The secret life of stuff remains a secret to most of us

Electronic circuit board close up.It is nearly ten years since my book The secret life of stuff was published. Those ten years have seen some big changes to the planetary agenda, and the book might have had an even warmer reception had it been published now. But there are aspects of what I was trying to illuminate a decade ago that are strangely still under the radar.

One of those is the link between carbon and stuff. Thanks to some good academic research and popular writing, the knowledge that top carbon impacts on a personal basis are flying, cars and diet has taken a firm hold in the media.  And I think most people know that the way they heat and power their homes is a big chunk of their footprint.  But after that, the link between carbon and ‘stuff’ (building materials, furniture, clothes, gadgets, packaging and everything else that surrounds us) is less well described, at least in a way that enables choices.  If I want to lower my consumption, where do I start?

We need more insights about resources
When I wrote the book, I thought that comprehensive carbon labelling might be a reality by now, but alas not. As COP26 approaches, and the UK media offers more and more advice on what to do at home, as well as what to pester our politicians for, this kind of insight is crucial.

Another aspect below the radar is how secure our stuff is. By that, I mean how likely it is that stuff can continue to be made of the things it is presently made of, at affordable prices, without giving rise to ethical dilemmas on a epic scale. In a globalised world, the threats can be anything from political instability in countries that export lithium used in our batteries, to countries such as China wanting to keep their valuable materials for themselves, to deciding that ‘conflict minerals’ such as gold from the Congo should not be part of our supply chains. And we’re not just talking about jewellery here, we’re talking about all the gold in printed circuit boards which means just about every gadget we own.

The concept of ‘resource security’ was big news around the time my book was published, with international collaborative efforts, like the IPCC, devoted to enumerating the threats. Green Alliance played an important role in the UK policy debate on resource security, which led to the formation of the original Circular Economy Task Force. A more circular economy (keeping resources in play, on a national or local basis) is clearly one way to mitigate any threats to imported stuff.  But the political interest in this agenda waned after global growth slowed and demand for raw materials slacked off temporarily.

The world economy is getting less, not more, circular
However, raw material demand picked up again quite rapidly. So, at the recent Davos meeting, the international NGO Circle Economy announced that world resource consumption has hit a record 100 billion tonnes a year.  Worse, it appears that world is getting less, not more circular. The impetus to keep resources in play, whether for carbon or material security reasons, is clearly not strong enough. We just don’t know, or care, enough.

So what would change that?  We have seen the conversation change in an astonishing way in the past ten years, so that the climate crisis is now front and centre of political and public debate in many countries, and iconic images such as those from Blue Planet II have made an entire generation think hard about its use of plastic. This is good, but it would be even better if we all knew a bit more about where plastic sits in the scheme of things to reduce, and why.  As a recent Green Alliance report pointed out, the alternatives aren’t necessarily ‘better’. How do we adapt our lifestyles and material choices, and make the right trade-offs, in the face of that 100 billion tonne resource bill?

Organisations like Green Alliance and WRAP, and key academic institutions, are well placed to shed light. Beyond crunching the numbers, we could develop innovative means of visual presentation that help us all to calibrate progress.  The effects of such imagery can be scientifically tested, as has been done on subjects as diverse as tax, crime and video gaming.  We badly need initiatives that will make climate, stuff, and how they relate to each other, much less of a secret.

Julie Hill is chair of WRAP and a Green Alliance associate.

 

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