How to Shop Responsibly (and Buy Less Stuff)

When we hear statistics about how consumer activity is harming the planet, such as how the global fashion industry uses enough water in a year to satisfy the needs of five million people—93 billion cubic meters—while 87% of the fiber produced for clothing ends up incinerated or in landfill, our situation can feel pretty bleak. When we try to wrap our minds around how the same industry generates more carbon emissions annually than international flights and waterborne shipping combined, the problem feels so far beyond our power to influence, that we often don’t see the point in trying.

A round water tank stands on a raised platform in an arid landscape, beside a wiry tree.
A 2000 gallon water tank: each pair of jeans uses up this amount of water.
Photo by Casey Schackow

Here are my thoughts: rather than trying to envision what 93 billion cubic meters of water looks like, think about what 2,108 gallons of water (about 60 bathtubs-worth) looks like: this is the amount of water you will save by suppressing your impulse to buy another pair of jeans. When you buy a cotton t-shirt second hand instead of brand new, you save 713 gallons of water. When you borrow a book from the library instead of buying one, you save 85 gallons of water. When you decide to drink one less cup of coffee, you save 37 gallons of water.

Focus on the water, energy, carbon emissions, and money you save every time you reuse, borrow, rescue, or say no to a product throughout your day—no matter how seemingly insignificant. One less paper napkin today? That’s something! 

Then imagine the cumulative results of your efforts over weeks and months and years: one less napkin a day adds up. Your consistent actions matter, for the sake of the marine animals you spare from wrestling with your waste, and the trees you decide not to wipe your mouth with, but also for the unseen resources needed to turn those trees into splinterless utilitarian amenities. Establishing life-long habits around reducing your reliance on stuff can truly make an environmental impact.

Woman browsing a second-hand shop, between cabinets and tables.
Photo by Julien-Pier Belanger

When purchasing:

  • Shop secondhand. Choose to shop at used bookstores (physical or virtual), thrift stores, repurposed furniture shops, and the like. The treasure is well-worth the hunt!
  • Don’t buy into trends. Purchasing a trendy item will only guarantee a quickly-cycling love-hate relationship with it.
  • Limit online shopping. Online shopping is clearly a rabbit hole that can swallow us effortlessly. If you know you’re prone to getting sucked in (who’s not?), proceed with caution, and limit the time you spend clicking around. 
  • Know what you want. Hone your unique aesthetic through a wishlist or vision board like Pinterest, that keeps tabs on things you desire. Your ideal world can exist within this framework so you can: 
    • reduce your need for physical trial and error while you pinpoint enduring passions and let transient interests evolve, revising your list over time
    • bask in uncostly inspiration without having to bring it to life if it proves unnecessary 
    • have a clear direction for your purchases and purchasing standards while organizing your wants in one place.  
  • Keep a list of things you need. When you stumble across something tempting, you’ll know whether you should entertain that temptation or shake it off.
  • Support eco-friendly brands. 
    • Don’t be fooled by greenwashed branding: imagery of leaves against zen color tones are not indications that the product is environmentally sound. Ignore vague terminology such as “all natural,” “eco,” or “green.” 
    • Look for specific references to how the product is made, such as “cruelty free,” “made in the USA,” or “made with 100% recycled material.” Look at the company’s website for details.
    • Look for certifications: Certified Humane, Green Seal, Energy Star, LEED, Fair Trade USA Certified, and USDA Organic Seal (though for small farms, this seal can be hard to attain, even with pesticide-free practices) among others.  
  • Sleep on it. Before making your purchase, give yourself a few days to think about whether you really need or want it. You will often find yourself forgetting about the item you wanted to buy, or being glad you didn’t spend money on something you didn’t need. 
    • We make so many decisions during the day, that we often develop decision fatigue: our brains become maxed out and more prone to making poor choices and impulse-buys. Sleeping on it can help you tap into a sounder perspective when you’re fresh in the morning. 
  • Buy what fits into your existing systems and styles. Be conscious of how your purchase will fit in with what you currently have. You don’t want to have to replace everything else in order for that addition to make sense in your home. 

