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Are the Alternatives any Better?

As Jacques-Yves Cousteau said, “For most of history, man has had to fight nature to survive; in this century he is beginning to realise that, in order to survive, he must protect it”. If you are one of the millions of people concerned about the growing pressures our consumer habits are placing on the environment, then you are bound to have felt confused, conflicted and overwhelmed by your own consumer choices. Is soy milk good or evil? Were the coconuts in my coconut milk picked by a monkey? Am I a bad person if I eat an avocado?

More and more people are starting to change their diets, transport habits and their general consumption rates in order to be more ‘sustainable’. Unfortunately there is still a large proportion of people who not only stick to their ways but also oppose and put doubt on alternative living habits. Meat eaters tell vegans that their soy milk is destroying rainforests, whilst car manufactures say that electric cars cause more damage to the environment than our current gasoline run automobiles.

In the drive for change, it’s vital for consumers to use their purchasing power as discerningly as they can. However this is difficult with the amount of conflicting evidence surrounding the effects our habits have on the world. Profit-making is still at the top of industries agendas and so the environmental costs of many products are hidden by complex supply chains and marketing schemes, making it extremely hard for the consumer to make fully informed decisions. In some cases products are green washed by the manufacturer to make the consumer think that they are sustainable, when in fact they are not. So who should we listen too? Should we be drinking soy milk instead of cow milk, should we use metal straws instead of plastic ones?

Firstly the hottest environmental topic in the media at present is the creation of a plastic world. We produce so much plastic for almost every purpose without any thought of what will happen to it when we are done using it. The fact is, many single use plastic items like straws or bags are used for a matter of minutes but take hundreds of years to discompose and simply clog up our environment. Eight million tonnes a year of plastic ends up in our oceans, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than plankton.

Thankfully due to mass media coverage of the issue and Britain’s obsession with Sir David Attenborough, people are starting to wake up to the plastic pollution issue and are trying to change their consumer habits when it comes to plastic. Due to public pressure places like Starbucks and whole shopping centres are starting to ban plastic straws or charge for plastic bags to try and stem the flow of plastic into our environment. As well as these schemes people are starting to use alternative products such a tote bags for their shopping or metal straws for their cocktail. But are these alternatives actually more environmentally sustainable?

Although it is great that these products mean we use less plastics, they do come with their own issues. For example metal straws are made from nickel and copper. Unfortunately to acquire these products we create a different problem. The mining of the metals results in mass deforestation and contaminates local water sources. Switching from plastic straws to metal straws helps with the plastic pollution problem, but harms the environment in another way. Alternatives are only useful if they themselves are actually sustainable. For example using tote bags for your shopping means less plastic bags but the production of cotton is extremely resource intensive and leads to issues with fertilisers used to grow the cotton. The same issue arises with using coffee cups made from corn starch, people don’t consider the amount of land needed to grow the corn or the issues of soil erosion and pesticide use. The problem is not being solved with alternatives it is simply being shifted. Do we need alternatives or do we just need to change our behaviour?

Moving on, the same arguments are seen in the food industry. As people start to shift their diet to become more sustainable by reducing their meat and dairy intake, are the alternatives any better? The livestock industry is one of the biggest contributor’s towards climate change, deforestation and fresh water depletion. Consumers are starting to wake up to the fact that we can help tackle these issues using our plates. But as people switch from one product to another, are the alternatives actually better?

A recent Dutch study comparing the water footprints of soybean and equivalent animal products found that soy milk and the soy burger have much smaller water footprints than cow milk and the average beef burger. It’s not just water footprints that should be considered however. The production of meat alternatives uses less phosphorus and other harmful substances whilst at the same time dramatically emits less greenhouse gases in production. However as demand rises, more of these products need to be made and so pressure is put onto the industry and the environment in order to grow more crops to feed the consumer.

Furthermore, a popular story many meat eaters jump to is that of the avocado. Any vegetarian or vegan will tell you how great avocados are, and the fruits popularity has sky rocketed as people try to eat a more sustainable and healthy diet. The rise of avocado has displaced forests because of increased production, with the incentive of increased profits for the farmers. There is even concern in Mexico as drug cartels are starting to take over avocado farms to take profits. However the main reason that avocados may be unsustainable is the fact that for a café in London to serve an avocado it must come across the world to get there. Importing food from so far away is incredibly unsustainable.

Moreover, this is the major issue with the alternatives, it is how we source them. Many of the meat alternatives we eat in the western world have to be imported from the tropics. The carbon footprint of this food is immense as it has to be flown or sailed across the globe. The further our food has to travel, the larger the carbon footprint. The average meal travels 1,200 kilometres from the farm to our plate. So although putting some avocado on your toast instead of bacon reduces the environmental issues of the pork industry, it brings its own issues due to the distance it must travel. So how can we make our diet more sustainable?

The answer is to consume products that are grown or made closer to home. Instead of eating imported avocado or chilli peppers we should be buying locally produced seasonal products. Seasonal produce usually requires fewer resources and needs to travel less to the store, so it’s worth checking a guide to what’s in season in your region.

Another problem is that of food waste. It’s all good to buy local vegetables instead of imported meat from New Zealand, but if we buy more than we need then it is simply wasted, and so the resources used to grow those vegetables are for nothing. This is because food wastage can be up to 20% of food purchases and food losses across the supply chain can be far greater than this. Food waste in turn increases the carbon footprint which counters the positive gains of the diet switch. Consumers often purchase so much food that they end up throwing most of it away, wasting resource intensive products. Buying and even eating more food than we actually need means the environmental resources used in producing that extra food are wasted.

This point highlights the major issue when it comes to using ‘sustainable’ alternatives. It may mean we stop supporting damaging industries such as plastic straws and meat, but if the alternatives also cause damage, then what is the point? The real change that needs to happen is a behavioural one, we must change our consumption habits. We cannot address our environmental crisis by swapping one over-used resource for another. For example we use hundreds of millions of plastic straws every year, what would happen if we started using millions of metal straws? The environmental impact could be worse.

This is a very difficult subject, people are changing their habits already to more sustainable practices, but they are not being told all the facts. Although switching to a vegan diet does reduce your carbon footprint, it doesn’t totally alleviate the impact you’re having on the environment. We not only need to change what we consume, but we need to consume less. This is a behavioural issue. People need to realise that they don’t need a straw at all, that they can sustain a healthy diet buying products produced locally and seasonally.

The people that are starting to change their habits by using metal straws and eating less meat, are doing a great job and are reducing their carbon footprint. However, this is not the final solution, it is the first step towards sustainability. We must completely change the way we consume products. We don’t need all the things we buy, and so much of it is wasted. People need to make smarter decisions and think more about what they consume. But the movement cannot just come from the individual. The industries involved must strive to become more sustainable and must make it clear to the consumer how their product got to them so that we can make more informed decisions.

It is wrong for people to give grieve to vegans for eating tofu or to ridicule people for using metal straws. The fact is that these people are trying to become more sustainable but may not know all the facts. It is the job of the industries to make sure that they become more environmentally friendly. Governments must make restrictions and legalisation to force industries to stop damaging the environment. As individuals we can change what we buy, but it is the job of the system to insure that industries are producing products as sustainably as they can. We need to push ourselves out of the consumerist system and enter a more sustainable life where we don’t need products from across the world, or a straw in our cocktail, we can life a happy life whilst still being good to the environment. We do not need to consume damaging products in order to feed the capitalists pockets. The system will not make the change for us, we have to change the system.

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