January 6, 2023

Tips for Becoming a More Sustainable Shopper in 2023

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Goodbye 2022, hello 2023. A new year is full of hope and opportunity. Now is the time to reflect on who you want to be in the new year. Is this the year that you get back into shape? Plant a vegetable garden? Write the Great American Novel?

Whatever you may resolve yourself to be in 2023, we’d like to suggest that you consider including becoming a more sustainable shopper on your list. After all, we all have a part to play in the fight against climate change, and if we want to see change, we must first change ourselves. Granted, some parts in this story are larger than others, but even the smallest change can have a meaningful impact when it is made by a lot of people.

To help you get started, we’ve compiled some ideas to help you become a more sustainable shopper. Our suggestions range from those requiring minimal effort to those requiring breaking bad habits. We hope that you choose to adopt as many of them as possible.

Think Twice Before Your Buy

Our first suggestion is to reevaluate the way you think about shopping. It may seem trivial, but taking a moment to think about the motivation behind a particular purchase can make a big difference. The process centers around a series of questions that are designed to help you evaluate whether you’re making a sustainable buying decision.

The first question to consider is why you’re thinking about buying that item in the first place. Is it something you truly need, or are you making an impulse buy? Impulse buys might be fun in the moment, but those items typically end up in the garbage soon after the excitement wears off (or when you realize that you don’t actually have room to store them). If you don’t truly need that item, don’t buy it.

If you decide that you do need that item, the next question to consider is how long you expect to use it. If you don’t plan on using it for long, perhaps you should rent or borrow the item instead. If you prefer to own it, perhaps you can buy it secondhand. In either case, you’ll be reducing the likelihood that the item ends up in the garbage prematurely.

If you plan on using the item for a long time, the next question to ask yourself is whether its construction is durable enough to last. Quality construction may cost you more, but it will save you from having to replace that item over and over. And while we’re on the topic of construction, it’s important to think about the materials used in the making of that item. Are those materials sustainably- and ethically-sourced? Can they be repaired easily? Can they be recycled? Granted, these questions are not always easy to answer because few companies share this information, and when they do, there is no standard to help us compare one company’s practices to another’s (or even to a benchmark). Unfortunately, the best we can suggest at this stage is to do your best. Search for recycled products such as cotton or wool, and avoid synthetic products such as plastics and petroleum-based fibers.

Support Sustainable Brands

Our second suggestion is to buy from brands that make sustainability a core part of their business. When you support these brands, you amplify their impact by helping them grow and reach more customers. The number of these brands is growing every year. It is now easy to shop for everything from intimates to outerwear from brands that take care to source their materials responsibly and ethically, as well as offer services to extend the life of the products they sell through repair or resale.

However, it is also important to keep an eye out for greenwashing. Greenwashing is a term used to describe a company’s claim to be environmentally friendly, when in fact it is not. Unfortunately, greenwashing is a prevalent practice because there are no standards against which a company’s practices can be measured. This is particularly true among those companies that have made their business out of producing cheap products in mass quantities, namely fast fashion companies. Relative to the cost of actually changing their practices, a trivial investment in various “green” initiatives backed by a marketing campaign is easy. So, keep an eye out for greenwashing as you decide which brands to support. There are several resources to help you find brands to support, such as good on you.

Keep Returns To a Minimum

Our third suggestion might be a challenge for some because it requires letting go of something we’ve come to expect when shopping online — free returns.. In an effort to encourage online shopping, companies offered customers free returns. That strategy worked so well that today free returns are everywhere, and shoppers have come to expect them from everyone. Unfortunately, as we discussed in a previous article, the result of free returns has been catastrophic on the environment.

Though it might seem like fixing this problem should fall on companies, and for the most part it should, there is a role for us to play as shoppers. Rather than buying many sizes of the same item and then returning all the items that don’t fit, consider only buying the size that is most likely to fit. Review size guides and customer reviews to assess the fit of the product before buying. If possible, go to the store and try it in person. This becomes easier to do if you shop with the same brands as their sizes are likely to remain consistent over time (and if you pick sustainable brands, you’re achieving two goals at once).

If you must return an item, there are some steps that you can take to minimize the chance of that return ending up in the garbage. First, keep the tags on. It’s much easier for a company to add the item back into inventory if the product is the same condition as it was sold. Second, don’t return items that have been worn (even once). Hopefully this is obvious, but any sign that an item has been worn will most certainly doom it to the trash. Third, if you can, return the item in person to minimize the environmental impact of shipping the item to the various parties involved in handling that item as it moves through the complex (and polluting) world of reverse logistics.

Avoid Throwing Things Away

Our final suggestion gets to the heart of the problem we are trying to solve, which is reducing waste. After all, part of being a sustainable shopper is understanding what to do with the things we no longer want. There are several alternatives to simply throwing away those things away.

One option is to sell them to someone who does want them. Reselling put some money in your pocket, and ensures that your item stays out of the trash for at least a while longer. These days, reselling is as simple as taking a few pictures and posting a description on your favorite resale site. The process is quick and simple.

Another option is to repair your item so you can use it longer. In doing so, you’ll also be supporting local, small businesses such as cobblers, tailors, and electronics repair shops. Repair is almost always cheaper than buying new, and if you later decide that you don’t want the item after all, it will fetch a higher resale price.

Finally, you can donate the item. This option has a practical tax benefit, in that you can claim the donation as a deduction in most cases. However, you should consider to whom to donate. Much of what is donated to the national charities ends up in the garbage because those organizations don’t have enough storage capacity. The majority of donations that can’t be sold or stored end up in the garbage. A better option might be to find a local charity that has a specific need for the items, such as jackets or blankets. There is a much better chance that your item finds a new home rather than ends up in the garbage. Marketplace put out a great story about what happens to donated clothes, if you’re interested in learning more.