When I was sixteen years old, I wrote papers about how everyone should be vegetarian, brought cookies to school that were labeled organic and bought stuff one shop at the mall that sold hemp clothing — all because these were all ideas of what I thought it meant to be eco-friendly. Disclaimer: there is nothing really wrong with any of these things but at 16 I did them without thinking about it and mostly because it was something I could preach about. While I did work on practicing sustainability, I had so much to learn about my own consumerist practices which is still a work in progress.
As the world continues moving toward sustainability, we have to be mindful of our purchases. We have to remember that people use arbitrary marketing words like “clean” or “non-toxic” with no consistent definition on what those words mean. We have to be mindful about the science and the real weight of the decisions we make. Take the straw ban for example: in general, banning single use plastics is a good idea. However, we have to consider people who jumped on selling straws only for profit. We have to consider that a corporation hopped on this wagon by replacing straws with a “recyclable” cup top that can’t even be recycled in most places. We have to consider the fact that certain people with disabilities NEED plastic straws.
So we have to ask questions. It’s hard and overwhelming and I understand that. We can’t be 100% on top of everything but the least we can do is at least ask questions about products that claim to be sustainable or zero-waste.
Here are four questions you can ask before you buy something in the name of sustainability:
1. Why does this product exist?
What purpose is the product serving to you or your community? For example, a celebrity might boast that they’ve released a brand new “all natural” skincare line. Disregarding the vague use of the word “natural”, there is an overabundance of new skincare lines by now. If that product is not incredibly unique or accessible, then this person is only trying to make a profit off a trend.
However, let’s consider Micronesia Climate Change Alliance’s Precious Plastics program. Their purpose is to take plastics which would otherwise go to landfills and create entirely new products out of them. Maybe you don’t actually need a new magnet or chip clip, but there is a purpose for the product that works toward sustainability.
2. What is so special about this product?
Is there a very special function for the product in your life that you can’t get anywhere else? For example, I own a few varieties of collapsible containers. I know I could borrow or thrift tupperware or bins. But space saving is really important to me, especially when you live in a small space. So, I bought collapsible tupperware for my lunch and own Clever Crates so I can easily put these things away.
On the flip side of the coin, I don’t recommend you buy a container just because it’s steel if you already own and use a plastic one. Which brings me to the next question…
3. Is there a more accessible alternative?
One of the things I personally wouldn’t buy are bamboo utensil sets. I think utensil cases would a better widespread product because I’m pretty sure most people buying them already own utensils. OR you could thrift some for much cheaper. In fact, you could probably just use a pencil case or cloth napkin to hold your utensils if you really wanted to.
There can also be a really high mark up for sustainable products and often the solution can be something you either own or can thrift or up-cycle from something you do own. For example, Montessori toys can be suuuper expensive on etsy but I have found so many DIY replacements with things that I own in my house, which teach my kid the same skills.
4. Do I need this right now?
Whenever I tell my husband that “I’m going to buy X”, he replies “you’ve been saying that” because I take an extremely long time to ruminate on a purchase. Months. Years. Maybe this is a result of too many ebay impulse purchases when I was younger but it has helped me a lot. If I don’t need something immediately, I always take a step back. Often, I realize some problematic things about the product or realize I’m never going to use it. This has saved my wallet and space in my home.
If you ruminate on something for at least a few days, you will often figure out whether or not you actually need (or want because you deserve to treat yourself). This question is particularly helpful if you’re prone to impulse purchases.
Why do these questions matter?
My point is that one major enemy of sustainability is consumerism: fast fashion, impulse purchases, consumer trends. The more you buy things without that careful consideration, the less sustainable you are. It doesn’t matter if you always put the cardboard in the recycle bin if you go to Ross every day and spend $100 just because you can. So I urge you all to think twice before purchasing a t-shirt from a company that has some vague mission about “donating to environmental causes” and consider shopping small, shopping local…or not shopping at all because Project Buy Nothing groups exist.