We think of big-ticket items like homes and flights as the greatest contributors to our carbon footprint.
But they’re not the only opportunity we have to reduce our personal emissions. Our shopping habits—what we buy, and how we buy it—have a huge impact, too.
Which shopping habits are having a negative impact?
Did you know that the clothing we buy, wear and then dispose of accounts for a significant amount of GHG emissions? It’s not surprising when you really think about it—in 2018, the average American women bought a whopping 68 pieces of clothing.
Though clothing and household goods have never been cheaper (hello, $4 T-shirt), the carbon footprint of all this disposable fashion and home decor adds an invisible cost to our purchases.
In 2018, the average American bought a whopping 68 pieces of clothing.
Another deceptively carbon-heavy category? Our digital devices.
This sector is set exceed to 14 percent of our global emissions by 2040. We replace our smartphones on average every two to three years, which is having disastrous consequences on our planet. And the emissions produced in making that phone are the equivalent to the amount produced over about a decade!
That’s not to mention the accessories, though more sustainable options do exist.
Reducing our environmental impact means fixing this consumer mindset faster than you can say black high top sneakers and shiny new laptop.
By following a few (seriously) simple guidelines to lighten our footprint. The side-benefits of a sustainable shopping habit: less clutter, better style, and more money in your bank account. What’s not to love?
We need to fix this consumer mindset faster than you can say black hightop sneakers and shiny new laptop.
That regrettable purchase is not your fault!
Or, ditch the guilt.
First, cut yourself a little slack. Stop feeling guilty about your purchases!
There’s a whole industry out there whose job is to convince you to buy things. It’s why you saw an ad for that new couch approximately 30,000 times after innocently glancing at it on the website of your favourite online retailer. Marketers are good at their jobs—they know what you want before you do.
And our culture is an acquisitive one. You’re not a bad person for finding it enjoyable to buy things.
You’re not a bad person for finding it enjoyable to buy things.
It’s not that it’s so bad in itself to want nice things.
But there are planetary repercussions that we can no longer ignore. It can feel impossible to stand firm against a world that sees you as a consumer and little else, but with a little discipline, you can make peace with your purchasing. And space in your house.
With just three guidelines rules, you can keep your carbon footprint down and your style game up. Yes, just three.
Keep them top of mind, and you’ll cut your climate impact—and inspire others to do the same.
Here are three simple guidelines to make your shopping habits more sustainable:
1. Shop less (or not at all)
The first trick to climate-friendly shopping is: buy fewer things.
If this feels unfathomable, flip it around in your mind. Instead of deprivation, fashion it as an empowering challenge! How long can you go without shopping? Can you commit to a month, or even a year without buying something new? Do you really need that (insert item you don’t need here)?
Often, we get the idea that we have to have something, and forget that we already have plenty of them already.
Most of the clothing that goes to secondhand stores is never sold.
Can you keep your phone and tablet for as long as possible before replacing? It sounds silly to reframe not buying as some sort of self-help exercise, but it works! You might just feel great—and very in charge of your life—when you avoid purchasing something unnecessary.
Donating or recycling your unused items only goes so far
Don’t let your donations box or that clothing-store recycling discount try to get you off the hook here.
Given that less than 1 percent of used clothing is recycled into new garments and most of the clothing that goes to secondhand stores is never sold, the most sustainable choice is not to buy that cheap outfit in the first place.
The same goes for other household goods, especially the ultra-trendy ones that you get bored with quickly.
And there are some really simple and effective ways to do this.
Fall in love again with what you already own
If you think there’s something you absolutely can’t live without, write it down. Wait a few days. Does that pair of loafers or table lamp still make your heart skip a beat?
Chances are, you’ve moved past your emotional response, what behavioral scientists call your System 1, to a calmer, more analytical state, where you can more clearly assess whether you do in fact need that Elvis Presley toaster oven.
The benefits of not buying things are myriad. As evidenced by the popularity of Marie Kondo and the rise in storage facilities, people are drowning in their own consumption.
It’s a costly habit for people and planet, and one that brings little true joy. Buying less can actually free you up to be more creative with what you already own.
Reusing and reworking what you have gives you a unique look. Some might recommend ditching everything you have in favor of a brand-new capsule wardrobe, which is a pile of work and, clearly, means buying more stuff. Instead, just shop your closet.
The same applies to housewares and furniture. Consider if that new couch is truly a must-buy. Honestly, the one you already have looks comfy to me.
2. Get to know the Buyerarchy of Needs
But I really need that (fill in the blank), you say?
There are easy ways to find what you need that don’t involve buying. In 2012, Sarah Lazarovic (that’s me!) created the Buyerarchy of Needs, a simple chart to help people think through how they acquire stuff. It’s since been translated into almost two dozen languages, and I think it would make a pretty swell tattoo.
Here’s how you can think about it:
Use what you have
We’ve gotten obsessed with having just the right thing.
But often you can make do and achieve 99 percent of your desired effect by tweaking, repurposing or fixing what you already have. You might think you need a new dress, but what if you just take last year’s holiday outfit and bedazzle it a bit?
Add a colorful belt or statement necklace and no one will even notice you’re wearing a repeat.
Ultimately, when you use what you have, you’re avoiding the creation of new emissions. There’s no better way to keep your carbon footprint down.
When you use what you have, you’re avoiding the creation of new emissions.
Often you can borrow that item you think you need to buy. A cake pan shaped like your child’s favorite cartoon character? Some formal clothes you’ll likely never wear again? A Halloween costume? A fancy toy your kid will toy with for all of 12 minutes? Is there someone you could borrow this item from? Not only will you save emissions, you’ll build reciprocity with your neighbors. They’ll then borrow that drill you rarely use, the one with the special bits for Swedish Allen keys. And you’ll feel less bad about never having used it yourself.
