So what should you buy to lead a more eco-friendly lifestyle? And how do you know what not to buy?
What to buy:
Essentially, as little as possible. Consumption is the major cause of environmental degradation – we can’t shop our way to a low-impact lifestyle. That said, it’s possible to invest in a few things that will reduce our impact on the planet. Just keep a few points in mind:
- Reusables can be great for the environment – if they are reused. It takes a lot more resources, emissions and pollution to make actual stuff than it does to make single-use items and packaging, so reusables need to avoid a lot of waste before they pay for themselves. Think about how much you expect to use your reusables and take care not to pile up stuff which is hardly used.
- Don’t go overboard buying lots of new things. Take your time to work out what you really need, and see what you already have that can be reused or repurposed. Otherwise see what you can get second hand. And go easy on products made from cotton and stainless steel – for some reason these are popular with many zero wasters, but they are both materials which are harsh on the environment, so take care not to buy any more of these than you need.
- A difference between reusable and single-use products is that resuables need to be washed after use, and studies frequently find that the way that a product is cleaned makes a significant difference to it’s overall impact. So, make sure you go easy on the hot water and soap. As a general rule, dishwashers use less water and energy than humans doing the washing up. For fabrics, Hubbub has some useful tips on reducing the environmental impact of your laundry.
- The way we shop can also make a difference – if you do a lot of driving around to shop for sustainable goods, the environmental impact of car use will reduce the benefits or even outweigh them altogether. If you do drive to the shops try to get as much as possible in one visit, and driving a long distance specifically to shop for sustainable goods is probably not worth it for most things.
- While it’s good to keep some principles in mind when shopping, I don’t recommend putting a lot of effort into choosing every single thing you buy. I suggest that the only time it’s worth doing your research about something specific is when you are making a large investment, or for things you consume a lot of. You need a lot of information about something before you can really know how sustainable it is, and most of this is not easily available to us. Also, worrying about every last detail is no way to live, and the time and effort spent on shopping could be spent on other things. Your best guide for shopping is the waste hierarchy: ‘reduce, reuse, recycle.’
- Remember that small, independent businesses are looking to make money just as much as large corporations. Yes, that friendly eco-business looks lovely and seems to share your values, but in my experience, small businesses are just as likely to promote excess consumption as larger corporations, and are more likely to make unsubstantiated claims about the sustainability of their products. As a general rule, if it’s advertised, you don’t need it.
If you are going to spend your money on anything, spend it on:
Well made, quality items that are designed to last. These don’t always have to be brand new.
Good quality, well-produced food (if this don’t bust your budget too much) especially things with eco-labels such as the Rainforest Alliance, Soil Association, and Marine Stewardship Council. Cheap food is a major cause of environmental destruction.
Loft and cavity wall insulation. If you own your own home, this can hugely reduce the amount of wasted heat, which will simultaneously reduce your carbon footprint and save money on your bills. If your home was built after around 1920, you should be able to stuff the gap in the walls to save heat escaping. The Energy Savings Trust has more info. See also double/triple glazing and draught excluder.
To reduce your impact further, consider investing in:
Reusable kitchen cloths and hankies. These will save the waste of single-use paper products. Choose some that are durable and can be reused many times. These can also be used to replace single-use wipes for travel. They don’t have to be new – I cut up old fabrics to use instead of tissues.
If you use a lot of single-use cups, a reusable cup could be for you. As a guide, a reusable coffee cup needs to be used around 20-100 times to make up for the greenhouse gas emissions of a single-use cup. As well as coffee, you can use it to save on those single-use plastic cups from the office water cooler, or take it with you wherever you think you might need it. If you don’t have space to carry a full-size cup with you, you can get collapsable ones that fold away.
If you need them, a couple of menstrual cups to avoid the waste of single-use cotton products. Scientists recommend owning at least 2 of these so that one can be sterilised while the other one being used.
If you find yourself getting through a lot of single-use plastic bottles, you may want to get a reusable bottle to avoid the waste of these. Stainless steel will be the most durable, although it will weigh more than a reusable one made from plastic so will be heavier to carry once it’s full of liquid. As a guide, a stainless steel bottle needs to be used 50 times to be better for the climate than a single-use plastic one, and 500 times to be better on all environmental impacts studied in a life-cycle assessment. Otherwise you could always go for the reusable plastic one, but it may not be as durable, so it depends how much you expect to use it.
If you often eat on the go, you might want to get some lightweight reusable cutlery to carry with you to save on single use ones. Otherwise, you can just bring any cutlery with you. Personally, I am still working my way through the inexhaustible supply of single-use plastic ones that appear in the kitchen of my shared house, but I guess just make use of whatever is available to you.
