9 simple changes you can make to shop smarter today

Stopping and reversing the adverse effects of climate change is a collective challenge we will have to face together. Still, there are many things we can do on an individual level to lessen our footprint as well as signal to companies what we want in a more sustainable future. 

Avoid impulse purchases

According to the EPA, the average American creates 4.9 pounds of waste per person per day. There are dozens of ways to reduce our waste, but the most uncomplicated place to start is consuming less. American’s spend millions of dollars a year on impulse purchases, items you purchase that you did not originally intend to.

Why do we do this? For most of us, it’s because it feels good. Snagging a fantastic deal on a new piece of tech, suddenly coming across something you find beautiful, or wanting that candy bar in the checkout aisle – these are all things that give us a psychological thrill. 

The unfortunate truth is that the more we purchase, the more waste we create. Underfunded recycling programs and problematic policies mean that many cities cannot properly handle recyclable materials. Frequently, what we think is being adequately taken care of, is ending up in a landfill. The only surefire way to limit your contribution to the cycle is to limit your consumption. Meaning you can help the environment and save money!

Okay, but how do you avoid impulse buying if it is so enjoyable? Different strategies work for different people, but here are some tips.

  • Make a list ahead of time.
  • Set a budget for yourself before heading to the store.
  • See something you want that isn’t on the list? If it is under $100, wait 24 hours before you purchase it. If it is over $100, wait a week.
    • Editor’s note: I actually started setting a “purchase” day of the week to help with this. It made me realize just how much I was impulse buying online, and forced me to reduce spending when I saw it in one large group.

Don’t go to the grocery store so often

Another way to eliminate personal waste and save some money is to avoid making multiple trips to the store. You know how it goes; you walk into the store for milk and leave with taco seasoning, ice cream, and cold brew. While these purchases can be impulsive, we tend to think of food as necessary and therefore allow ourselves wiggle room to ignore the list. But food is one of the largest categories of waste generated each year and one of the easiest to reduce.

Sticking to your grocery list will help you purchase less unnecessary items but equally important is what you do with them when you get them home. Practice the first-in-first-out (FIFO) principle when storing your food. Essentially, place all new items to the back of the fridge and bring forward those closer to their expiration date. Instead of reaching for the newer food in the back of the refrigerator, you’ll eat the easily accessible leftovers upfront. Over time, this strategy should reduce what goes from your refrigerator to the landfill.

Get familiar with brands

We don’t mean designer brands; we mean environmentally conscious brands who insist on sustainable components and practices, as well as socially responsible production methods. We created the Ethically extension so that you’ll always know if the company you’re buying from is up to snuff. Download the extension from the Chrome Web Store. Then, anytime you visit a website, you will see the company’s letter grade next to the Ethically icon on your browser bar. If a company has a bad sustainability grade, we’ll show you better alternatives. Simply click on the Ethically icon on the browser bar, and you’ll be able to expand the pop-up to preview the options.

Shop for multi-purpose items

Who doesn’t love a good multi-use item? There is a reason the Swiss Army Knife is world-renowned. Not everything can be as multi-purpose (or practical), but striving to make the most out of your purchases can help lessen your carbon footprint. There are dozens of ways you can go about this, but here are some of our favorites:

  • Purchase neutral clothing that works in multiple seasons. This way, you can easily mix and match and maximize usage of your favorite items.
  • Opt for practical furniture that can do multiple jobs – like a comfortable seating chair that you can use at your desk and in the living room when guests come over.
  • Make the most of your storage containers by having a few silicone bags of different sizes as well as glass jars and containers. You can use them for takeout, organizing smaller items around the house, or even as eco-friendly gift wrap. 

Swap Items

A surprising amount of waste is composed of still-usable items such as clothing and furniture. Throwaway culture is generally thought of as single-use items, like plastic wrapping, but it can also apply to the general approach we as a society take towards our goods. We’re encouraged to trade out our slightly-used items for brand new, nearly-identical items regularly – take your phone, for example. The same attitude applies to things we no longer enjoy, slightly damaged goods we don’t know how to fix, and so much more.

The best way to move beyond this mindset is to open up to your community. Offer up items you no longer want and ask for those you are looking for. Feeling a little hesitant to post your old clothes on Instagram? That’s okay; there are plenty of apps made for this kind of thing. Check out Freecycle, Gumtree, or join a local Free Stuff group on Facebook.

Give thrift shopping a try

Thrift shopping, buying a pre-owned item, is on the up and up. Back in the day, you had to drive to your local thrift store and rummage through endless racks in hopes of finding a hidden gem. While you certainly still can do that, you can also take your online shopping over to websites like ThredUp, which are revolutionizing the way we think of thrifting and the impact the clothing industry has on the environment. According to their 2020 Resale Report, if we all opt for one used item over one new item this year, we would save 449 million pounds of waste.

Buy local

A large part of making environmentally friendly purchases is understanding where exactly your products come from. The closer you get to the manufacturer, the easier it is to have a clear picture of what you’re purchasing. With many cities supporting Farmer’s Market programs, sometimes with multiple markets per city, this is increasingly possible in the world of produce. You’re often speaking to the farm owner directly and can better understand the resources required for production and transportation.

Supporting local farmers also benefits the ecosystem around you. Conventional big-agriculture uses more resources and produces more toxic by-products than sustainable farming techniques. Supporting a local farmer is quite literally helping to preserve that land for sustainable practices where it might otherwise be purchased and used for less environmentally-friendly agriculture.

Carry a reusable bag

Depending on where you live, you may do this already. In the last few years, there has been a spike in cities making environmentally thoughtful policies, and minimizing plastic waste is one of them. Eight states have banned single-use plastic bags at a state level – California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon, and Vermont. Many of these states have gone beyond the bans and enacted measures to strengthen recycling programs. This double-sided measure is more effective than either practice independently, but this is only in 8 states.

Does the use of reusable bags seem entry-level? Give alternative containers a try next time you go grocery shopping. Instead of plastic produce bags, bring reusable nets or a classic glass jar for bulk items such as granola and grains.

Avoid plastics

Avoiding plastic is becoming synonymous with being environmentally friendly, and for a good reason. Plastics, the name of which describes a wide variety of materials, can now be found everywhere on planet earth, including the deepest point in the ocean, the Arctic, and in the salt you use to season your food. This is because plastics break down through photo-degradation, a process where large plastics left exposed to water and sunlight break down into particles known as micro-plastics and nano-plastics. Science has a lot to learn about the impact of these particles and how, if at all, we might be able to remove them. Avoiding plastics as much as possible is our best bet in minimizing future damage.

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