If you need to go beyond your circle of friends to find what you need, there are lending libraries for just about everything these days: clothing libraries, tool libraries, kitchen libraries and, you know, the OG library—for books, videos and even musical instruments. (They’re really branching out these days!)
Increasingly, Americans are even coming round to the idea of car sharing. Maybe you don’t need a car and can just borrow a friend’s for that occasional trip to pick up that vintage furniture you’d been hunting for. Maybe you can join a car sharing service, and lower your carbon footprint considerably.
Can you trade for what you need? Swaps with friends are one of the quickest and easiest ways to sustainably refresh your wardrobe or decor. You go home with a whole new look, and you have the added satisfaction of seeing your friends make good use of the jumpsuit you could never quite pull off, thereby saving it from a wasteful landfill death.
You can swap for larger things, too. And even exchange goods for services. Can you help a friend with her website in exchange for that fridge she wants to get rid of? Then you can build community, lower your carbon footprint and keep your food cold.
Thanks to our overconsumption, thrift is booming. If you keep a list of things you’re looking for, you will invariably find them at your local secondhand shop, on Craigslist or in your neighborhood Facebook group. Fancy secondhand is booming too, with a raft of new online companies creating a valuable resell market for premium clothes, goods and furniture.
If you can buy a good secondhand appliance, you’re saving said appliance from the landfill, and preventing the production of new goods.
Often, when you create a new thing, you use new resources, and these resources also have a carbon footprint. If you can source pre-existing or surplus materials, great. (Kudos to the sewists who make dresses out of thrifted duvet covers.)
If you have to purchase supplies to make what you need, be mindful of the carbon footprint of said goods.
Think twice about buying fresh lumber to build a new bookcase when people are giving them away for pennies on Kijiji.
It’s great to build things with your own hands, of course, and you’re keeping production close to home instead of shipping something across the planet, but pay attention to the resources you’re consuming.
For example, if you buy a pile of fresh lumber to build a bookcase when people are giving them away for pennies on Kijiji, you’re creating new emissions when more climate-friendly solutions exist.
If you’ve exhausted every other option, you may need to buy new. Don’t beat yourself up about it. But do follow Rule # 3 (conveniently located below).
3. Buy things, not too many, mostly quality
In 2007, journalist Michael Pollan wrote a seven-word guide for how to eat: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
If you do nothing more than follow those seven words, you’ll fare pretty well in the diet department. In 2014, the writer Sarah Lazarovic (hi again!) adapted those words for shopping: Buy things, not too many, mostly quality. Let’s break down what that means.
When you do have to buy things, aim for quality where it matters.
How to shop for long-lasting, quality items
Look for sustainable, long-lasting products with good online reviews and a reputable service history. Make sure to:
1. Seek out products with good warranties, or even lifetime guarantees.
2. Look for good product stewardship. Will the company take back your item and recycle it—even repair or upcycle it—at the end of its life? Do they work to ensure sustainable practices across their supply chain?
3. Search for low-carbon options when you can. Each day brings news of a new effort to offer low or zero-carbon products. Across many product categories, options are still thin on the ground, but you’d be surprised.
4. Try to buy products that have been produced for a long time. Has that company been making the same boots since 1823? They might be onto something. This isn’t to say the new, purportedly super sustainable boot you want to buy won’t be good, but it’s a bigger gamble.
5. Choose products made from durable materials that are less likely to break or wear out, like metal handles on kitchen tools rather than plastic.
Mostly quality? Does that mean I can buy some garbage?
It’s elitist to presume that everyone can afford an expensive, high-quality whatchamacallit every time they go shopping. It’s also not always true that the most expensive item is the most durable. A basic cast-iron skillet, for instance, will last you a lifetime (and beyond) and is often cheaper than those made of other materials—especially if you can score a hand-me-down or find one in a thrift store.
Sometimes, large manufacturers have more sustainable production practices and good product stewardship.
This is not to say that the $6,000 designer couch won’t last longer than the $1,000 one, but the latter may actually be better for the planet. We often conflate high-end with quality, when often the more expensive goods may be just a low-quality offering with some expensive logos sewn onto it.
Choose products made from durable materials, like metal handles on kitchen tools rather than plastic.
Buying from large, mass-market manufacturers also means replacement parts are often easier to come by, and that you’ll have no problem reselling your goods later on. Some are even creating their own reuse markets.
Buy quality where it really matters, too. A good, energy-efficient appliance will cost you a bit more initially, but will save tons of money and energy over its lifespan.
Another thing to think about is the longevity of style. Yes, the simple gray couch is more boring than the emerald velvet one. But will you feel the same a couple of years from now? Or will you be sick to death of green and looking to move on?
There's always more to learn
Finally, remember that our intuition about our carbon footprints is usually wrong.
Carbon footprints are difficult to calculate, and, according to a recent study, many of us grossly underestimate which things produce the most emissions. (Don’t believe it? Take this quiz! It’s...eye-opening.)
But knowing that our guesses about where to find the best climate bang for our buck are mostly incorrect shouldn’t make us feel bad. The deck is stacked against us.
We suffer from a huge lack of information about which products are most carbon-intensive. Think about the calorie labels on your food. Shouldn’t products likewise carry their carbon information? (In fact, many organizations are trying to achieve just that.)
We suffer from a huge lack of information about which products are most carbon-intensive.
The key is to do a bit of research when you can, so you can focus your consumption efforts where they’ll have the most effect.
Buying sustainable kumquats is a good thing, but what are the big items you buy that might be swapped or skipped to much more significant effect? Look for those!
On your refurbished computer, while wearing your second-hand jumpsuit, relaxing on your old-but-still-comfy couch.
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This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada, RBC Ventures Inc., or its affiliates.