Reusable shopping bag. You already know about avoiding single-use plastic bags. The essential rule here is not to accumulate more reusable ones than you need. A cotton bag needs to be be used around 131 times before it is better for the environment than a single-use plastic bag, so if you find yourself with a pile of ‘for life’ bags which are barely used, consider donating or passing them on, and give a firm no to anyone trying to shift another free one onto you.
Some form of reusable containers. You may not need to buy any, as most people have plenty of these at home already. Storing food in containers and jars can save using cling film and foil (or beeswax wraps for that matter). They can also help to reduce food waste as they are often more durable and airtight than a lot of food packaging. Transparent containers such as glass jars can also help to prevent food waste as you can clearly see what food you have. You can also reuse jars to freeze portions of food instead of single-use plastic bags – just be sure to leave plenty of room at the top to allow the liquid to expand, or it may break. If you don’t have enough containers, you can often find them in charity shops, or see if friends and family have a surplus they are happy to give you.
You can take reusable containers with you if you are expecting to get takeaway food – you just need something the right size that will be light enough to carry around. Some people take reusable containers with them to zero waste shops, although personally I prefer to take reusable bags then transfer the food into containers at home, because bags are easier to carry. But whatever works best for you.
A reusable toothbrush. It’s annoying throwing away a whole toothbrush, so I’ve discussed the options for alternatives here.
Something to wash with that is designed to be reused. I find cotton flannels are a good way to avoid the waste and hassle of single-use wipes and sponges etc that fall apart after a while.
Solid bars of hygiene products and something to keep them in. Washing your hands with bar soap has been found to be better for the environment than liquid soap. In general, go for concentrated products.
What not to buy:
Animal products. A huge study found that giving up animal products was the best single thing you could do for the planet. Even the most sustainably produced animal products turned out to do more damage than plant-based foods. This is because it impacts so many different thing – greenhouse gas emissions, water scarcity, biodiversity and pollution.
Fast fashion. A recent report on fashion in the UK found that every tonne of clothing currently in use is responsible for 1.7 tonnes of waste and 23.2 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. It also has a water footprint per tonne of 7,060 cubic metres. And if that doesn’t put you off, the abuse of workers in the fast fashion industry will. Save your money. You look amazing in what you’re wearing anyway.
Airline tickets. I know, it seems like flying should be ok for eco-conscious shoppers, and your favourite sustainable lifestyle blogger is probably instagramming pretty pictures of their zero waste travel kit from somewhere exotic (again). But the figures just don’t add up. Air travel releases s**tloads of CO2 and other nasties into the atmosphere, and no amount of taking your reusable bag to the shops can compensate for it.
(For the record, taking your reusable bottle on return transatlantic flights would save around 320g of greenhouse gases, however your carbon footprint for the flights themselves would be at least 1.6 tonnes).
Electronics that replace items that are still working or could be repaired. Producing electronics is a very wasteful and Co2 intensive process – making a TV can involve more carbon emissions than a transatlantic flight. Research finds that electronics will usually last much longer than people think.
A big house. These consume so much energy compared to smaller homes – a detached house will consume on average more than twice as much energy to heat than a purpose built flat, and will probably be filled with more gadgets and other stuff.
Single-use items. Anything that is designed to be used once and thrown away is a crap design. Single-use plastic has a famously bad reputation because of it’s durability, but single-use items made from any material takes resources to produce and are usually difficult to recycle.
Tat, novelty items, and freebies you know you’ll never use. ‘Cheap’ is your red flag that some corners have been cut somewhere – it could have been the wellbeing of the people producing the product, animals, the planet, or all three.
Cars (especially petrol and diesel engines and – gaahh! -SUVs). The UK is currently succeeding in reducing it’s carbon emissions – the one thing working against that is emissions from transport, which is increasing. Most of that is from petrol and diesel cars. If going car-free doesn’t work for you, could you drive less? Would car sharing work? Could you get an electric car? Can you get your groceries delivered? Is public transport/walking/cycling as dire as you think? How do you know? When did you last try it?
Junk food. A lot of environmental degradation goes into producing food with low nutritional content.
Anything you don’t expect to get much value out of / is likely to be wasted / will probably fall apart after a few uses. This is essentially a similar problem to single-use items, only worse, as actual stuff that is hardly used will have taken way more resources, pollution and emissions to produce than, say, a plastic straw, and will probably be difficult to recycle.