A huge New England brick home stands at the edge of a sprawling lawn, immaculately kept.
Photo by Evan Dvorkin
  • Research how your purchase will impact the environment. It’s not just the amount of products we bring home that we must be vigilant about, but how we set ourselves up to consume. 
    • For example, Americans often buy homes that could house twice as many people as their family contains. If you’re pondering a life shift of this scale or smaller, consider how your new framework would need to be filled, and what habits would be encouraged.
    • For a house, considerations about both its structural impact (materials, construction, land use) and its functionality need to be made. How much energy will it require to heat and cool? How far is your daily commute? Can you walk or take public transportation to run errands? How resource-intensive will repairs be? If it is a seasonal home, how can you arrange to utilize it all-year-round to maximize its use, making its development more constructive?
  • Reduce your meat and dairy consumption. Many experts agree that this is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact (along with reducing the amount of food you waste). Though meat and dairy take up the overwhelming majority of our farmland (80%), they account for a small portion of our diet (18% of food calories and 37% of protein).   
    • Reducing our consumption of meat and dairy can prevent deforestation, extinction of species that rely on those ecosystems, decline of water and air quality, production of methane, spread of pathogens (mad cow, E. coli), inhumane treatment of animals, and blocked arteries. 
    • Companies like Impossible and Beyond Meat are doing incredible work creating plant-based meat that tastes and feels—according to many meat-eaters, including my mom—better than meat. These products are growing in popularity, now available at Burger King, Carl’s Junior, Dunkin’ Donuts, Cheesecake Factory, TGI Fridays, White Castle, Qdoba, Del Taco, Little Ceaser’s, Umami Burger, and Hard Rock Cafe (c’mon, In-N-Out, you can do it!!). 
A cow with a tag on its ear faces the camera. It stands in a pasture, backed by grazing cattle.
Photo by John Price

A word on good Intentions:

Whether or not you’ll put your purchase to good use is a hard thing to determine. You can define for yourself what “good use” looks like according to frequency over a period of time—but reality rarely aligns with our intentions.

In the past, enamored with a summer dress, I have rationalized, “If I buy this I will wear it a few times each season, whenever I have a day out with girlfriends,” planning on at least 13 solid wears over the next 5 years—still not much. In reality, this translates to wearing the dress once a year for the next two years, after repeatedly failing to grasp the mocking brevity of East Coast summers and the comfort of polyester shorts.

This then leads to my shouting, “don’t look at me!” every time I am confronted by this guilt trip-of-a-cloth-object merely ornamenting my closet. “You were too beautiful to expose to my sloppy eating,” I reason, and close the door to it, resolving to plan a day about town specifically designed for the use of that dress—one which doesn’t include sitting on grass, walking around (those shoes gotta match!) sweating, or consuming nutrients. 

It doesn’t happen. 

What’s more, with some passage of time, I no longer have the appetite for such a dubious hem length.

The stress I feel in the presence of this dress and similarly neglected inhabitants of my wardrobe is exactly what I was trying to remedy with their purchase, and therefore—they go in the donation pile. 

Pink polkadot chiffon summer dress hanging on a close hanger by a window.

We all know that styles change and our aesthetics, situations, and bodies change. So while deciding on a purchase, I suggest projecting your musings no further in the future than the next two years. 

If you’re someone who sits on grass, walks around, produces sweat, eats food, and likes to be comfortable, chances are that special occasion items, while enticing, will only be worn a few times at most. 

Since seldom are we so rational that we’re willing to forgo pleasure for curmudgeony logic—and since after 13 solid uses, the dress still would not earn its environmental keep—second hand shopping is the way to go.

Instead of purchasing:

  • Repair, don’t replace. It’s worth learning a few basic repair skills, but there are plenty of services that can revive broken possessions if you can’t yourself—a better way to contribute to the economy than to buy new products.
  • Maximize the resources you have. You can do this not only by repairing and caring for what you have, but by reusing and upcycling items that are considered single-use. 
    • Many of these items (plastic and paper cups, utensils, napkins) are so cheap to produce that they automatically come with our food—even if we don’t want them to. As a result, we view these “free” materials as nearly worthless, and they go from single-use resources to “zero-use” resources: how many times have you received a straw with your drink that you didn’t use, or a clean napkin that you threw away with the rest of your meal? The term “disposable” is then utterly literal, as these products are produced simply to be disposed of. 
    • To remind yourself not to take these materials for granted when you end up with them, remember that it isn’t just about the trees or oil that made them, but the finite resources expended as a result of their production and transport. Save them for later—they will certainly come in handy at some point.

