How to Shop for the Environment

Making better choices for the health of the earth and your family, one step at a time

Have you ever thought about all the small ways that you contribute to the decline of the earth? Have you ever felt guilty for choosing the “easier” or “more convenient” option, even though you know deep down that it would negatively impact the environment? I have been there! Many times. But I’ve felt so overwhelmed by how many aspects of my life need to change and how we have already trashed the environment.

We are not all activists who rally congress or march in the street or volunteer with the Peace Corps. But we can all make a difference. It’s down to those moments when no one is around, and you make a change for yourself. Even using Tupperware for your weekday sandwiches instead of ziplock bags—that’s 260 ziplocks that are not ending up in the ocean or lakes. That small change can make a big difference. And you don’t have to make these changes all at once. In fact, I recommend you take any habit change one step at a time. Know that I am in this with you, I am not 100% plastic-free in my life by any means. I want to do more recycling and composting and continue to transition my spending to more ethical sources. I am walking alongside you as you parse through the fine print on the back of a cleaning product, through a company’s “About Us” page looking for Fair Trade certifications, and through your own house as you decide what to tackle next. I will be here to celebrate your success and mourn your failures with you.

There are 4 major categories of spending in our daily lives that affect the environment. Choose the one that speaks the most strongly to you to try out in your life first:

  • Cleaning Supplies and Personal Hygiene
  • Food Production, Transport, and Storage
  • Clothing and Other Material Goods
  • Trash Management

“Sustainable,” “all-natural” and “eco-friendly” are all words that can be manipulated in marketing a product. Look for substantiated claims like carbon offset of a company, toxicity of a product, compostability, etc. Check out this article on the legal side of “green” marketing. Fair Trade does have certifications, check out the details of the Fair Trade standards here.

Photo by Sarah Chai on

Cleaning Supplies and Personal Hygiene

The top concerns with cleaning supplies are toxic ingredients, how biodegradable they are, and how much plastic packaging is used. Click here to check out some great non-toxic and biodegradable cleaners from the blog Going Zero Waste.

Often we reach for something familiar or are tantalized by a product that promises a “new” or unique experience when in reality the old standards are incredibly effective. Like simply using vinegar as a cleaning agent. I can fall prey to this for sure! My tub is dirty, and I just want to be able to spray scrubbing bubbles on it and forget about it. But with just a little research I found out that using warm white vinegar and dish detergent is an absolute miracle worker for the tub!

I started to really take my cleaning products seriously when I moved into a home with a septic tank. The microbiome of the tank means that we can’t put bleach, anti-bacterial products, or anything that isn’t biodegradable down the drain in significant quantities. So I’ve found my new favorite biodegradable alternatives to go to cleaners inside our home. Consider also the chemicals you use outside– from lawn sprays, to fertilizer, to bug spray with DEET. All of these contribute to the health and wellbeing of your family, and to the health and wellbeing of the bugs, birds, and plants that call your property home.

For example, Force of Nature is an all-purpose cleaner that kills 99% of germs and bacteria, but it is so safe you can clean pacifiers with it. No bleach-based cleaner can say that! I’ve been very impressed with the dissolving and odor-fighting power of this cleaner. Plus, all you need is a tiny tube of the cleaning solution, mixed with water from your own house. It goes through electrolysis to create the final solution. Read more about how it works here.

The quick and dirty techniques I use for these products is to check the ingredients and warnings. In the United States, cleaning products are not required to disclose their ingredients, which can be very problematic, but the warning labels can help guide you. If it says to keep it away from your eyes, but it’s just a dryer sheet? Probably not worth it and I will find an alternative. 

As far as packaging, anything is better than plastic. Glass, aluminum, paper, cloth, etc. More companies are considering this when packing their products these days, but keep this in mind when you are shopping. Bringing your reusable grocery bags to the store? That’s 8 plastic grocery bags a week that aren’t being produced! Over 400 a year. Or do you have reusable bags, but always forget them? Try storing them in your car 24/7 so you will never be without the option.

