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Climate gap report: consumer goods

The next ten years will be crucial in mitigating the worst impacts of climate breakdown. Yet, according to new research by Ethical Consumer, we are not cutting emissions fast enough across any of our key lifestyle areas - including consumer goods such as clothing, furniture and electrical items. So what changes do we need to make when it comes to consumer goods and how far are we from getting there?

Rob Harrison and Josie Wexler discuss the findings from Closing the Climate Gap - A Report on Progress Towards Sustainable Consumer Lifestyles in the UK, a new report by Ethical Consumer.

Our consumer goods account for 10% of our total consumer emissions. Yet, in 2021, the Climate Gap report found that emissions from consumer goods are increasing, pushing us in the wrong direction when it comes to climate breakdown.

If we are to reverse this trend, the report highlights three key actions that all consumers must take.

  1. Increase repair
  2. Increase buying second hand
  3. Choose sustainable brands

In this page, we explore these actions: why they are necessary, how far we are from them, and the changes that businesses and governments can make to ensure we achieve these goals. We call on consumers to not only reduce their own emissions in the areas we have identified, but to also consider getting engaged with political campaigns trying to persuade the government and companies to take some of the actions identified too.

What is the Climate Gap report?

Ethical Consumer's first Climate Gap report was published in October 2021, to track progress towards sustainable consumer lifestyles in the UK. The report helps identify how consumers, governments and companies can work together to help fix the climate crisis.

Called 'Closing the Climate Gap', the report's aim is to track the gap between our current combined consumption emissions and where they need to be by 2030. A second key aim of the project is to produce a simplified list of key actions for consumers, companies and governments.

The report has four sections on the areas where our lifestyle climate impacts are the biggest: food, housing, transport and consumer goods, covering 75% of combined total consumer emissions. It compares where consumer behaviour is in these areas against 2030 targets from reports issued by the UK Government's own Climate Change Committee (CCC). Read more about the Climate Change Committee's targets on our campaign page.

Consumer goods and climate change

The table below summarises what we think are the three most important opportunities for decarbonisation in the consumer goods impact area: reducing overall consumption levels, repairing and buying second-hand more, and buying from more sustainable brands. It also shows that, for the one area where we have year-on-year data, it appears that impacts increased rather than reduced.

The Climate Change Committee does not collect much data on the impact of consumer goods, because much of product manufacturing takes place overseas. This means that it doesn’t state a clear target for reduction in the same way as it does for other areas. The approach we are therefore taking is to apply its overall UK targets for carbon reduction – of 40% by 2030 – to the emissions from these product, including their manufacturing overseas.

Carbon footprints of consumer goods

Estimates of our consumption emissions are released annually by DEFRA using data from the University of Leeds. Partly because of its complexity, this information is released in May with a year lag. Because of this, the most recent available information looks at the impact of our purchases for 2018. The categories into which goods are broken down are slightly weird, but we have avoided those which we are covering in other areas of this report (like food) and chosen those which seem to have the most impact. These are clothing and footwear, furniture and household products and electrical goods.

Producer carbon disclosure

Another way of measuring the carbon impact of the consumer goods we buy in the UK would be to add up the reported carbon emissions of all the companies which manufacture them and apportion them to their UK sales.

Unfortunately, proper carbon reporting by companies, including their supply chain emissions, is still in its infancy. It is very important that companies start reporting on the emissions of their supply chain, or they will not be able to demonstrate to others that they are tackling them effectively.

Because of this, this dataset initially just looks at whether they are properly reporting emissions at all. We have set a target for 100% reporting by 2025. In the event this is reached, we can move to tracking the decline (if any) in the collective reported emissions between then and 2030.

For this first report, we have performed this research for 40 companies: the biggest in each of the following sectors: Clothing, Furniture, Electrical and White Goods.

Rates of repair and buying second-hand

Because we do not know what companies are doing about their emissions (due to lack of reporting), the only action consumers can take which will currently guarantee emissions reductions is to reduce the number of new items they are purchasing.

We therefore thought that the third dataset in this action area might try to track whether any reduction might be occurring by looking at indicators like buying second hand or rates of repair. We decided to use a consumer survey to ask a representative sample of people to tell us how many of each type of item they had bought new that year and how many they had bought second hand or repaired.

Selected Consumer Goods Report Card 2021

The report card below summarises our key findings on consumer goods, covering around 10% of our total consumer emissions. It looks at how much we must cut our emissions by by 2030 to meet UK targets on consumer goods, and whether we are moving fast enough towards these goals. It then highlights the key actions we must - as consumers, governments and businesses - take and how willing we are to do so.

  Carbon footprints of clothing, furniture and electrical goods Producer carbon disclosure Consumer repair & re-use
Consumer-related actions needed by 2030 (from a 2019 baseline)* 40% carbon reduction 100% Supply chain emissions reporting by 2025 40% increase in rates of repair and buying second-hand
Where are we in the most recent figures? 26.7 million tonnes CO2e (2018) 37% reporting (2021) 26% second-hand; 30% repaired
The current climate gap. What is still needed? 40.3% 63% 40%
What were the figures from the previous year? 26.6 million tonnes CO2e n/a n/a
Are we moving fast enough? Going in the wrong direction Unknown Unknown
What does government need to do? Require companies to report annually on their supply chain emissions. Require companies to report annually on their supply chain emissions. Extend repairability obligations.
What do companies need to do? Decarbonise supply chains. Design lower impact product lines. Report annually on supply chain emissions. Reduce emissions in line with Paris Agreement. Design for repairability. Price spare parts fairly.
What do consumers need to do? Try to reduce overall levels of consumption where possible. Choose brands reporting on carbon in their supply chains. Choose second-hand products and repair where possible.
Where are consumer intentions? 70% have some willingness to reduce overall consumption.
28% buying from ethical companies in 2020. 49% willing to buy more second-hand. 42% will repair clothes.

*in the CCC’s ‘Balanced Scenario’

c. = circa or approximately; CCC = Climate Change Committee

Find out more about the report

A summary of the longer report and the other impacts areas is available on our campaign page.

Download the full 40 page report as a PDF. The PDf version includes the evidence that sits behind all this information.

We will be updating the report annually, to provide science-based targets for consumers each year.