Buying Habits for a Better Planet
Conscious vs. Conventional Shopping
Let’s time-travel back to an incredibly important year in history. We’re hopping into our time machine and going all the way back to April 22nd, 1970 the first official Earth Day ever. On this historic day that encouraged us to honour our planet on the same date every year henceforth, a very important piece of literature was published — The Environmental Handbook, a compilation of articles by scientists from multiple disciplines, warning citizens, companies, and governments about the disastrous effects they had started noticing, of humanity’s economic ambitions on the planet. The book’s editor, Garrett DeBell, ends the preface with the words,
“Look around you, the planet needs our help. And we are running out of time…”
How do the things we buy affect the environment?
Let’s hop back into our time machine and return to the present. It’s been 51 years, and we haven’t taken DeBell’s warning seriously. Everyday consumption is exponentially higher than it was in the 70s — we’ve got lush rainforests being wiped out at the rate of several football fields per minute, for a bottle of chocolate spread with palm oil in it. We’ve got ocean beds being decimated by trawlers and marine megafauna being caught as bycatch, for a ten-minute indulgence in a tiny plate of sushi. We’ve got groceries travelling thousands and thousands of miles when everything we need could’ve been shopped locally - supporting both the environment and our local communities. As disastrous as this sounds, it’s all true, and it’s just a fraction of the collateral damage humanity is inflicting upon our precious planet. And that is precisely why we need to break free from the conventional, mindless, and destructive shopping habits we’ve been coerced into adopting by our ever-so-prominent capitalist societies, and turn to conscious consumption habits instead.
What should I buy instead?
As much as citizens all over the world changing our living habits can help make a significant improvement in the biosphere’s health, the role of governments and industries in making a change at the roots of supply, should be reinforced first. As economist and environmental journalist George Monbiot acutely states about fossil fuels, “leave it in the ground.” While we must work hard to elect leaders who understand environmental issues holistically and implement programs to transition to cleaner energy, the least we can do in the meantime is focus on conscious consumerism.
It is of paramount importance that we shop with a few important questions in mind (not an exhaustive list):
• What raw materials are being used in this product?
• Were they ethically sourced?
• Were any ecosystems exploited in the process?
• How far has it travelled to reach my shelf?
• What will I do with the product after it has been used? Will it end up in a landfill or can I recycle it?
This may seem like a cumbersome process, but luckily for us and the planet, the number of sustainable, ethical, and minimally exploitative companies that have been founded over the past decade are appreciably high. The market for sustainable, eco-friendly, and ethical products is so expansive today, that these very points are also their marketing USPs. Although these products may come at a higher cost, studies show that millennials would definitely pay a higher price if it means their impact on the environment is lessened. It’s safe to say that we are starting to pay attention, and we can certainly implement solutions for a future that makes both economic and ecologic sense.
What is Greenwashing?
While the intention behind sustainable shopping is admirable, we must be wary of greenwashing. This term applies to companies who convey a false impression or provide misleading information about how their products are environmentally sound. Several clothing company giants ardently greenwash their customers — for example, one such giant’s “Conscious” clothing line claims to use 100% organic cotton for a t-shirt, but the fact that almost 20,000 litres of water is used to produce the same t-shirt, isn’t part of the advertising. This simply misleads the customer and makes them feel guilt-free about their shopping, while the company feels guilt-free about making more money.
And it isn’t just the giants — almost every single store on Instagram today reads “sustainable” on the first line of their bio. Is this always true? Most certainly not. Since the first lockdown set in place due to the pandemic, the number of thrift stores that have popped up on Instagram are comparable to dragonflies on a rainy day. While shopping second hand absolutely does contribute to a lower environmental impact, several thrift stores however, are mass-producing garments while still plastering the trending words, “sustainable clothing” on their pages. As important as it is to become a conscious consumer, it’s important to identify when we’re being greenwashed.
Is Conventional shopping really that bad?
Almost every single production-based industry causes massive ecosystem destruction in the process of obtaining their raw materials. These processes are completely invisible to the customer’s eye when their products are displayed on clean, white, expansive shelves at multinational grocery stores. Little does the consumer know that the bottle of shampoo they’re looking at contains palm oil, harvested from plantations that have replaced the heart of Indonesia’s forests, dislocating and killing critically endangered Orangutan families. Little do we know that free-range chicken eggs, even though they provide a better quality of life for the birds, require three times as much land as a regular farm, balancing out animal cruelty, with ecosystem destruction. Little do we know that the fish-based omega oils that claim to confer health benefits to our cardiovascular system require so many fish to be harvested, that several spots in the oceans are now referred to as “dead zones”. Without complete transparency, we will never know how incredibly exploitative of the planet, just one grocery store is.
