7 Tips for Choosing Ethical Zero Waste Essentials

7 Tips for Choosing Ethical Zero Waste Essentials

The zero waste and plastic-free movements have been steadily building momentum over the last few years, and along with that, so has the proliferation of associated “stuff”. When I started my plastic-free journey back in 2012, there were products to assist with zero waste living, but choice was limited. Now, it seems we are inundated with options, an there are more coming onto the marketplace every day.

That makes me a little nervous.

It makes me nervous because zero waste is about not creating waste; buying less stuff, and making do with what we have. It still means the occasional purchase, but usually “buy-once-and-will-last-forever” type products.

The more stuff on the market, the more we are tempted to buy, the more fashion and style comes into it and practicality and functionality seem less important.

When there’s so much choice, and there’s the temptation to buy more or try new things, these reusables can become “single use”. Reusables made of glass or stainless steel have a big production footprint. Great if we use them all the time, and of course they are made to last forever. But we have to use them often.

When we buy things and then don’t (or rarely) use them, they aren’t such better than single-use.

Finally, it makes me nervous because choice is paralyzing, and too much choice can lead to overwhelm and inaction. Changing habits is hard, and that is without having to exert energy deciding which products might be useful and appropriate, sifting through the greenwash and making good decisions.

Choice adds another layer of complexity.

I recognise that we often do need to buy stuff at the start of our plastic-free and zero waste journey. Not everything, but some things. Now there’s all this choice on the marketplace, I thought I’d put together an ethical zero waste purchasing guide to help navigate through some of the choices.

1. Needs versus Wants

There are many beautiful, ethically-produced things out there. Far more than we could ever need. The truth is, we can appreciate and admire the things we see without having to purchase them all. It can be tempting to buy something, thinking “I need this”! But really, is it a  need – or is it a want?

Can we make do without? Can we sit on the decision for a week, or a month, and decide whether we really need it?

The most zero waste option is always to make do with what you have, and buy nothing.

That’s not to say we should never purchase anything. Sometimes “wants” have a place. Sometimes we want to support a local ethical business because we believe in the work they do. Sometimes we know we don’t need something, but we really really want it, and we decide to buy it. No-one is perfect, and we all have desires, standards of living we want to maintain… and moments of weakness!

It’s a balance.

Let’s not kid ourselves that buying things makes us more zero waste. It might help our journey, it might support others in theirs, but is buying something the absolutely most zero waste thing to do? No. So let’s make the things that we do buy the absolute best ethical choices that we can.

2. Before You Go Shopping…

Think about what you need. Think about the properties what you need has to have. Think about how you’ll use it. Decide what you need, and then go looking for it. Going to a shop for “inspiration” likely ends up in you buying things you don’t actually need.

Do your research. Look online, and search for options. If you find a product you like the look of, go to the manufacturer’s website and read more. Read their mission statement and ethical credentials. Read customer reviews.

If you find the choice overwhelming, ask others on social media what they recommend to narrow your choices down.

3. Read the Labels. And I Mean Really Read the Labels.

Just because someone has shared a photo of a product on social media and stated it is compostable/ethical/zero waste/better, don’t just take their word for it. Go to the product’s website and look. What is the packaging made of? Where is it produced? What is the company’s reason for being? Ethical companies will be clear about their commitment to sustainability.

Does it claim to be biodegradable or compostable, and if so, is it certified? (Biodegradable can include toxic residue, and doesn’t mean that it will break down in home or even commercial composting facilities. There’s no regulations on using this term, and lots of products make the claim without providing evidence. If a product isn’t certified biodegradable or better still, compostable, I would avoid it.)

What does “better” mean? There’s a product on the market called “Boxed Water is Better”. Better how? Their containers are made of paperboard, a plastic-lined card that isn’t easily recycled in Australia. Why is it “better”? It’s because water packaged in paperboard uses less carbon emissions to transport than bottled water packaged in glass. Better in that scenario, yes, but why are they shipping water around the globe anyway? Transporting water to countries that already have drinkable water coming out of the tap doesn’t strike me as environmentally sound.

Ask questions. Dig deeper. Suspect everything ;)

If you ask questions, and can’t find the answers, stay away. Better to support those companies that are transparent and honest.

4. A Gap in the Market or a Slice of the Pie?

There are companies that have been working on the plastic-free / zero waste message for years. Stores like Biome opened in 2003, Life Without Plastic opened in 2006; brands like Klean Kanteen formed in 2002. They’ve been trailblazers in getting the zero waste message out there.

