October 21, 2021 - 3:15pm

We have smallish children, and as a result our house is full of plastic tat. Dolls, action figures, weird toys that light up and make noises and get played with precisely once. So I can immediately sympathise with Adrian Chiles’s suggestion that we need to stop buying stuff. “Our ridiculous addiction to acquiring more possessions is stuffing up the planet,” he says. 

I want to push back against the idea, though. For two reasons. One, the manufacture of all that stuff, although it creates a lot of unsightly clutter that fills up Western houses, doesn’t actually contribute all that much towards climate change. And two, us buying all that plastic tat is a large part of why people in relatively poor countries are not as poor as they used to be. If we were to stop buying the cheap Disney-branded toys, it would cut off a large supply of money from rich people to poor people.

First, the climate change contribution. Energy use in industry makes up about 25% of total global carbon emissions. That’s a lot. But how much of that is needless tat bought by affluent Westerners? Only a small fraction, I think. It would presumably mainly come under “other industry” (10.6%), but that also includes things like car manufacturing and mining. Only about 12% of the UK’s total imports are “material manufactures”, i.e. actual physical goods for purchase, and the bulk of our carbon emissions are from heating our houses and driving our cars. Also, locking up hydrocarbons in plastic toys rather than burning them to power our cars at least sequesters them away — the carbon in your kids’ toys is not in the atmosphere.

And the stuff we buy from overseas has, I think, a disproportionate effect in redistributing money from the rich world to the poor world. Before writing this sentence I went and grabbed the first random piece of tat I could find. It said “Made in China”. So I then went and looked at how much of Chinese GDP is manufacturing, and according to the World Bank it’s about 26%. For Malaysia it’s about 22%. For Bangladesh, 19% (and growing rapidly), mainly clothing and textiles.

Not all of that is manufacturing crap toys and cheap garments, of course: China in particular has an increasingly large high-tech manufacturing industry (do iPhones count as “stuff”?). But it’s a large amount of it, driven heavily by demand from the West. And it has led to huge improvements in those countries. To stick with the same three: Malaysia’s GDP per capita has gone up by 160% since 1990. Bangladesh, 220%. China, about 1,000%. Life expectancy in those three countries has risen dramatically in the same time (especially in Bangladesh). Child mortality has dropped dramatically too.

(A note: I included Malaysia in this because I assumed it was roughly comparable, but in fact it has been a lot richer for a long time, I think mainly because of its raw materials like oil. I have kept it in, rather than switching to some other country like Indonesia, because that felt like I would have been cherry-picking my examples.)

This is not to say that our buying plastic crap is the only thing behind these improvements. But it’s definitely a major factor. Bangladesh’s booming economy over recent years is widely accepted to be driven by its garment trade, although it’s now diversifying into IT and finance services.

None of this means we have to simply accept that carbon emissions from manufacturing will continue unabated. There is a growing movement to finance sustainable manufacture in countries like Bangladesh, for instance, and supporting that seems a good idea. But buying goods manufactured in poorer countries sends money from the rich to the poor, and we should be careful about trying to stop that, because it might well do more harm than good.

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.