But it’s plastics that seem to have caught the public’s imagination and which have become a symbol of our collective neglect of global ecosystems. This year, we looked at two products particularly, that often contain unnecessary plastics; nappies and menstrual products. We found that there are alternatives out there, and that they are being increasingly used, but that there were cultural and systemic barriers to their widespread use.
Perhaps surprisingly the guide that most caught people’s attention this year was toilet paper! Worryingly, our research found that companies are using less recycled materials and more virgin forests than ever, as people switch to luxury and quilted brands. A good indication that, in some industries, the direction of travel is still very much the wrong way. Again, thankfully, there are a number of ethical brands in the market using 100% recycled materials, but their share of the market remains small.
Markets with systemic problems
Two of our larger pieces of research this year which covered both waste and the climate crisis were supermarkets and the fashion industry.
We looked at how supermarkets had been slow to react to the problems around them and around plastic particularly. Anna Clayton, our own lead researcher wrote in April that “When a system is as broken as the food system of the western world, it is no good tinkering around the edges. A radical new approach – or approaches – is required.” For the first time we began ranking smaller local ethical stores and encouraging their use instead.
It was much the same theme in our guide to fashion published in September. We reported that more than one million tonnes of clothing was bought every year, with each item only being worn an average of 7 times before being discarded. Around 300,000 tonnes of clothing ends up in the household rubbish every year mostly going to landfill or getting incinerated. Added to all this, there is the carbon cost of the fast fashion industry. Some estimate that the clothing market could account for 25% of all global emissions by 2050.
And again, the trend was going in the wrong direction. The average consumer buys 60% more clothing than 15 years ago with that clothing kept only half as long. Also worryingly, less than one per cent of the material used to produce garments is recycled into new clothing, though our guide to ethical clothes shops showed a flourishing alternative sector trying to do things differently as usual.
The fight back
Thankfully, it isn’t all bad news. As I wrote in October “Over the past year we’ve seen significant street demonstrations, direct actions and school strikes, that have enjoyed popular support from across the political spectrum and society in general. As a result councils have declared climate emergencies and political parties have promised change, albeit at a rate too slow for those on the streets.” And this sense of urgency for real change is only going to grow as impacts are more keenly felt.