Over the past decade, the way we shop has completely changed. In the UK, we are witnessing the “death of the high street,” as major retailers shut their doors for good. The U.S. is experiencing a similar situation, with shopping mall closures now commonplace. There are a number of reasons why shops are closing, but a key reason is that they have been unable to compete with e-commerce brands (namely giants like Amazon). While brick and mortar shops may be fewer, the age of consumerism is still alive and well. It’s just in a completely different format. The simple truth is, it’s easier, quicker, and (in the age of COVID-19) safer, to buy online. But is buying online the only way to practice sustainable shopping?
A boom in online shopping means more delivery trucks out there on the roads, emitting greenhouse gases. A new report by Money.co.uk predicts that 2020’s Black Friday will be responsible for 429,000 tonnes of carbon emissions in the UK. That’s the same as 435 return flights from London and New York.
Online shopping always surges around Black Friday; major retailers offer deals and promotions to consumers stocking up on holiday gifts ahead of the December rush. But online shopping has an impact the rest of the year, too. Amazon, the world’s largest e-commerce retailer, emits almost the same amount of carbon emissions as a small country, The Guardian reports. In the U.S., almost a third of solid waste comes from e-commerce packaging.
But one of the best things about us humans is our ability to adapt. We have adjusted to shopping online easily, and now, knowing the environmental impact of buying things on the internet, we can embrace more eco-friendly habits. There are simple ways to practice sustainable shopping, both at the holidays and throughout the year.
Read on for some of our top tips on how to become a more environmentally-friendly shopper, online and in person.
How to Practice Sustainable Shopping
1. Buy Small and Local Where You Can
Small Business Saturday falls every year on the Saturday after U.S. Thanksgiving. The premise is simple: After the rush of Black Friday, it’s important to make an effort to support local businesses during the holiday season—not just the biggest and best companies that can offer the biggest and best deals. But buying local isn’t just something we should all do just once, or just at the holidays. Buying from small businesses near you all year round is good for them, and it’s better for the environment too.
Often, smaller independent businesses work with local suppliers, so the amount of air miles the product has travelled is likely to be fewer. If you order your purchase online, the delivery distance from the business to your home is going to be smaller too, resulting in a smaller carbon footprint than, say, ordering an Amazon gift from a seller in China when you live in the UK.
If you choose small brands that only sell vegan, eco-friendly products, your environmental impact is going to be even smaller, because the production of the items themselves is more sustainable. And ultimately, continued support of brands that are trying to do the right thing by the planet is going to allow them to take their mission even further.
2. Look for Brands With a Social Impact Mission
Looking for brands with a social impact mission is a key part of sustainable shopping. A social impact mission defines the purpose of the brand beyond sales. It often outlines how it seeks to counter its own carbon footprint, or create a positive impact in communities. When you visit a new site, ask yourself a few questions: Do they have a visible commitment to the environment? Do they have certifications, and what do those certifications mean?
Take organic cotton, for example. It’s very easy for a brand to say they use it, but it’s important they back this up legitimately. Find out more about how to know if cotton is organic and sustainable here. It’s also important to keep an eye out for greenwashing. This is when companies try to persuade consumers that their product is better for the planet than it actually is, usually through clever marketing. Find out more about that here.
If you want to buy as ethical as possible, finding out how brands treat people in their supply chain is also important. Add these questions to your checklist too: Are they transparent about worker pay and conditions? Are they open about where and how their products are made? Can they back this up with evidence?
If they’re not open and honest about their impact on the planet, and how they try to ensure an ethical supply chain, the chances are they have something to hide.
3. When Possible, Go Plastic-Free
Roughly 40 percent of all plastic is used for packaging, resulting in millions of tonnes of plastic waste around the world. Much of this ends up in the ocean and other waterways, causing a danger to underwater life and ecosystems. If packaging waste doesn’t end up in the ocean, it often ends up in landfills. It takes approximately 500 years for a plastic bag to degrade. And when plastic does eventually start to break down, it pollutes the earth and the ocean with microplastics.
But many brands are saying no to plastic packaging. Look for companies that use recycled and recyclable materials, not just in their products, but in their boxes and bottles too. There are also brands out there that are zero-waste, and use no packaging at all. Find out more about sustainable packaging here.
4. Take Your Time and Buy With Intention
Before you decide to go ahead with a purchase, think it over a little first. Does it tick all of the boxes? Do you really need/want it? Taking a minute to mull over an order first will help you to avoid making rash decisions that you may later come to regret. This will reduce the chance of waste, as you’re more likely to throw out something you didn’t really want.
Avoiding novelty gifts during the holiday season will help you cut down on waste too. They may provide a laugh at the time, but they often have no longevity, and end up getting thrown out pretty quickly. In 2018, people in the UK wasted around 60 million presents.
Taking your time and buying with intention also reduces the chance of having to return the item to the retailer, which results in more mileage, more emissions, and potentially, even more waste. Many companies do not resell items that are sent back to them. Every year, around 5 billion pounds of returned products end up in U.S. landfills.
Consolidating your orders, and being patient with delivery times, is also better for the planet. It means goods are shipped in larger quantities, which reduces the amount of trips delivery vehicles make.
5. Buy From Thrift Stores
Buying second-hand from thrift stores or charity shops gives a new lease on life to old items, but it also helps to reduce waste, particularly when it comes to clothing.
By 2030, it’s estimated the fashion industry’s annual production volume will reach 100 million tonnes. Much of that will eventually be thrown away, destined to end up in the landfill. Producing that much clothing also emits significant amounts of greenhouse gases. At the moment, the fashion industry accounts for 8.1 percent of global emissions. By 2030, textile manufacturing emissions are expected to rise by 60 percent.
Choosing to shop at thrift stores helps to keep clothes out of the landfill for longer, lowers your own carbon footprint, and helps to raise money for charity. You might just find several bargains too. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure, after all.
6. When Buying a Gift, Consider an Experience Instead
One really efficient way to reduce waste and shop for gifts sustainably, be it over the holidays, for a birthday, or for an anniversary, is to consider avoiding material goods altogether.
Show your loved ones how much you appreciate them with the gift of your time, and support local businesses and creative projects at the same time. You could plan ahead for post-Covid, and gift a friend or family member tickets to a local play or ballet, an art class, or a pottery workshop. (If they’re not on sale where you are right now, consider writing an IOU for the future.) Or, if you don’t want to wait, there are some virtual classes on offer that you could take sooner. If you’re into vegan cooking, see here for a roundup of online workshops to try.
7. Or, Donate On Behalf Of Others
And perhaps the most wholesome gift of all: a charity donation. It’s zero-waste, it’s thoughtful, and it makes an impact in the best way possible. Find a cause that both you and your loved one really care about, like an animal sanctuary, a food bank, or a charity fighting to give shelter to people and families without homes, and make a donation in their name.
There are so many simple ways to practice sustainable shopping, at the holidays and all year round. The best advice is to do your research, take your time, and sometimes, think outside the box. Taking your time to find a unique treasure in a thrift store, or donating to a food bank, may mean more to your loved one, and the planet, than a quick snap purchase online.