To reduce your plastic consumption from cleaning products, consider integrating the following into your home:

  • Buy concentrated fomulas and refill with your own water
  • Buy solid-form shampoo, conditioner, and soap
  • Buy sheet-style laundry soap
  • Buy products in bulk and refill your containers
Photo by Oleg Magni on

Food Production, Transport, and Storage

So much of what we do is based on time and effort, and we live in a culture of convenience. It is challenging to go against the status quo and take the time and put forth the effort to make more ethical choices about food. It is more popular than it was in the past to be “eco-friendly” and sustainable in your food choices, but it is still a fringe lifestyle. Growing up I heard associations of organic food with crusty hippies, to shame the mainstream away from that choice for the convenience of big agriculture. It seems straightforward to avoid eating pesticides and other added chemicals, but that is not how the majority of our food in America is produced. Choosing organic, non-GMO, and non-hormone foods can be inhibitive to some people and some budgets. Organic costs more because it takes more effort and care on behalf of the farmer to produce products without the quick-fix of the chemicals. However, the effect of those chemicals on our own health and the health of the ecosystem is significant.

Some of the negative impacts of using chemicals to alter food production include:

  • Pesticides can contaminate the earth, water, polinators, and vegetation. They can harm non-target plants including neighboring farms. They are also toxic to other organisms including birds, fish, and insects. Source here.
  • Pesticides have known short-term and long-term health concerns for humans as well. Long-term effects include cancers, birth defects, immunotoxicity, and disruption of the endocrine system. Source here.
  • Growth hormones and other hormones used in the production of beef and cow’s milk could lead to higher hormone levels in humans, though research is spotty and divided. Source here.

If you are committed to reducing your carbon impact, look to your own community. Is there a farmer’s market where you can buy greens, veggies, local meat, and eggs? Do you have a co-op that stocks locally grown and farmed products? Buying local cuts down on the fuel burned to transport products, this also supports smaller farms that don’t contribute to emissions the way big mono-agriculture does and reinvests in your own community. Don’t be afraid to ask questions at your local shops. I love my local feed store/farm co-op as a source of information. There I can ask if they know anyone who raises meat chickens or pasture-fed beef. Tapping into the growers and ranchers in your community will help you get quality products without them being shipped across the country. 

Photo by Chevanon Photography on

Clothing and Other Material Goods

We may not think about it, but there are many toxic chemicals used in the production of fabric and the farming of the materials used. Not only that but there are harmful workplace practices used in the garment industry, hence the term “sweatshop labor.” When thinking about your clothing and materials look for information from the company about how the products are farmed, processed, and if their employees earn a living wage. Within a company, there may be some products that are produced differently than others. Brands such as Prana and Patagonia are doing well to move toward ethical global production, however not every one of their products is there yet. There are many smaller companies that are devoted to doing ethical business as they create quality goods at reasonable prices. The Honest Consumer blog has an amazing directory that can help guide you as you search for the ethical version of whatever it is you need.

As consumers in American Capitalism, our money is our power. When we spend more carefully on quality, well-made goods instead of buying into fast fashion, we shape the future of the market. It’s not only a change in where our money goes, but in our mindsets. Instead of buying another pair of $40 boots to make it through the year, try saving up for a $200 pair with a lifetime guarantee, or a great pair of leather uppers that have soles you can get replaced for $30-40 every three years. By using quality goods and repairing them as they wear, fewer goods are produced over all.

Another trick for buying goods that are ethically produced is to buy products “Made in the USA.” The regulation on labor conditions, breaks, minimum pay, and work culture is more consistent with “Made in the USA” products than in factories that have outsourced labor overseas in order to avoid the cost of better conditions for the workers. Buying American Made will also reduce the carbon impact of the transport of goods. Duluth and American Giant are good examples of Made in USA companies.

Another suggestion to cut down on the environmental impact of shopping is to buy used products. Quality items can last for decades and serve many owners. Instead of paying full price for everything brand new, save some cash by buying second hand and use the extra money to repair and refinish older, well built products. Not handy? Hire a craftsperson to breath new life into your second hand furniture, clothing, shoes, or tools.

Photo by Yogendra Singh on

Trash Management

When you are choosing your daily products –say bread, eggs, lunch meat, or laundry detergent– look not only at the ingredients but also the packaging. If each of us can reduce our use of plastics by even one or two items a week, that makes a difference! We can’t be perfect, but we can put forth the effort to be a little bit better than we were yesterday. 

We just switched over from jug detergent to sheet detergent bought directly from the supplier, and I am so excited to be able to reduce that one piece of plastic trash that our household used to generate. Now we generate just a small piece of biodegradable cardboard.  

There are many things that contribute to your carbon footprint, from your daily commute to your power bill, but how you spend your money affects the free market. What people are buying determines what companies are making, and more importantly how things are being made. Being more ecologically sound is becoming more mainstream, but not fast enough to counteract the damage we have done to our environment. It can be overwhelming to think about, so focus on one or two things that you can do today that will reduce the amount of toxicity and waste in our world. 

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