Then there new companies and brands, popping up year after year, increasing the reach, making zero waste more accessible, and offering new products and ways of doing things.

I’m all for choice, and I love new companies that offer innovative products, improve and build on existing designs, or increase accessibility by opening in new markets.

What I don’t love is companies who see that there is money to be made, and rip off another company’s product with their own label, or maybe make a cheaper version (easy to do when someone has done the design work for you and proven the business model).

If the only differentiating feature of a zero waste product is that it’s cheaper than an identical product available on the market, that’s not a great reason to buy.

Where products are similar, I prefer to support the original. They were the ones that took the risk and put their product out there.

Where there’s multiple options, I look for other criteria: who owns the business and how it is run, what organisations and non-profits they support, how they manage their supply chains, where production and offices are based, how they support their customers.

5. Be Wary of Kickstarter (and Crowdfunding Campaigns)

Crowdfunding campaigns ask the general public to support them in raising funds to begin a business venture, often in exchange for a discounted product. Don’t get me wrong – there are heaps of great projects worth supporting.

But there are many more that are not.

What makes a good project? In my mind, it is something that does not exist already; a product that there is clear demand for, and there seems to be a viable business model behind it all.

Projects I prefer not to support: anything that seems like more unnecessary “stuff”, anything made of plastic (we have enough plastic stuff in the world already!), another version of a product that already has a saturated market. (Do we really need another reusable coffee cup design, or reusable water bottle? Maybe…but probably not.)

Crowdfunding campaigns offering discounted versions of reusables which imitate products already on the market can be tempting. We all know reusables can be expensive. But these campaigns put pressure on existing businesses. Once the discounted phase is over, are the new companies likely to stay in business? Or are simply they fracturing the market?

6. Choose Your Stores Wisely

I think it is so, so important to support local, ethical businesses when making purchases. Ethical products purchased from a Big Box store in order to save a few dollars is missing a huge opportunity to support a small, independent, ethical business. The way I see it, these purchases are an investment, which will last years, and a few extra dollars upfront is worth it.

Yes, no-one wants to be ripped off, and we all have budgets we need to stick to. But that doesn’t necessarily mean choosing the absolute lowest price.

Ask yourself honestly, can you afford to spend just a little bit more? Those few extra dollars probably aren’t that much to you, but your support will mean a lot to a small business.

My first recommendation, before we even start to think about hitting the shops, is to try to find what you need second-hand. Try Gumtree, eBay, Buy Nothing groups, or charity shops.

Next, I always recommend local brick-and-mortar stores (or market stalls) in your local area. No shipping costs (both financial and emissions/carbon footprint), no unnecessary packaging, and you get to connect with a real person.

If that isn’t an option for you, then consider independent ethical online businesses. I’ve put together a worldwide list of online independent zero waste stores here.

(You’ll never ever find me linking to Amazon. The owner is worth US$81.6 billion: many would argue he made his fortunes by destroying competition and the high street, avoiding paying taxes, and other dubious practices. Maybe you’d argue that it’s fair – business is business. Personally, I don’t see why one man can possibly need all that money. I value choice, and I’d rather see thousands of small businesses owners earning enough money to send their children to college and affording holidays and buying good food than one man reap all the wealth.)

7. It’s Not About Perfection…

Ethical purchases are a minefield, and there’s rarely a perfect solution. There’s always compromise or trade-offs somewhere. The most important thing is making conscious choices. Knowing why you made the choice you did, and putting thought into the decision.

Think about what’s important to you – the carbon footprint, the production conditions, the company’s wider ethical footprint, transport miles, supporting the local economy, supporting Fair Trade, whether it’s made to last forever, whether it’s recyclable, whether it’s compostable. Chances are you won’t be able to tick all the boxes.

Ticking some is better than none.

Don’t be afraid to take action or make choices that aren’t perfect. Better to do something than do nothing. Worst case, you realise down the track that you could have chosen better. That’s a learning experience. We’ve all made mistakes, opted for choices we wouldn’t take again.

Let’s aim for progress, not perfection.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What are your biggest ethical struggles when it comes to making purchases? Do you have any non-negotiable criteria? How has your view on ethical purchasing changed over time? What tips do you have to add? Anything else you’d like to share? Please leave a comment below!

