How to be a sustainable shopper: top tips for conscious shopping
Make better, more environmentally-friendly choices the next time you hit the shops. Here are nine easy ways to shop sustainably - as recommended by Mumsnet users.
By Gemma Lumley | Last updated Jun 9, 2022
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Sustainability is a lifestyle that acknowledges that our earth’s resources are precious and finite. Making eco-conscious decisions when shopping is one of the easiest ways to start living a sustainable life that will protect our environment, the lives of future generations and wildlife.
The task of ‘saving the world’ with each purchase can feel onerous, but if we all make small steps towards shopping more sustainably, we can begin to make a difference. The key is to shop thoughtfully from ethical brands that make eco-friendly products and don’t throw away what can be reused by someone else.
Whether you’re already shopping with sustainability in mind or have no clue but want to do your bit, we’ve put together some tips to help every kind of shopper make a difference.
Why is it important to shop sustainably?
Our personal impact on the precious and often fragile world around us is becoming ever more important, and more of us are realising that. It can be overwhelming to think of how to make the most significant difference, but often, it’s the combination of many small, thoughtful changes to our everyday lives that will help the most.
Shopping sustainably and subsequently reducing the waste that we and our households produce is one of the easiest ways to live a more environmentally-friendly lifestyle. But, as eco-minded Mumsnet user Floisme reminds us, it’s all about doing your best:
“If you're going to get a lot of wear out of a brand, then that makes it sustainable for you even if it doesn't tick all the correct sustainability boxes.”
So, why is sustainable shopping so crucial to the environment? Sourcing materials, manufacturing, packaging, delivery and waste can all create pressure on our planet's finite natural resources, cause planet damaging pollution and promote unfair and dangerous working conditions.
As a global community, what we buy and our collective voice are impactful ways to show brands that ethical shopping is the future. Spending money, or more influentially, not spending money on certain products, is the best way to encourage positive change.
We are all citizens of our planet, and this detailed study from Ipsos provides more detail on the power we hold.
Inspired to make a change? That’s the all-important first step. Now it’s time to take action.
Here are some achievable ways to help you shop more sustainably so you can harness your influence on the planet.
Nine easy ways to shop more sustainably
- Recycle your old things when shopping new
- Don't dismiss online shopping
- Shop locally
- Reduce plastic waste and packaging
- Brand new isn't always best!
- Choose sustainable fabrics
- Reduce how much you buy
- Choose brands that care about the environment and people
- Make a difference by asking questions and using your voice as a consumer
1. Recycle your old things when shopping new
Donating, recycling or selling your old clothes, shoes and household goods are fantastic ways to live sustainably. You will help the local and wider community, reduce waste, help charity shops to raise money and encourage others not to buy new constantly.
Research from organisations such as the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association suggest that 95% of the clothes, bedding and towels that go to landfill could have been reused instead; that’s a shocking amount!
Happily, progressive and sustainable thinking is finding its way onto the high street. For example, the shoe shop schuh has developed the ‘Sell Your Soles’ and ‘Too Big For Your Boots’ schemes that encourage their customers throughout the UK to recycle the shoes they no longer want or don’t fit their children’s feet anymore.
To support this vital circular economy, customers have to bring the shoes into a schuh store; they’ll receive a £5 off voucher for each pair they donate. The shoes are collected by Recyclatex, a company that specialises in textile reuse and can reuse around 98% of the shoes. They then donate money to schuh’s charity of choice, the World Land Trust. Through this project, over 10,000 trees have been planted so far.
2. Don’t dismiss online shopping
Online retailers are often treated with suspicion by the green community. However, as long as you do some research, sustainable internet shopping is perfectly possible.
Only buying from a few carefully selected eco-conscious shops with low carbon delivery systems and minimal packaging will allow you to maintain your sustainable principles while browsing online.
The right stores will use the ones that operate eco-friendly vans and understand how to move their stock in an energy-efficient fashion.
With this in mind, try to buy all your items together. Buying bits and pieces separately creates another order to process, another van using fuel and more need for packaging. Also, choosing the slower delivery options from large companies such as Amazon will allow them to wait until the truck for your area is full instead of sending out a special one for your ‘urgent order.’