Paper napkins in a glass cup - free at a cafe
Photo by Thirteen .J
  • Don’t forget about the details. Shave off excess-use where you can: get into the habit of showering less frequently, using less shampoo per shower, using one less sheet of toilet paper per wipe—you get the picture. For most people, precision isn’t the leading factor in habit formation, and we aren’t aware of how inefficient our actions really are. It’s worth questioning the methods behind basic daily tasks as we go about them. Especially over a lifetime of pruning, our endeavors really add up.
  • Organize “stuff” swaps. Have a shopping party with your friends (bring your reusable cocktail glasses!) where you gather and swap unwanted items.
  • Reduce the amount of food you waste. Become best friends with your freezer, understand expiration dates, practice eating the whole plant, inventory your fridge before you go grocery shopping, don’t shop on an empty stomach, make more frequent trips to the store, buy the ugly produce, make older food visible in your fridge, save your leftovers, cook creatively, learn proper storage technique, make soups, smoothies, and sauces, and compost!

As you buy and use, consider

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure 

Throughout your interaction with a possession, be conscious of treating it with care. Even if you don’t intend on keeping it, this will ensure others can enjoy it after you.

Utilize your Goodwills and Salvation Armys when it’s time for spring cleaning. Check what kind of items local shelters accept, or do a quick Google search for food drives, clothing bins, and other drop-off sites in your area. You never know what someone’s looking for—gently used underwear is even accepted at many places.

Recycle, but as a last resort 

Though it is wholly better to throw your recyclables in the recycling bin instead of the trash can, recycling is not the ultimate answer. 

Recycling provides the false notion that as long as we partake in it, we can accumulate as many paper bags, plastic containers, and aluminum cans as we want. In reality, recycling is not as effective as we may think: quality degrades as materials are down-cycled into new products, tremendous amounts of water and energy are used in the process, and much of what we put into our curbside bin does not get transformed into something else. 

Some of this is due to our misunderstanding of what can be recycled, and some is because the amount of waste we produce exceeds the market for this product. China, which until 2018 had been the main patron of our recycling, has drastically narrowed the margin of what that they will buy from us. 

An employee of a recycling center stares at towering piles of compacted recycling.
Photo by Vivianne Lemay

Instead of tossing a perfectly good paper bag into the recycling, first do your best not to obtain that bag (carry a reusable bag with you), and if you do land yourself with a paper bag, reuse it until it can’t possibly be used any longer. If you’re reusing that bag to carry recycling to your curbside bin, empty the contents, and continue to reuse it. Note: avoid using a plastic bag to contain your recycling as well—these jam up sorting equipment at your recycling plant. 

If you’re unsure of what you can recycle in your curbside bin, look on Earth911.com for details about what your municipal recycling center accepts, and how you can recycle items otherwise. There are many misconceptions about what we can and can’t recycle, so it’s worth doing some research to aid in our conscious purchasing of products, and disposal of trash. 

In summary

One of the most important things you can do for the environment is to reduce your consumptive behaviors. 

We don’t live in a vacuum! Paring down the amount of things you buy, collect, and rely on shapes the example you set for others. Your decisions influence those around you, whether you like it or not—and your choice to pursue productive and beneficial directions will ripple outward: the resources you save can accrue into an unforeseeable quantity. 

Maximize the resources you have, find joy from the old, shop second hand, buy in moderation, and reduce your meat and dairy consumption. If you are consistent with these habits, you will make a real difference—quite easily saving hundreds of thousands of gallons of water within a lifetime (let alone energy and carbon emissions) from being needlessly spent.

Related:

Captive Overconsumers: Why We’re Stuck in a Cycle of Spending

Progress Over Perfection: Finding Balance as a Conscious Consumer

Shopping Addiction: Purge Your Urge to Splurge

Published by Yenny

I want to share with you what I’ve learned from my work as a food rescuer and from my personal waste-reduction journey, while bringing you perspectives from my network of wise industry professionals. Let’s push full-steam ahead toward building the tools and systems we need to conserve, preserve, and value our resources.

4 thoughts on “How to Shop Responsibly (and Buy Less Stuff)

  1. When I was young, and heard a parent or other say, look, a sale. Think of all the money we’ll save buying on sale. Then, I would add, but if you didn’t buy anything, wouldn’t you save more?

    Liked by 1 person

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