Sustainable Shopping Cheat Sheet

Is chicken more sustainable than beef? How about local food versus your usual brand? And how do you decide which “green” product is superior?

In the swamp that is the sustainable marketplace, it would really help to have a cheat sheet.

Well, you’re in luck. We just made one.

Before you make your next purchase, ask yourself these 5 questions:

Is this product…

1. Something I really need?

The most sure-fire method of making a sustainable purchase is not to make it at all. Reducing consumption reduces your purchasing carbon footprint on all fronts.  Every product you don’t buy is one less product that needs energy to be made, packaged, and transported, and one less post-consumption waste product to be recycled or land-filled.  Before buying something, always consider whether it is necessary.  Additionally, consider buying products intended to last a long time, which will reduce the amount of replacements you will need in the future.

2. Made with minimal materials?

image from epa.gov

As consumers, we often forget to think of where the things we buy actually come from. Raw materials, from plants growing on farms to metals mined from the earth to petroleum pumped from reservoirs, all must go through remarkably involved production processes to turn them into the products we buy. Take a moment to consider the shoes you’re wearing.  What materials were necessary to make them? How many laborers? How many miles did the materials travel to reach you? Considered this way, even simple products such as paper can be seen for the massive investments in time, labor, and energy they truly are.

For this reason, a general rule for judging the sustainability of a product is the fewer materials used, the more sustainable the product.  The logic of this rule can be explained as the fewer materials, the fewer chains of production necessary to turn those materials into the product, the less energy and labor used, and, therefore, the more sustainable.

3. 3rd Party Certified?

Although product labels can be confusing, if not downright misleading, there are some 3rd-party certifications that can serve as excellent indications of the sustainability of a product. These 3rd party certifications, such as Fair Trade for luxury food products, ENERGY STAR for electrical appliances and products, or Rainforest Alliance for pretty much anything, indicate that the product meets certain requirements, such as low environmental impact in production, fair treatment of the laborers involved, and low energy requirements for the product in use. When making a purchase, find out if the product has any certifications and then take a few moments to look up what the certification says about the product.

4. From a B Corp Company?

According to the B Corp website, “B Corps are for-profit companies certified by the nonprofit B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.” Similar to buying products with 3rd Party certifications, buying from a B Corp company ensures that the company behind the product meets standards of excellence in both social and environmental sustainability.  Click here to read the B Corp “Declaration of Interdependence”.

5. Reusable, recyclable, compostable, etc.

When buying something responsibly, it is always important to consider what you will do with a product when you are done with it.  Try to choose products that will result in the least amount of both material and energy waste.  For example, a reusable water bottle is better than a plastic water bottle – even though the plastic bottle can be recycled – since the recycling process itself if energy intensive.  A general rule to follow is to buy (when possible) reusable and long-lasting products over recyclable/compostable, and to only buy items that must be land-filled when other options are either unreasonable or nonexistent.

These 5 questions by no means completely capture the complexities of sustainability in the marketplace, but they do provide a quick way to make an informed purchase.   Still, the golden rule of sustainability purchasing remains Question Number 1: “Is this something I really need?” Yvon Chouinard, co-founder of Patagonia, says it best.

 Purchase less stuff, own a few things that are very high quality that last a long time, and that are multifunctional.

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