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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 2022: An annual report on progress towards sustainable consumer lifestyles in the UK.

Our consumer goods account for 10% of our total consumer emissions. In 2022, the Climate Gap report found that emissions from consumer goods are decreasing in some areas, but there's still scope for more reductions and changes.

If we are to continue to reduce emissions, the report highlights three key actions that all consumers must take:

  1. Increase repair and reuse
  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.

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: carbon footprints of consumer goods; producer carbon disclosure; and repairing and buying second hand more, and buying from more sustainable brands.

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 2019. 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 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.

Current situation: 2022 report findings for selected consumer goods

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.

Consumer goods report card 2022
  Carbon footprints of clothing, furniture and electrical goods Producer carbon disclosure Consumer repair & re-use
Where UK consumers
need to be by 2030
(from baseline of 2021
Climate Gap report)
40% carbon reduction Demand 100% Scope 3 reporting by
40% increase in rates of repair and buying second-hand
Where are we now? 30.5  million tonnes CO2e (2019) 60% reporting (2022) 38% second hand; 36% repaired
What is the remaining gap now? 41.7% 40% 16% increase in repair
What was the position
last year?
30 million tonnes CO2e 37% reporting 26% second hand; 30% repaired
Are we moving fast enough? No, but... Yes Yes
What does government need to do? Collaborate on carbon pricing internationally. Require supply chain (Scope 3) carbon reporting. Extend repairability obligations.
What do companies need to do? Decarbonise supply chains;
design lower impact product lines.
Report supply chain emissions annually; reduce in line with Paris goals. 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.

Comments on the 2022 report card

The most obvious reflection on the 2022 consumer goods report table is that two of the research areas marked 'yes' for 'moving fast enough to meet 2030 climate targets'.

We’ll explain the catch (in the producer disclosure column), but first let’s look at the genuinely impressive rates of buying second hand that appear to be going on.

Consumer repair and re-use

In September each year Ethical Consumer has conducted a survey with YouGov on this subject. We ask a representative survey of 2000 UK adults how many items of a variety of goods they have either bought new, bought second hand or had repaired in the last twelve months.

The big increases have been in buying second hand clothing (up from 25% to 37% of all clothes purchased); in buying second hand furniture (up from 33% to 49% of all items purchased) and in having furniture and household goods repaired (from 37% to 48%). Perhaps all the repairshop type programmes on TV will have something to do with this?

A more significant contributory factor is likely to be what is currently called "the cost of living crisis."

It is also likely that a rising interest in sustainable and ethical consumption in a climate crisis will be a factor too.

Producer carbon disclosure

Readers of Ethical Consumer are already likely to be aware that we, like many others, have been pushing for companies to start recording and reporting on the carbon emissions in their supply chains for a few years now. For most consumer goods companies this is where more than 90% of their climate impacts will take place. Last year only 37% of the companies we looked at were doing this. In other words the majority of them were not even at first base for creating a credible plan to get to net zero.

It is therefore encouraging to see that, in just one year, the figure has jumped to 60%. Although the limited resources that we have for this project means that our sample is small (only 40 companies), the concentration of giant multinationals in this space like Apple, Amazon, IKEA and Sainsbury's mean that we are capturing quite a large part of the markets we are looking at (clothing, furniture and electrical goods).

The catch is that measuring and reporting on emissions does not mean that they are actually going down. Only five of the 24 companies we had comparable data for were actually showing reductions in these 'Scope 3' emissions.

Only because our target was '100% reporting by 2025' does this merit a 'yes'.

Our first column, which uses the latest government figures to assess the same area, is also showing an actual rise in emissions. Unfortunately the best it can give us are figures from 2019 - which is an issue we are beginning to push on too.

Access the 2022 report

A summary and PDF of the 2022 report and the other impact areas is available on our campaign page.

Download the 2021 report as a PDF.

The PDF versions include the evidence behind all this information.

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.

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

Handy advice on climate actions you can take

We are creating series of articles highlighting actions you can take for the climate on the areas of food, heating, transport and consumer goods - see the links below:

We would like to express gratitude to the Ecology Building Society for its sponsorship of the 2022 Climate Gap Report.

Ecology Building Society logo