Mumsnetter tip: “Surely it's better environmentally to get it all delivered in one truck than umpteen different ones as well.” ChimChimeney
3. Shop locally
Greener shopping is possible for all of us, and shopping locally is a great start. Supporting the small businesses near where you live means you can avoid using the car, control the amount of packaging offered, and enjoy locally sourced produce.
Local boutiques are a wonderful source of unique clothing, accessories and shoes, and often local craftspeople and artisans will sell their products in these shops as part of a collaboration.
You’ll be making another sustainable life choice and reducing your carbon footprint by walking or using public transport to the shops. In addition, you’ll likely be investing in products that won’t have travelled far either. That’s a win-win for low carbon emissions.
Mumsnetter tip: “It's realising buying from independent shops feels better and we have higher quality food in the house and much less waste.” Whitleywonder81
4. Reduce plastic waste and packaging
The massive increase in plastic production is one of the biggest problems facing our planet. According to National Geographic, more than half of the plastic ever created has been made in the last 15 years. It pollutes the beaches and seas; approximately 8 million tonnes emerge from cities on the world’s coasts every year. And, thanks to manufacturing innovations in plastic robustness, when carelessly thrown away, it won’t break down for 400 years.
We need to work together to wean ourselves off this heavy reliance on plastics. One of the easiest ways to do this is to try and avoid products with unnecessary or excessive packaging and use recyclable and reusable bags to carry our shopping home in.
Mumsnet forum member purpledagger has some great tips:
“Try to reduce packaging on any products that you buy. Take your own bags with you, don't get a receipt if you don't need one/ask for an email receipt, buy items in glass/paper instead of plastic.”
Some shops and brands, like schuh, only offer their customers shopping bags made from waste material and are fully recyclable; this is great if you forget your reusable bags. It’s also a good idea to research the packaging policies of the companies you’re planning to buy from and to question them politely if you feel they’re inappropriate.
In the supermarket, choose to buy your fruit and veg loose, or take your own net bag, and there are some excellent websites and local shops where you can purchase refillable household products and foodstuffs.
When food shopping, it’s also worth seeking out stores that have refill zones to cut down on packaging, and allow you to use your own containers for things like cereals, pasta, rice and more. Many supermarkets are starting to get on board with this new way of shopping, including ASDA, who have recently announced a rollout of refill zones in selected stores.
Mumsnetter tip: “The only thing I order online is my soap refill from Splosh. I like that you can just order the pouch as and when and don't have to commit to a subscription.” JimMorrionsleathertrousers
5. Brand new isn’t always best!
If you’re looking for the best sustainable shops in your area, head to the charity shops. It’s incredible what can be found in these vintage havens. If you’re green-minded but still a shopaholic, this is the way to shop. You’ll save money, support your local community or a charity and might even come away with designer labels at bargain prices.
Online? Resale apps such as Vinted and Depop are fantastic, and some of the big street names such as schuh have outlets where you can buy ex-display items at a knock-down price.
Primarily buying pre-loved items will reduce your carbon footprint. You won’t be contributing to the 132 million tonnes of coal and 6 to 9 trillion litres of water the fashion industry uses to make new clothes each year.
Browsing car boot sales and junk shops for funky household items is fun too, and the unique treasures you find will look much better in your artfully curated home than in a landfill.
Consider renting your outfit for special occasions such as a wedding or May Ball. Dress agencies keep beautiful, show-stopping gowns in stock so you can ‘wow’ everyone without spending a fortune on a dress you’ll never wear again.
Mumsnetter tip: “Things you don't need now or want freecycle or give to charity shops so others can use them if they are in good condition.” Starisnotanumber
Mumsnetter tip: “Buy from charity shops and second-hand. I was volunteering yesterday and put out loads of Christmas decorations, new gift sets, jigsaws and games.” KingsleyShacklebolt
6. Choose sustainable fabrics
The question of how to be more sustainable with clothes and shoe shopping can be answered by looking at what they are made from.
The adverse effects of certain materials on the environment are staggering. Most synthetics will shed tiny polluting fibres when washed, and the production of polyester and acrylic threads are not great for the environment. Non-biodegradable fabrics such as nylon should also be avoided.
Even natural fabrics can have a detrimental effect on the planet. For example, standard cotton is treated with substances that, when not used correctly in ecologically fragile parts of the world, can have a devastating impact.
