The ethical shopping checklist: Five ways to shop and still be kind to the environment - and your wallet

If you're rolling your eyes at the post title, then I don't blame you. Let me start by saying this is my list, and it's what I use to do what I can. Everyone has different physical, mental, financial, time and other resources, so don't worry or feel bad about not doing everything, just do what you can. Every step you take is a step worth taking.

So, back to the purpose of this post. Here's my checklist for trying to go shopping in a way that's better for my wallet and better for the environment.

Do I really need to buy it?
The best way to save money with a new purchase is, well, just don't buy it. If you don't buy something, you spend precisely zero pence, and zero resources, energy and so on are used to make it. This is one of the most obvious ideas, but also one that I struggle with - sometimes you don't really need something (hello, donut the size of my head) but you do want it. The way I've learnt to deal with the conundrum between want and need is to wait a period of time (a week is good, a month is better) and then see if I still want that intended purchase. Oftentimes, the desire to buy whatever it was has lapsed. More often than not, I forget what the thing was I wanted in the first place. If that's the case, I definitely didn't need it to begin with.

Can I borrow it, mend it, or get it secondhand?
If I still really do need something, it's worth asking if there's another way of getting it that doesn't involve shelling out cash for an entirely new item. Can I borrow one from a neighbour or friend, for example? Handy for tools or if you need extra glasses for a party. And if it's books or similar you're after, making friends with your library is always a sound idea. If I have one that's broken or not quite new, can I repair it myself? I can't claim to have fixed much on this front, but I'm happy to darn socks to oblivion before I buy new ones, and have tried my tiny hands at fixing up decaying shelves and drawers to good effect (I swear there's nothing that can't be fixed with panel pins and a bit of wood glue) and I'm cackhanded as anything. Last of all, can you get it secondhand? Freecycle, charity shops, online auction sites and social media selling groups, your mates and relatives are all a good source of secondhand goods with a lot of life left in them.

What happens when I'm done with it?
When I go out and buy something new, once it comes through the door, I like to know where it will go on to in its next life. Depending on what it is, perhaps it could be given away. Kids clothes are a great example - the rate at which kids grow means they're always needing new gear, and there's no shortage of sites, shops and events to let people pass on or swap outfits they don't need any more. For other things, there's always the question of recycling. Take electronics, for example: old computers and phones that may have outlived their usefulness can be repurposed or refurbished for others to use - there are lots of charities that take unwanted laptops and desktops, buff them up and sell them on. For electronics without resale value, retailers should have a takeback service for recycling and lots of local councils also offer recycling points for small bits of hardware. In short, I try and think about the whole lifecycle of everything I buy, so it doesn't end up in landfill. 

Can I buy it from a more ethical producer or retailer?
This is a tricky one, given everyone's definition of what's ethical varies, but here are a couple of examples. If I can buy something from a vegan business (I'm thinking cake as an example here, because I think about cake a lot) I'd rather do that if that's an option than buy it from a non-vegan business. I'm also keen on good social infrastructure, so I try to avoid large online retailers that practice tax avoidance (I pay my taxes down to the last penny, so I'm not sure why companies earning millions should be allowed to get out of doing the same). If I can buy something from a local retailer rather than a chain store, I like doing that too. And if some smart folk have put together a list of ethical sellers of a certain product, like the Food Empowerment Project, I'm very happy to get involved there too.

Can I buy it with less, better, or no packaging?
Packaging feels like it's inescapable for most purchases. I've waxed lyrical on more than one occasion about Hetu, London's zero waste shop, but for now zero waste shopping is the exception not the norm. There are still ways to cut plastic packaging waste though: if I'm buying clothing, can I pick it up from a physical store to avoid the plastic shroud that seems to be wrapped around every piece of clothing that's bought over the internet? If I'm buying fruit and veg, can I get it from the greengrocer who doesn't swathe everything in sealed plastic bags, and carry it home in a reusable shopper? And for stuff that always comes in some form of wrapper, can I find it with packaging that I know is recyclable? If I never see one of those bottles that comes with a mixed-materials spray nozzle that will outlast humanity, it will be too soon.

So, there you have it. I'd be lying if I said I nail everyone of those things all the time, but I do try and what I can, when I can. If you've got any other ways on how to shop better and save money, let me know - I'd love to hear your ideas.

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  1. I like how you've broken it down here, Joey! I was just having a conversation with a friend about ethical shopping the other day, and how it can feel overwhelming -- it's easy to get paralysed in front of the chocolates thinking 'how do I choose? Local? Organic? Fairtrade?' It seems more manageable to take it smaller steps.

  2. Another interesting thoughtful post. I think the question of need vs want is a good one - I have cut out some of my purchasing by not spending as much time at the shops that create the sense of need. My brother used to say "we will buy it on the way back" which was a good way of having some space to think about it. One other way I try not to spend money is to think of the value I will get from it - which means I have really tried to resist single use kitchen equipment - there is a lot of that on sale that people buy and find it cluttering their lives without being used much so it ends up being chucked out. And while I do occasionally sew up a hole in clothes, I wish I could darn but never never picked up that skill.

  3. All excellent points worthy of discussion and emulation. I'm pretty good with the first three, but the last two could use more personal effort. We do shop at our extremely ethical, locally oriented co-op for nearly all of our groceries, but for items that are harder to find, I admit to a weakness for a certain online business.

  4. All excellent tips! Some are definitely easier to do than others. Luckily, I live very close to the library, not only do they have books but movies and e-books. :-)

  5. This is a great list, and an inspiring one. The thing I struggle with most is when I (quite rarely these days) want to buy something / shop just for the sake of it - almost a leisure activity. It might be a really cheap toy for Mini Bite or an unnecessary scarf for me but it's done quite consciously knowing I don't 'need it'. Waiting a week is a great idea. I also need to find other ideas for satisfying whatever internal itch I have at those times!


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