higher environmental cost is due to the fact that, to produce a cotton bag, more resources such as water, labor and transportation are required than when producing plastic, which is cheaper and widely available. This is not to say that using a cotton bag is environmentally damaging. However, to gain any environmental benefits, the cotton bag must be re-used at least 7,100 times by a consumer.

You might think that the solution is simple: Just re-use the bag. However, in this economy, with the boom in green industry and eco-friendly products, cutting consumption and re-using available products might be the very thing many businesses discourage.

Look at the example of coffee shops selling eco-friendly tumblers while also giving discounts only to consumers using their tumbler and releasing new tumbler designs every month. At first, it might encourage people to ditch plastic cups, but at the same time, it also pushes people—who probably already have a tumbler at home—to buy a new tumbler just to get the discount, new design or the feeling of being ‘eco-friendly’ just as the shop advertises.

We can also see how almost all grocery stores now sell reusable shopping bags, because they’re popular and how cheap steel straws imported from not-so-eco-friendly-China are becoming big sellers on many websites. Many of those products also come in plastic packaging or are imported from far-away countries, which increases their carbon footprint.

The cases above show that, with the way zero-waste products are currently marketed, many of them have become more of a consumer lifestyle. And now, as a consumer lifestyle, in order for someone to feel like an ‘environmentalist’, one is encouraged to excessively buy products that signify that lifestyle. Consequently, instead of being a legitimate way to cut carbon production, parts of the movement are co-opted to help businesses sell more products when labeled eco-friendly, even though they might not be produced or sold in a way that benefits the environment.

The popularity of these products also shows that people are buying into the lifestyle. Now we often see people throwing away non-eco-friendly products that can actually still be used, just to trade them for newer and “eco-friendlier” ones—even when, with every purchase of a product, another one is being manufactured and more carbon is released.

This is not to say that everyone who buys or sells a steel straw is polluting the earth. However, for every producer or consumer who is conscious of their consumption habits, there are many more that are not and are just profiting from the lifestyle without thinking about the real environmental costs.

Read also: Eight steps to become an eco-conscious traveler

The solution here is for both consumers and producers to stop treating eco-friendly and zero-waste products as a consumer lifestyle. Businesses, instead of releasing many cheap or hip designs for eco-products, should focus on creating products that are durable, can last for a long time, or can be easily recycled. Some brands that have stepped into this direction, for example, are Fjällräven, that produces durable clothing and educates consumers on how to take care of it, and The Body Shop that encourages consumers to turn in used bottles for recycling.

Meanwhile, as consumers, we must be aware of our consumption habits. No matter how eco-friendly a product is, buying a new one should be the last option when our current products are working just fine. We don’t need a new set of pricey wooden cutlery and throw away our Chinese-made ones at home just to be seen as more ‘green’. Buying things at thrift stores or local stores could also be an alternative to reducing the carbon footprint. In short, we need to be more cautious in choosing products. The label saying ‘eco-friendly’ does not necessarily make it so.

The boom in zero-waste and eco-friendly products might start with good intentions. However, to save the environment, we cannot rely on good intentions alone. (kes)

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Arinta Pratiwi is a Jakarta-based lawyer interested in environmental issues. 

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.