Disclaimer: This post contains some affiliate links which means if you click a link and choose to purchase a product, I may be compensated a small amount at no extra cost to you. This in no way affects my recommendations as my priority is always you, my readers. I only recommend brands I love, and that I think you will love too.

39 Responses to 7 Tips for Choosing Ethical Zero Waste Essentials

  1. Great piece Lindsay! Doing without is the hardest option but IMHO the best ‘R’ is reduce. Our insatiable appetite to consume (come on admit it) is fed by persistent ‘cons’ every day, every minute at times. Resist the con, rethink the need, support/celebrate the resilient, durable and long lasting, and reduce our footprint….. #zeRRRo

    • Thank you! Doing without gets easier with practice. That’s why I think zero waste so firmly aligns with minimalism. Getting off the treadmill of “stuff”, realising we have enough already, making do. I think the best ‘R’ is ‘refuse’ ! ;)

  2. I agree totally, too much choice sends my head in a spin and I can’t think straight. We are doing a ‘Buy nothing Year’ challenge at the moment, apart from food and absolute necessities. It is so liberating I can’t believe how much more relaxed we are without having to make decisions about what to buy.

    • Great thoughts Clare! Until we step off the consumer treadmill, we don’t realise how much stress all that choice was creating. That’s been my experience, anyway. I like that shops like bulk stores only have one or maybe two options – I can make a choice without feeling completely overwhelmed :) Or charity shops – I’ll choose out of what they have, which is much less than regular shops!

  3. Thanks. Always so much to think about. Any chance you can add Eco ar Home to the list of shops? http://www.ecoathome.com.au/ They are in Willoughby / Sydney -north. They have tons of plastic free and zero waste options including compostable, reusable dinnerware, plus they have bio paints and natural oils. (I have no links to the shop other than being a regular customer.)

    • Hi Mel, I remember this coming up before, I recognise the website and don’t remember why I didn’t add it last time! I tend to make a list and then add a bunch at once, otherwise it’s a bit of an overwhelming task. I will add them on, thanks for mentioning :)

  4. Another great article Lindsay! Although I’m not a perfect ethical shopper, there are two things I don’t compromise on: organic eggs and milk. If I can’t find them, I won’t buy anything. We don’t eat a lot of eggs anyway so going without for a while is not a big deal. (I used to buy a lot of soy and almond milk to cut down on dairy products but getting organic milk in a glass bottle from a local farm makes more sense than buying tetra pack imports, especially as I haven’t gone vegan anyway!).

    • Thanks Min :) We all have our own way of figuring out what works for us, I really don’t think there is ever one right answer. There’s better options, and thinking about our choices and understanding why we choose them is the best first step, I think!

  5. To me, the biggest dilemma is how much effort to put into this. As an older person, and not highly energetic, it can make me quite tired to go to a number of different shops. I don’t want to get tired and cranky. I don’t want food shopping to be my main activity. What price milk in glass? Maybe I will do this only occasionally. It involves a half hour trip in heavy traffic, and the same to get home. The bulk store is closer but not really local. I save up my jars and eat fresh until I get there. What about fuel? Should I take public transport? Even more energy needed! Only we can know our circumstances. We have to make these decisions for ourselves.

    • I find that hard too. Working full time with some commuting time eats up a lot of time and energy. I try and spread out my shopping and other errands, one day for getting milk at the farmer, one day for getting bread at the bakers, one day for big bulk grocery shopping and so on, but often there just isn’t enough energy and so I get it all in one place…

    • Thanks for your comment, Ann. It’s also worth remembering that changing habits takes time and energy. Now it doesn’t take me any longer than just going to the supermarket, probably less, but that’s because all those habits are so ingrained. Going to the shopping centre? I’ll pick up a few bulk things. Heading to Fremantle? I’ll make sure I get those few bits that I can only get there so I don’t have to make a special trip. I always have a couple of produce bags on me too, in case I ever see something I need unexpectedly. But it takes time to drill these habits into our subconscious :)

  6. Agree, great article. There is one thing that I miss: make/create/fix something your self. I believe our society has become “lazy” in the sense that when we have a particular need or want (services or products) first thing we think of is (and I generalise): “who do I call to do this for me” or “where can I get it”?
    I understand that everyone is busy and all that, but still. Creating / making/ fixing something your self can be hugely satisfying. But of course, it requires access to tools and isn’t always cheaper …

    Again great article.