For now, let’s think of raw materials as bygones. After the shelf life of a product, where does it go? With hundreds of countries struggling to deal with managing more waste than they know how to, it’s no wonder that the number of landfills is at an all-time high, and the dumping of sewage and dry waste into the oceans is a regular practice. While the practice of reusing and recycling waste is becoming more common at the individual level, we need more community, industrial, and state-level responsibility. It can be incredibly beneficial to shop refillable products, items with eco-friendly packaging, multi-purpose packaging, and minimize the amount of waste fallout from a single product’s usage. By simply wondering “where does it go?” before we purchase a product, we can map out a plan for dealing with our waste - whether we reuse it, recycle it, or dispose of it responsibly.
Let’s be honest - we can ramble on about these issues for ages, because that’s how many problems there are. But how do we narrow our shopping habits down to meaningful, mindful, and conscious actions?
Cheat Sheet for Conscious Shopping
Next time you buy something, ask yourself these questions.
1.Where are my products made?
Most of our wardrobes have traveled more than we have. As fast fashion giants have established themselves in countries both big and small, we need to take a close look at their supply chain. It’s quite easy to look at our clothing tags and see where they’re sourced from, and where they’re made. And more often than not, they’re never close to home. Instead, choosing to purchase something manufactured locally, provides a positive stimulus to the local economy instead of a global one. 68% of the money stays in the community if we shop locally, as opposed to 57% of money leaving the local community when we shop globally.
2.What raw materials are being used in my products? Were any ecosystems exploited in the process?
While it certainly is difficult for the average consumer to trace the origins of every single material in their products back to the source, it does help to identify the most common exploitative materials present in everyday products, and choose alternatives instead.
Here’s what you should avoid-
- Palm oil in cosmetics and food
- Salmon and tuna that have been industrially fished
- Oxybenzone in sunscreens that harms coral reefs
It certainly isn’t possible to become aware of everything, but choosing to do ample research, narrowing down on a list of ethical products we can frequently consume, and repeating the cycle, can be a real winner.
3.How far has it travelled to reach my shelf?
The carbon footprint of our purchases can be alarming to look at. Shopping locally can significantly help lower our emissions — for example, locally sourced produce only travels ~100 km to reach our shelves, in stark contrast to an average of ~2000 km travelled by produce stocked up in chain stores. The clothing industry sees some of the farthest travel miles per product, and this covers only shipping of the product to the customer. When we take into consideration the transport of raw materials to the manufacturing plant, the numbers get staggeringly higher. Purchasing from local, homegrown companies that also use locally sourced raw materials can be an incredibly effective way to reduce your shopping’s travel footprint.
4.What will I do with the product after it has been used?
Environmental education chapters in middle school aren’t wrong - the 3 Rs really do matter: Reuse, Reduce, and Recycle. Reducing consumption and shopping minimally is one of the most useful things anybody can do. While conscious consumption does help minimize our impact on the planet, we are still taking something away that we can’t give back. Recycling items at home is not only responsible, it can be super fun, too. If governments or other community-based initiatives still are not working on recycling programs, taking the task home definitely is an incredibly useful idea.
The highest possible level of recycling efficiency can be achieved by Michael Braungart and William McDonough’s patented Cradle to Cradle (C2C model). In what feels like a world heading towards dystopia, it gives one solace to know that ingenious solutions like these exist. It’s up to us to make use of them.
Buy less, choose well, make it last
As important as it is to consume consciously, it is even more important to note that in the long run, the only thing that will help sustain life on our planet, is to consume less. In a surprising turn of events, American apparel company Patagonia once advertised in the New York Times on Black Friday — the ad featured one of their jackets with the words “Don’t Buy This Jacket” plastered above in huge letters. When questioned about their motives behind the unconventional ad, Patagonia stated that in a world dominated by owning what’s new and trending, they wanted to encourage consumers to think twice before they buy. They were the only retailers asking their customers to buy less on Black Friday. As their representatives rightfully stated,
“Everything we make takes something from the planet we can’t give back.”