Opinion: Choosing the Future of Businesses So We Can Choose to Be Parents
I want to be zero waste. To accomplish that, I bring my own water bottle, mug, utensils, and even a reusable napkin with me everywhere I go. Surely, that helps with reducing single-use plastics. I also cut down my consumption of meat, poultry, and fish. I drink oat milk because almond farms require too much water to produce. I shop produce by season, and I compost in NYC, which is no small task. Yet activists in the environmental movement are proposing we do more, reduce more and change more. From Gen X all the way to Gen Z, we as the younger generations have felt pressured to reduce the number of people we produce. It’s scientifically supported that choosing not to have children does decrease expected carbon emissions and waste, but how many are too many? Are two too many? Or, will classrooms be full of only children in 30 years? Many claim it is unethical and unnecessary to reproduce at all on a planet undergoing climate change’s natural disasters. As a Gen Z cisgender woman, the question of whether I want to have children is one that is asked of me often, so to answer this question, I began to consider the personal and environmental impact of parenthood.
Researchers calculated the average environmental cost and carbon reality of having children in America to be “58 tonnes of CO2 for each year of a parent’s life.” To further break down this concept, those same researchers found that, “under current conditions in the United States, for example, each child adds about 9441 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the carbon legacy of an average female, which is 5.7 times her lifetime emissions. That’s just carbon emissions; the natural resources needed for that child are around 26,455.5 lbs/year. If recycled materials are included, the number climbs to 28,660.1 lbs/year. An example of this kind of consumption is opting for those cool recycled paper straws instead of plastic ones; both require energy to manufacture, but one can be recycled again and the other cannot. Each life created decreases the limited resources we have by 28,660 lbs every year. Thankfully, this number relates to all the products we consume, not just those cool paper straws, otherwise, we’d be experiencing mass shortages, and drastic spikes in costs only the wealthy could afford. However, where we did see this was during the toilet paper shortages caused by the surge in consumption during lockdowns. It also affected other things parents need such as diapers, which rose 8.7% in price; which require manufacturers to source cotton farms and oil rigs for the plastic byproduct for the leak-proof design, that for obvious reasons, every parent prefers. Both cotton and plastic are non-renewable resources, and the price is likely to continue to climb for essentials like these.
Reproductive rights are ones I take very seriously and personally. I believe all serious and invasive medical decisions are just that: serious. The right to reproduce is one that many white Americans take for granted. As many other ethnicities, religions, and races can tell you: eugenicists within America have coerced sterilization in the not-so-distant past to people within the disabled community, imprisoned community, the immigrant community, and the LGBTQ+ community. In other countries as well, the right to reproduce has been controlled by laws like the one-child policy in China that resulted in orphanages adopting a zero population growth policy through the creation of dying rooms. While I understand the seriousness of climate change and dwindling natural resources is also an important issue since I very much want to have a reliable source of clean water, energy, and food for myself and future generations. To preserve the civil rights these communities have fought for, the choice to have or not to have children cannot and must not be coerced by government institutions or environmentalists. The choice to have a child or not have a child, as with every medical treatment, affects everyone’s bodies and lives differently. I am pro-choice, and so long as the law continues to protect access to safe abortions and qualified OB-GYN’s, doulas, and midwives, that decision remains yours. Before making my choice of whether I would continue to take birth control precautions, or stop having children, I began to research the options, costs, and realities of having children in the age of modern medicine.
Economically, birth control options have widely expanded, which are hormonal and therefore have dangerous side effects such as blood clotting, high blood pressure, migraines, and depression. The hormone causing these side effects is called progesterone, which is the hormone released, ironically, during pregnancy. The rationale is to trick the body into thinking it's already pregnant, to prevent the ovary from releasing more eggs. Tricking the body doesn’t usually bode well for other vital bodily functions, but that’s what we’re working with. The cost of birth control is more complex because there are many affordable options ($0-$50/month); however, the cost of medical complications commonly occurring with non-hormonal options such as an IUD could be as high as $31,000. Insurance is the largest variant here. Under the Affordable Care Act of 2010, the federal contraceptive coverage guarantee applies to most private health plans nationwide, whether sold to employers, schools, or individuals, or whether offered by employers that self-insure, which cover about 60% of insured workers nationwide. Then there is the cost of raising a child. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture estimates the cost of raising a child in 2020 as ~$233,610, excluding the cost of college, for food, shelter, and other necessities to raise a child through age 17. Now as high as that is, I am not sure that number was taken from the most environmentally conscious household that spends more than the average consumer. Then there is the cost of adoption, many families choose to go through a private agency which has been reported to cost between $50,000 and $60,000, and to go through child welfare public adoptions costs approximately $15,000 - $40,000. The cost of an abortion ranges significantly, depending on the state and insurance plan of the person it can range from $0 - $1000. The solution to this medical decision for many has been to avoid the milestone of being a parent altogether.
