What is a product lifecycle?
A product lifecycle spans from the moment resources are pulled from the earth to go into making a particular good to the time that good takes on another use or deteriorates. In the common linear economy model, a product's lifecycle consists of multiple stages: extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal.
In each stage of the lifecycle, most products have an impact on the ecosystems and the lives they touch. This impact can be harmful depending on the quantity of product produced and the practices used, and many modern economies incentivize producers to take high quantities and use practices that are short-sighted.
As consumers, if we don't consider a product's full lifecycle, we can't understand the true cost of the practices we support with our dollars.
Consider: How much do you really know about your favorite product's lifecycle, from where it was made to where it will go after you're done with it? What is the true cost of its creation on the environment and other beings? Does the price of the product account for any harm done?
Demand increases for systems of consumer credit on large purchases (7)
The birth of commercial radio provides a direct line for advertising to consumers in their homes (1)
“Mass production is profitable only if its rhythm can be maintained—that is if it can continue to sell its product in steady or increasing quantity.… Today supply must actively seek to create its corresponding demand … [and] cannot afford to wait until the public asks for its product; it must maintain constant touch, through advertising and propaganda...”
- Edward Bernays’ Propaganda
Resources are taken from the earth (mined, grown, cut, etc.) which impacts the ecosystem and the beings dependent on it. Sometimes extraction uses forced, unfair, or exploited labor.
Resources are sent to factories that use large amounts of energy, emit pollutants, and employ more workers who, again, may or may not receive fair treatment and wages.
Goods are shipped around the globe to buyers, releasing more emissions and disrupting the animals who share the oceans, skies, and lands they cross.
In a linear, take-make-waste model, products that are no longer deemed useful become debris in the ocean or mass in a landfill, often contributing to methane and carbon emissions and furthering habitat depletion.
The part where YOU come in!
We've become disconnected from our product's lifecycles.
At one point, when we collected or made everything we needed ourselves or within our communities, we were connected with each part of the product lifecycle: the ecosystems that provided resources, the hands that crafted resources into tools, and the animals who died to feed or clothe us.
Today, most of us are disconnected from the places and the people that make most products, which means we can't see when those stakeholders are negatively impacted in ways we might not want to fund with our dollars.
Consider: How might reconnecting with what you consume not only reduce the negative impact on others but also improve your own experience and quality of life?
Impacts are interconnected.
When the production of a product harms an ecosystem, it also harms the people and other animals who rely on that ecosystem. When a product requires animals to suffer for it to be made, the people who need to work desperately enough to deliver such suffering are often exploited and abused. Human consumption behaviors impact the planet, people, and other animals, and the negative impacts are often interrelated and compounding.
We are not all impacted equally.
A person’s impact or footprint generally increases with their wealth, and a country’s impact generally increases with its gross domestic product (GDP). For example, the average material footprint per capita in high-income countries has risen as high as 13 times the material footprint in low-income countries (5). Low-income countries are still more likely to feel the negative impacts of unconscious consumption like resource depletion, scarcity, and pollution firsthand. Within the U.S. and around the globe, people less privileged due to their skin color, nationality, income, etc., are more likely to live in sacrifice zones where they are exposed to the negative environmental and health impacts of unconscious consumption (2). Ironically, these people are less likely to contribute to issues caused by overconsumption themselves due to their lack of access to resources.
Products we use daily can have a negtive impact.
Many of the industries that produce products we use every day use practices or produce in quantities that cause harm to the planet, people, and other animals.
Our standard systems of food (over)production, animal agriculture, and organic material disposal are huge contributors to emissions, land and water usage, rainforest and habitat depletion, and animal suffering (1).
The fast fashion industry contributes to carbon emissions, resource depletion, textile waste, water and microplastic pollution, demand for cheap and forced labor, and—depending on the material—animal suffering (2).
Electronics & Appliances
Electronics are becoming the fastest-growing waste stream in the world (3). Their production raises demand for unfair and volatile mineral mining practices and their disposal leaks toxic substances.
Household & Beauty
Household cleaners and personal hygiene products are often packaged in single-use plastics and contain harmful microbeads and chemicals (4). And, while more companies are shifting away from animal testing thanks to consumer demand, it's not yet obsolete.
How can you do less harm?
It's impractical to think we can eliminate all suffering done by human hands. By merely existing—particularly in the staggering numbers that we prolific humans have accomplished—we use resources, disturb habitats, take up space, and create waste. Still, many individuals, communities, cultures, and companies have modeled ways to live and thrive in ways that do less harm to the environment, others, and ourselves.
So much of what we produce and consume in consumer-focused cultures is in excess, driven not by our needs but by profit margins. A simple and powerful first step in reducing our negative impact is to adopt the MOGO principle and make decisions based on what we believe will do the most good and the least harm to all (7). Continue on to CONSUMER ACTION for more discussion and inspiration around reducing negative impact.
Sources and inspirations
(1) “Animal Agriculture: How Bad Is It for Climate Change and the Environment?” Factory Farming Awareness Coalition, https://ffacoalition.org/articles/animal-agriculture-environment/, Published December 2021 (2) "Putting the Breaks on Fast Fashion," UNEP, https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/putting-brakes-fast-fashion, Published November 2018 (3) “Helping Communities Manage Electronic Waste,” EPA, https://www.epa.gov/sciencematters/helping-communities-manage-electronic-waste, Published June 2021 (4) “Environmental Impact of Cosmetics & Beauty Products,” TRVST, https://www.trvst.world/sustainable-living/environmental-impact-of-cosmetics/, Published October, 2021 (5) "Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life," Zoe Weil, https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Most-Good-Least-Harm/Zoe-Weil/9781582702063, Published January 6, 2009 (6) “Sacrifice Zones 101,” The Climate Reality Project, https://www.climaterealityproject.org/sacrifice-zones, Accessed April 2023 (7) "Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns," UN Stats, https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/report/2019/goal-12/, Accessed April 2023.