by Tom Chivers
Thursday, 21
October 2021

Why the West should keep buying cheap crap

It isn't that bad for the environment and it benefits poorer countries
by Tom Chivers
Credit: Getty

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.

Join the discussion

  • Yes, capitalism and consumerism have added work to economies all over the world and they can buy their own amount of cheap tat with their money too.
    Dilemma: Do I buy the airfreight green beans from Egypt because they really need to export – or from UK to support the home economy. One of each haha!
    What is overlooked here though is how did the West get so wealthy as to be able to buy all this stuff so that we appear to be the materially richest humans ever? By running currency through the photocopiers since the 1970’s is how. Most of what we have is actually living beyond our means to generate. It trickles to us via artificial levels of wealth, govt spending and assistance, corporate borrowing, house price borrowing, consumer credit, business subsidies, mass education, mass healthcare.
    Despite large taxes, our governments do not take in enough to cover what we want to have and what they spend. It will not end well.

  • You are wrong because you assume that all humans are like you – educated, well read, motivated, full of ideas.
    I am like you but I’m surrounded by people who think I’m weird and boring. (OK, maybe I am). I eat a balanced diet, weigh every day, barely watch TV, read UnHerd, run 40 miles a week for enjoyment, read books on politics, philosophy, etc.
    My family, my colleagues, my neighbours live to meet and share meals and drinks. Most are seriously overweight. Most read The Daily Mail or The Sun. Most get very excited if they buy a new camera, they change their cellphone every two years, they constantly buy new clothes. This is what life is all about today. Everybody talks about their latest car, computer, holiday, surround-sound TV. Everybody has to see the latest movie as soon as it comes out. Many have already set out their Christmas decorations.
    So you are wrong to preach about what somebody should do unless you give them a ‘fun’ alternative to fill the week. This is not a matter of choice – “it is life, Jim, but not as we know it.”

  • I am like you but I’m surrounded by people who think I’m weird and boring. (OK, maybe I am). I eat a balanced diet, weigh every day, barely watch TV, read UnHerd, run 40 miles a week for enjoyment, read books on politics, philosophy, etc.”
    Oh well, a better man than I. I aim to eat a balanced diet and fail miserably; weigh myself daily and sigh; read UnHerd and sigh; try to do three gym sessions a week (but rarely manage more than one); buy books on politics and philosophy, then half finish them; and frequently spend my evenings lying down on the sofa watching Talking Pictures TV or Quest with a nice glass of bitter. How did it come to this? I blame society, etc., etc.

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