    • Thanks Helmuth. It’s interesting, whilst I love the idea of fixing stuff too, I’ve come to realise that I’ll never be able to know how to do ALL the things. And it is valuable paying (or trading skills with) someone who knows how to do this to keep skills alive. Balance, I guess – but still doing what we can. There’s something so satisfying about getting something fixed, even by someone else…

  7. Great article, particularly your comments about Amazon. Amazon just recently acquired Whole Foods. They just built the first Whole Foods in my area, I try not to buy there even though there are bulk products. I’m fairly sure Jeff Bezos will take over the world if we don’t vote with our dollars!!

    • Thanks Cherri! It’s been easy to avoid Amazon here as they don’t currently have a base in Australia, but that is changing. I read that either Jeff Bezos or his representative said they plan to “destroy the Australian high street”. That appalls me. They won’t get any money from me.

  8. Lindsay, thank you for your post. It’s always a great read to start the day! I’m so happy you mentioned the boxed water. This product is made here in Michigan and I also don’t fully agree that this is the best plastic water bottle alternative. While there are some better aspects to it, the packaging says that it is 100% recyclable (but that facilities may not exist in your area)… try almost nowhere. It’s basically guaranteed to end up in a landfill. Blah. I’m sticking to my reusable bottle :) Keep up the good work.

    • One of those companies that makes me particularly cross, Carolyn! I know on the scale they are better than Nestle, but I find companies that try to sell themselves as green and ethical (as their major selling point) when they aren’t extremely dishonest. Especially because people trust the labels. The amount of times I’ve seen people promote Boxed Water as plastic-free… Read the labels, ask questions, trust no-one, haha!

  9. I think about this ALL THE TIME. Both of your topics – that overwhelming choice is paralyzing, and that consumption can mask productivity. I address the first one by exclusively shopping at the local non-chain co-op for all of my household goods – food, soap, and vinegar. If I want something else (because really, 99% of everything else is a want) I will look on Craigslist for used goods or Poshmark for used clothing.
    As for the second – I think about tangible consumption – buying a bunch of shit – and nontangible consumption – of internet. I’m pretty good at the first one but terrible at the second. I hate being tied to my phone and it is a daily struggle.

    • So many of us think that more choice is good, but it is totally paralyzing. Let’s face it, no-one is walking around the supermarket choosing between the 100 types of jam by merit, and then the 100 types of bread, and then the 100 types of butters/spreads. I love shopping local and at the bulk store. It’s a pleasant experience, I can find what I want, all the staff are really nice – and also know their stuff, because they only need to know about a hundred or so products rather than 20,000.

      Non-tangible consumption of internet – now that is an interesting one. I’ve found myself recently spending much too much time reading the news. I tend to never know what is going on in the world (my friends at school used to say I must live under a rock, and not much has changed since then) but recently I’ve become absorbed in it all. And it makes me mad and wastes my time. On the plus side, I’ve been trialling a process where I get to inbox zero, and am very pleased with my progress. I’ve been meaning to write a post about unplugging from the internet and time management with it, so stay tuned :)

  10. I’m a beginner and there is a constant struggle between cost, time, energy and ethicality going on in my head.

    But mostly I feel sickened by the constant bombardment of more and more desperate ads for one useless gadget after another. Which is a good thing because I go completely off shopping all together – except for yarn! And when it comes to yarn I really enjoy buying good quality (no synthetics) ethical and small business produced yarn – not all that locally though… there is the struggle again…

    I also enjoy making things myself, making do with what we have and sharing within the circle of family and friends.

    Thank you for being an inspiration.

    • As a beginner, know that you will spend a lot more mental energy on finding your way, but it WILL get easier over time. Promise!

      I think finding our way, and what feels best to us, takes time. One example, I would love to buy local second-hand organic Fair Trade clothes. But that is almost impossible? So do I choose new and organic and Fair Trade (which is more stuff in the world) or second-hand that is destined for landfill? Honestly, I choose both but my preference currently lies towards second-hand. But I do want to support ethical fashion brands, and my hope is one day there will be a market for second-hand ethical fashion.

      Just being conscious of the choices we make and why is the most important thing. Whether they are the absolute best choice – does it really matter if we aren’t always perfect? We are trying our best. That counts for a lot in my book. :)

  11. Thank you Lindsay, another really thoughtful and inspiring article. You always introduce me to a different perspective on zero waste and sustainability.Brilliant!