This leads me to the more permanent birth control option: a hysterectomy or vasectomy. For women, it is often performed in a hospital and can be either a vaginal ($4,271) or abdominal ($8,413) hysterectomy, both of which are risky, invasive surgeries. The cost can be significantly lower when performed in an outpatient ambulatory surgical center ($1,816 to $3,588, respectively) but the risks remain high if not higher, including the risk of a prolapsed vagina, bowel, or bladder problems and a higher risk of blood clots. A vasectomy is much less invasive, and costs $0 - $1000 depending on your insurance, with minimal risks of inflammation and testicular cysts with a 99% rate of long-term success in avoiding pregnancy. Unfortunately for me, there are common, unfounded fears relating to the loss of sex drive that has made vasectomies largely unpopular among men. For a long time, it seemed like birth control or risky surgeries might be the only safe and affordable option for me to have a sustainable future.
Our guest last month, Bruno Sarda, contradicted this belief and assured us: “We have enough resources to have children, the question is how we use these resources and how we exist on this planet.” With that in mind, what can we change to reduce the carbon footprint of our future generations to zero? Sarda was named one of the most influential leaders in corporate sustainability and gave us insights into how many corporations are doing the work of reducing carbon emissions on a larger scale. Namely, the concept of business-to-business manufacturing allows competitors to share the cost of overhead by using the same laborers, machinery, and/or materials. Sarda’s perspective may appear optimistic, however, it's based on a realistic approach many companies have already taken: carbon renewability.
When we look at some of what Unilever did in farming practices, packaging practices, distribution practices, even the whole articulation of building what they call their sustainable brands was very central to their core business as a consumer packaged goods company. You see companies like Interface that are fundamentally rethinking, reinventing, redesigning their core business processes, products, and markets. In the case of Interface, they produced a very carbon-intensive and waste-heavy product, so it required a energy-intensive and carbon-intensive process. It was a product that would basically clog up landfills to basically a carbon negative footprint. Now, they use materials that actually absorb more carbon than they emit. They completely reinvented the business model and actually invented the carpet tile, a smaller, easily replaceable section of carpet, so that when they did commercial installs, they swapped out the carpet tiles, and completely closed the loop.
So they could reuse and remake.
It's almost like a zero waste model. Zero waste on the outside, and zero carbon on the front end. That's a great example of a company that looked at how they impacted the world and made substantial changes. And then, their competitors like Mosaic followed suit. And that's the other part that can be exciting: when there's a bit of a race to the top, as opposed to kind of a race to the bottom.Then, the race to the top is about competing with each other in creating customer demand for netzero footprint.
For the rest of his interview, you can find the episode here.
The problem Sarda recognizes with most corporations is they are designed for exponential growth; the idea of stagnant growth doesn’t cooperate with capitalism and our need for new jobs to match population growth. Stagnant growth and consistent earnings would also require the stock market to be redesigned to evaluate businesses based on steady earnings rather than exponential growth. The stock market wouldn’t be the only system completely reimagining how we determine a company's value, we would also witness companies uprooting business as usual to meet consumer demands for netzero carbon, water conservation, forestry protection, and netzero plastics commitments. With this being the decade of action, after failing to meet the 2020 goals of the Paris Agreement, companies need to be asked to step up and redesign how they manufacture, package, and distribute their products
Photo by California Electronic Asset Recovery, an e-Steward recycler.
There are an estimated 40 million tons of e-waste globally annually, all of which are recyclable, but far too few of them are actually recycled. These materials are mined by tech companies at a rate our planet cannot sustain in order to meet consumer demands. The Right-To-Repair movement proposes we fix first, then put all recycled materials on the market. Economically, they have a point, the sheer cost of mining to companies, consumers and our planet would not be factored into prices, and companies would be able to close the loop and join the circular economy. Sarda advocates that these kinds of transformations could lead to industries that are competitive towards making ethically made goods rather than the current norm of who can produce them the cheapest and fastest. Part of this would also include the idea of a circular economy which is the practice of reduction and reusability. In order to reduce waste and reuse a product, it needs to be built to last longer and be designed in such a way that it can be repaired, broken down, and later recycled, therefore, never becoming waste. To break down and recycle a product, it needs to be economical for companies to pay for the labor it takes to deconstruct products. With the large volumes of products being thrown away, in order for it to be affordable by companies; the process needs to be safe, low-risk, and feasible for laborers to do quickly. At Dell, Sarda designed such a process by including recyclers in the design room to reduce the hours of labor it took to take apart Dell devices into recyclable and often reusable materials. By reducing the labor costs, it becomes much more economical for companies to pay recyclers to salvage materials for future products. This is proof that circular economies are not only good for the environment, but that they create jobs, and reduce spending for companies in the long run.
So with all this being said, if I have children and choose to raise them with Unilever-produced food, Interface carpet tiles in our home, and Dell products that were continuously broken down and reused, my carbon legacy would be reduced. If I couple these practices with a devotion to teaching my children other zero waste practices as the norm, their carbon legacy would be reduced as well. If enough of us committed ourselves to teach these lifestyles, our current way of existing on this planet could become as obsolete as putting lead paint on our walls.