So, which fabrics are safe? Organic cotton, linen, and organic bamboo are all excellent options, as making them uses less water, and there's no need for chemicals. Also seek out clothing that is made from recycled materials.
Leather - typically crafted using a method that can lead to the premature death of factory workers in developing countries - can be made using safer and kinder methods. Only buy from retailers like schuh, who have signed up to the Leather Working Group (LWG) to ensure that you contribute your voice to this call for change. In fact 82% of their leather products - including 100% of their leather kids products - in 2022 so far has been sourced from LWG.
Mumsnetter tip: “Ideally, buy clothes made of natural fibres that won’t release microplastics into the ocean.” AnotherMansCause
7. Reduce how much you buy
The basis of sustainability in clothes shopping is avoiding overconsumption and giving back to the circular economy. As a general rule, if you don’t need it or love it, don’t buy it.
Try to always think quality over quantity and invest in shoes and clothes that will last for years or repeated wear. Some designers and labels offer guarantees and will repair your items for free. Outdoor brands who know their clothes have to work hard can be very good at providing this service.
Fast fashion is the practice of unethically manufacturing cheap clothes that will only be worn once or twice before being thrown away. It’s a way of consuming that should be avoided, but sometimes it's necessary if you’re on a strict budget.
So, how can you mitigate the impact of what you’re buying? Only buy the items you’re going to wear repeatedly; donate what you no longer want; look after your clothes, so they last longer and repair rather than throw them out.
Buying classic, quality basics and re-inventing them is a great sustainable way of buying. Learn how to make your own accessories, seek out your local haberdashers for inspiration and make friends with a talented tailor or dressmaker.
Creating a transeasonal wardrobe is another responsible way to shop. Buy a beautiful summer dress that also works with tights and boots in winter, and invest in comfortable jeans that you’ll live in all year.
Mumsnetter tip: “Reject fast fashion - buy classic clothes in good fabrics (maybe second-hand) and expect them to last for years.” AuntieStella
8. Choose brands that care about the environment and people
Learning how to shop eco-friendly brands means investigating the environmental policies of a retailer rather than believing the marketing or simply making an assumption.
Greenwashing, a cynical marketing ploy used by unscrupulous retailers to convince customers that they are eco-conscious, is rife. Sustainability is about actions, not words, so look for proof.
schuh is a brilliant example of a high street brand that is quietly committed to minimising its impact on the environment. They are a Carbon Neutral Organisation that continues to reduce its emissions each year and offset the rest by funding wind energy development in India. 94% of properties owned by the company use renewable energy, and their head office and distribution centres send zero waste to landfills.
“I try very very hard to only buy from sustainable brands or brands that are doing 'well' on sustainability. It's not easy!”
We agree with the Mumsnet user above, Sooverthemill, but using resources such as Goodonyou.eco can be a quick and reliable way to find out the green credentials of the fashion website you’re browsing; they do the hard work for you.
If a brand isn’t listed, head to the ‘About us’ or ‘Social Responsibility' section of their website. You'll hopefully learn more about their ethos and see if their actions match their words.
If a brand’s eco policies seem vague or aren’t mentioned, the chances are that the environment isn’t a concern for the business, and you’d be best spending your money elsewhere.
9. Make a difference by asking questions and using your voice as a consumer
We often forget that many small individual actions can have a huge impact and make a positive difference in our world. Your voice as a consumer is powerful, so use it to ask questions and request change.
For example, if a delivery arrives with a ridiculous amount of unnecessary packaging, drop the retailer a polite email suggesting they would save money and prevent waste by being less indulgent with the styrofoam peanuts. Or, if you’ve fallen in love with a beautiful hand-woven dress but you’d be interested to know how, where or by who a product is made before you buy, ask!
The more customers demand transparency and an environmentally friendly attitude from those we buy from; the more brands will make an effort to be socially responsible. Social media is compelling for this as the wider community can get involved in the conversation.
Purchasing power can also force positive change; if we collectively choose to buy only biodegradable cleaning products, natural fabrics and energy-efficient electrical items, companies will make more of them. Similarly, if fast fashion goes out of style, designers will provide the sustainable clothing demanded instead.
Mumsnetter tip: “Email your MP regularly - about everything. Get involved in activism and campaigns. Check what your pension fund invests in - and your bank too.” crackofdoom