  12. Thank you for these tips. I’ve recently decided to make a conscious efforts to reduce my waste and particularly to use less plastic and your blog is very helpful. I was never an outrageous consumer/shopper anyway, but avoiding plastic is hard! For example, why does pasta in a perfectly recyclable cardboard box need a plastic window? I know what’s in the box!
    I had a discussion a while back because I was looking for input on whether to get Fairtrade organic chocolate spread (for my husband, I don’t eat it myself) that was made with palm oil, or the organic one without palm oil that wasn’t fairtrade. Someone said “Well, I think the fact that you’re thinking about it at all is already very good!” and I (probably a bit harsher than was warranted) replied: “No, just thinking about it doesn’t do anything at all, you have to actually take action!”.

    • Thanks Mina! Haha, your comment about pasta is so true. We used to buy that brand because it didn’t used to have a window, and then they changed it. I was like “I know what spaghetti looks like, but even if I didn’t THERE IS A GRAPHICALLY ACCURATE IMAGE ON THE BOX!

      The fact you are thinking about it IS good – but of course, just don’t stop there! I would suggest making your own. I reckon it would be dead easy, much healthier – full of goodness rather than oil and too much sugar. I make homemade nutella, it is pretty much blended roasted hazelnuts, cashew milk, cocoa powder and a little maple syrup. It is soooo good!

      Just an idea… ;)

  13. Another well written and thought provoking article, Lindsay. Ethical choices also include the cost of fuel or shipping to get the ethically better, zero waste products. We are still practising “nearo” waste, and making better choices all the time. Reducing, re-using, and growing our own have been our main aims.

    • Hi Darren, oh that is so true. Pretty much, buying ANYTHING incurs some kind of cost. There’s always balance, and there’s always some kind of compromise. I think the occasional purchase made overseas to buy something that is made well, will last and should keep forever is justified, if the product isn’t available locally. I’d love to see a return to localised economies. I do think it will happen :)

  14. I feel I am so late to the zero waste thinking. Really just in the last year have I thought about not buying plastic at all. Before that I recycled, bought local when I could, carried my own coffee cup and water bottle. Not that I am “woke” I find it quite hard. I live in a rural area and the options for bulk food or even organic food are limited. Buying online is usually the best option. I would have to drive 45 mins to better options and until we get an electric or hybrid that seems silly. But I do buy much much less. I really question each desire for stuff. So much so that I want to get out there and tell other to buy less, buy better. This was a good article. Well said.

    • Leni, you are not late at all! It’s not as easy as 30 days to zero trash! It’s about figuring out the options and what works for you. And changing habits can take time. For example, if we are used to shopping weekly but then don’t have access to a bulk store, maybe we adapt to shopping once a month, but that takes more planning, especially at first. And there’s always the trade-off between online vs local vs car trips. Never a perfect option! Thanks for sharing your story so far :)

  15. I was particularly touched by Ann’s comment, about being someone who doesn’t drive and/or doesn’t have so much time or energy. I think we all have to relativise. If you don’t drive you probably pollute a lot less than anyone who drives, so you’ve got a head start on those of us who do !
    There are lots of difficult choices but I’m a great believer in community ; as we build healthier communities there will be more and more opportunities for sharing transport, garden produce, skills to make/create/fix, and so on. In the meantime, there are bound to be some frustrations as we can’t become “perfect” consumers overnight.
    Those who consume less often feel bad about their ecological footprint because they have so much less power to vote with their cash. I think ths is a myth that seriously need busting, and this acticle contributes to that. Those with less spending power pollute less, period. If you don’t believe me, calculate. When we want to communicate about buying this or that product it’s good to think of those on a tight budget and a tight time-schedule, by crunching some actual figures : comparative times and costs of this or that choice – cleaning products or seasonal vegetables are good examples, but even something like running an old car is worth exploring in greater detail.
    Finally, for anyone feeling frustrated about not feeling “able” to go as far as they would like down this path, I would like to say : the offer of goods on the market, the cars they produced 15 years ago, the appaling exploitation of our ressources and of people : these are not your fault, they were not your choice. And if you are thinking about it, yes , you ARE already a long way down the path. As Lindsay says so beautifully, it’s all a learning experience. I am so delighted with every new step I take !

    • I loved this comment, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts! It’s the old marketing capitalist culture paradigm sneaking in when people think they can’t be zero waste because they can’t afford to buy stuff. I am so with you – so much about community, sharing, swapping, choosing locally produced or locally sold. Loved what you’ve written :)

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