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 are 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 other 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.