Net Zero and the Consumers of the Future

26 March 2021

There are two key realities about ‘net zero’ that we should all have got hold of by now. One is that there is no silver bullet – many kinds of actions are needed on many fronts. The other is that low carbon lives must be better lives, if we are to achieve comprehensive buy-in to what will be an extraordinary transformation.

WRAP’s new report provides important evidence on both fronts. By elaborating the progress we could make through resource efficiency – in short, doing more with less – it complements the visions set out by others for renewable fuels, smarter agriculture and warmer homes. It shows us where ‘stuff’ done differently can make the biggest difference, and account for a sizeable chunk of the UK’s budgeted carbon reductions. It also paints a picture of stuff better aligned with our preferences and needs.

I think there is now widespread acceptance that cutting waste, particularly food waste, will be a big contributor to net zero. The recent huge interest in WRAP’s Food Waste Action Week and the UNEP Food Waste Index report, co-authored by WRAP, are testament to that. That is why fighting food waste is one of WRAP’s primary objectives. I firmly believe that none of us want to waste food, but time, lifestyles and shopping habits conspire against us, so the recommendations in this report highlight roles for all actors – governments, businesses as well as us as consumers. We can work together to achieve reductions that save us money, carbon and angst. We can go further by changing diets, which would also have multiple benefits.

Another positive change to our wallets and our well-being could come from a shift from goods to services. WRAP research shows that around the world consumption of clothing has two negative trends - we are buying more and more clothes but wearing them less often. Even more sobering, the average car is in use for only 3% to 4% of the time and at any one moment less than 15% of UK cars are on the road. Imagine reversing those trends, and having access to all the novelty we crave, while contributing to the UK’s carbon reduction. Over 50 million tonnes of carbon equivalent could be saved through rental of clothing, while sharing vehicles could avoid over 300 million tonnes. A new generation of consumers is embracing these models, recognising the flexibility and greater choices they offer while meeting their often forcefully articulated environmental concerns.

The low-carbon world of stuff is a world of design for re-use, easy access to re-manufacture and repair, and the durable goods that we know from WRAP’s research we all want to have in our homes. We have also calculated that refurbishment of products could add over £54 billion to the UK economy and create 300,000 jobs, whilst increasing repair could create another 30,000 jobs and add £3.3 billion. Extended producer responsibility and more rigorous product standards, both voluntary and statutory, have a key role to play in realising these gains.

Overall, achieving these positive lifestyle trends could contribute, by 2050, a cut of some 2 billion tonnes in the emissions the UK ‘s consumption is incurring globally. Only a quarter of that can be counted as UK territorial emissions, and thus contribute to meeting carbon budgets, showing the extent to which we ‘offshore’ our emissions. Even so, these measures could achieve over 10% of the reduction needed between the fifth and sixth carbon budgets.

‘Resource Efficiency’ may not be as instantly evocative as talk of zero carbon homes, the hydrogen economy or electrified transport, but it is an essential component of our net zero strategy. At the same time, it provides a route to re-imagining ourselves as the responsible consumers we would all like to be.