Shopping more sustainably by Florencia Botta

Clothes on a clothes rail.

Student Engagement Ambassador, Florencia, discusses the problems we face when trying to shop more sustainably and offers suggestions of ways reduce our impact on the planet.

With the current climate crisis, everyone is aware of the impact everyday items and activities have on the environment. It incentivises new sustainable development and products. However, these new products are often expensive and inaccessible. For someone working with a student budget, environmentally friendly spending seems impossible. Let’s navigate the intricate world of student spending in 2022.

Firstly, let’s admit it; there is no ethical consumption under capitalism. Truly zero waste, 100% ethical consumption is impossible as we live in a fundamentally unequal society. This does not mean we should use that as an excuse for not making any effort, but we should do our best considering our capabilities and limitations.

To begin, the first key to sustainable consumption is to consume less. This includes less spending. Reduce, reuse, and recycle. I have written a blog detailing the ways you can do this.

Read my ‘Reduce, reuse, recycle. Tips to navigate the complicated world of zero waste’ blog to find out more.

It’s all in the wording, the lies of greenwashing

Many companies have become aware that consumers are searching for more sustainable items. However, doing the work is costly, and it is easier to focus on good marketing. Research is the key to understanding what you are buying. 

Labels like green, sustainable, environmentally friendly, and eco-friendly sound like good things but don’t have a legal standard definition. This way they can be added to almost every item without changing their production. I have seen this wording used especially in clothing. Similarly, foods may have the label plant-based, which might sound like vegan when they are not. Plant-based only means it has vegetables, but not necessarily the absence of animal products.

If you see any product with these labels, you should ask; how is this sustainable? What makes it eco-friendly? Is this vegan? In many cases, you will discover that there is nothing new.

Some wording is more reliable. The UK government has definitions and standards for labels like free-range, organic, and fairtrade. Vegan has no legal definition in the UK. However, unlike plant-based, it means entirely made with non-animal products. Nevertheless, it is always important to research what these definitions actually mean and how much they help.

Shipping troubles

When considering consumption, few people take into account shipping. Buying sustainable is not helpful if sent from the other side of the world. It is easy to forget this when purchasing items, particularly online. Many companies offer very cheap shipping. However, this does not mean it is sustainable. It is always preferable to buy local produce. If you must purchase imported goods. Local supermarkets are better than subscription services or individual orders. The latter are usually small individual shipments that are less efficient than moving items in bulk for larger stores.

If you must buy from a store further away from your location, consider how they handle shipping and if you can buy as a group.

Fast fashion: truths and myths

You may have heard about the many problems with fast fashion. However, the situation is not as black and white. Fast fashion is definitely not sustainable and clearly unethical. Nevertheless, it does provide a service for people who cannot afford clothes or have size requirements not met by more expensive brands. Of course, buying pre-owned clothing is always preferable. However, sometimes donated items are fast fashion, and sometimes people can’t find the item they need at a second-hand shop. 

So, what can we do when buying fast fashion is inevitable?

  1. Similarly as before, consider shipping. It is always better to shop at a local store than to have the items shipped from far away.
  2. Do your research, even with more expensive pieces from a clothing brand not considered fast fashion. Are some goods better than others? What will last longer? Are some brands preferable? If they claim to be sustainable, is this true? It often is not, but there are some (i.e. Shein), which are particularly bad. 
  3. Take care of it, it may be cheap, but it is not disposable. In my home country, fast fashion is considered quality clothing. There are no hauls, and people keep the same items for many years. It is not ideal, but it is sometimes the only thing possible.
  4. Wash it with cold water and, if possible, by hand to reduce the release of microplastics into the water. If you have to use a washing machine, use a Cora ball or add a filter to your washing machine.
  5. Buy only the necessary. It is preferable to buy a more expensive piece than several cheap ones.
  6. Forget about micro-seasons. These companies are trying to create the idea that your clothing needs to replacement before it needs to be. Following these trends is a terrible idea. On the other hand, try to not shame people for wearing what you consider “out of style”. It does not help anything but foment hyper-consumption.
  7. Sell, gift, or repurpose your old clothing.

It is always better to find second-hand items at shops. If you don’t have access, you can check websites like Vinted in the UK, which provides a similar service.

Cutting the cycle. Buy, try, and return

Some stores give the possibility for buying items, trying, and returning them (in many cases for free) if they don’t work as expected. This foments overconsumption as people feel like they can buy things they are not sure about and then return them if they don’t like them. Avoid doing this if possible. Besides the extra energy spent in both shipments, remember that many of the returned goods are not put back into circulation. Some companies find it cheaper to horde and throw these items away. This creates an enormous amount of avoidable waste. CNBC has done great work explaining the problems with this cycle in this video.

Recently Amazon has started selling these returned purchases at a discount. This may be a good idea in cases like charities requiring a variety of goods or a creative person searching to furnish their home. However, not knowing what the boxes contain may result in overconsumption or even cheap influencer hauls. The latter has the same issues as fast fashion clothing hauls.

Sustainability is not pretty.

Gentrification has also affected the sustainability market. These companies repackage old sustainable techniques into new shiny, pretty products. Although environmentally friendly items may be in some instances more expensive, much of this extra expense is tied to style. Avoid falling for these marketing techniques. 

As I said before, the key component to responsible spending is consuming less. You may not currently have zero waste items. However, it is preferable to use your current things rather than purchasing new ones. It is better to reuse a soda bottle than buy a refillable bottle. It is also cheaper. 

If you still want to add more shine to the things you use, you can always DIY or personalise your own items. It can be a fun project!

The thing I don’t want to talk about

I truly did not want to include this subject in this blog. I do not want to give it any publicity. I would like to pretend that it will disappear on its own. However, it is apparently not going anywhere. During the last few years, cryptocurrency and NFTs have seen an increase in popularity, particularly among middle-class young people disappointed by the current status of the economy. Although this is understandable, it is also a scam, unethical, exploitative, and disastrous to the environment. Media analyst and Youtuber Dan Olson has done tremendous work explaining how cryptocurrency and NFTs are a terrible idea for the economy and the planet. Please don’t fall for the scam!

Personal responsibility and regulation.

It is also important to remember that although individual actions are significant, and people can change things through their wallets, the responsibility should not fall exclusively onto consumers. Regulating production and holding companies accountable can help control unethical industries, switch to renewable energy, and create a more equal society. This can only be achieved through activism and insisting each government do the right thing.

In summary, there are so many aspects to sustainable spending. It may be daunting, and you may feel like you are not doing enough. It’s ok to feel anxiety. The most important thing is to keep researching, trying, and doing your best within your possibilities.

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