The ultimate guide to shopping sustainably

11 August 2021 | Aimee Tweedale

There’s nothing like a bit of retail therapy. And these days, as we all become more aware of climate change and its effects, there are lots of shops that claim to be eco-friendly. 

But sustainable shopping is about more than a brand or a logo. It’s a whole lifestyle, making sure that a product has a positive impact, from manufacturing to landfill. That’s a huge job!

Keen to do your bit? Read our guide to judging whether a brand is eco-friendly, and how to be a more sustainable shopper.

Why is it important to shop sustainably?

Shopping sustainably means shopping in a way that doesn’t have a harmful impact. To really understand it, let’s take a quick look at the definition of sustainability. 

In 1987, the UN’s Bruntland Commission defined sustainable development as  “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”1. This definition had 3 pillars: environmental, economic, and social.

The basic idea is doing things in a way that protects our resources, whether those resources are people, or the planet. It’s all about thinking about the long-term, rather than short term. 

Learn more, in our guide to what eco-friendly, sustainable, and green really mean

So: how does this apply to shopping?

Sustainable shopping, or ethical shopping, means applying this way of thinking about long-term benefits to the way you shop. It’s all about asking yourself: is this product, shop, or brand doing things in a way that’s built to last, both environmentally and ethically? Will I still feel good about this purchase in the future?

What is ethical consumerism?

You might have heard the phrase ethical consumerism being used in relation to eco-shopping. 

If you’re an ethical consumer, you’re someone who votes with your wallet. You research the brands you buy from, and try to only spend your money with brands who reflect the values that you hold. Sometimes, you might even boycott brands you don’t like. This is considered a kind of activism2.

Your choice might be as simple as buying organic, fair-trade coffee beans. Or it might be more complicated, as you research the supply chain and history of a brand, or even reach out to talk to them about their practices.

Shopping sustainably has become much more popular in recent years. In 2019, Co-op estimated that ethical spending had gone up by almost 4 times in the last 20 years, reaching a total of £41 billion a year (with £290 million a year going on Fairtrade bananas3!).

A woman shops for fruit and veg at the local market

How to know if a brand is sustainable 

Now that green shopping is all the rage, lots of brands and businesses are claiming to be eco-friendly. But how do we cut through the noise, and know which ones to give our money to?

If you’re trying to work out if a brand is sustainable, there are a few crucial questions to keep in mind. 

Does the brand consider the environmental impact of its operations?

Think about everything that’s happened to your product on its way to your shopping bag.

  • How much water and energy were used in the process of making it?
  • How much waste was binned during that process?
  • How much pollution was generated?
  • How far has it had to travel (and how much carbon did that release into the atmosphere)?

It may be hard to answer these questions without doing some digging. The more transparent a brand is about answering these questions, the better. 

Sustainable brands usually work out all the waste and carbon emissions in their supply chain, and do everything they can to minimise them.

Does the brand take care of the people involved in its operations?

As we explained above, sustainability isn’t just about the environment. It’s about making choices that do no harm, with the long-term future of the world in mind. That extends to people, too. 

Sustainable brands should pay their workers a living wage. That doesn’t just mean the people working in their shops. The workers in every part of their supply chain should be paid fairly. 

Brands should also make sure their workers are safe, and that there’s no child labour or forced labour in their supply chain. Plus: they should have an inclusive and diverse workforce. 

More attention has been paid to this issue since the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013. This was when a building housing 5 garment factories in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1,000 people. Many of the clothes being made inside were familiar high street fashion brands – leading to questions about the dangerous, unethical conditions for workers behind these brands4.

For more on how to shop for fashion sustainably, read our complete guide to fast fashion and its impact on the environment

A man shops for clothes second-hand

Does it sell eco-friendly products?

Now look at what the brand is actually selling. Are they truly eco-friendly products?

Eco-friendly or sustainable products might be:

  • Certified as environmentally-friendly by a reliable organisation like Soil Association, Forest Stewardship Council, or Cradle to Cradle
  • An alternative to a “mainstream” product, made out of more environmentally-friendly materials, or using more environmentally-friendly processes
  • Made to be reused – such as reusable coffee cups, which encourage you to stop using disposable ones
  • Second-hand or recycled items

Does it sell ethical, Fairtrade products?

Do this brand’s products make a positive social impact in the wider community?

One of the best ways to tell if the product you’re buying is ethical is to look for the Fairtrade logo. This certification means that it’s not just the workers of the brand who have been treated fairly, but also all the farmers or other businesses involved with creating your product. 

Another way you can be an ethical consumer is to buy things from places that have a positive impact on your own local community. 

This could include:

  • Charity shops
  • Small local businesses
  • Social enterprises
  • Non-profit organisations

Is online shopping sustainable?

Shopping online is generally more eco-friendly than popping out of the house to a real-world shop5. Mainly, that’s because you save on the emissions you would have created by getting in your car. 

But, importantly, this doesn’t take into account the fact that lots of people return things they buy online. In fact, about 6-8% of things bought in physical shops get returned, in comparison to 30% of online orders6. This leads to more carbon emissions, and a higher chance that the item might end up in landfill instead of being sold!

Speedy next-day deliveries can also have a negative effect. In order to get something to you quickly, companies might send it via aircraft, or put more vans on the road than necessary. All of this means higher carbon emissions7. Worth thinking about next time you add something to your basket!

A woman shops for zero-waste products

10 top tips for more eco-friendly shopping

Greener shopping isn’t just about finding the newest, coolest eco shops or brands. It’s also about the habits we build, and how much we consume.

Here’s a cheat sheet of tips for being a more conscious, eco-friendly shopper.

  • Ditch the plastic. Ever looked around you in a shop, or unwrapped an online delivery, and been amazed by how much packaging you see? In the UK, packaging is the cause of about 70% of our plastic waste8, which is a big problem for the environment (to find out why, read our complete guide to plastic pollution). Do your part by using a reusable bag, and avoid packaging wherever you can. In some areas, there are now zero waste shops, where you can buy refillable versions of household essentials. 
  • Try second-hand. The process of making new stuff generates loads of waste, pollution, and emissions. But what if the perfect thing you’re looking for already exists? Try charity shops, vintage shops, and online outlets like eBay, Vinted or Depop. Because reusing something is always more sustainable than buying it new.
  • Invest in things that will last. Ever heard of the 30 wears test? It says you should only buy a new item of clothing if you reckon you’ll wear it 30 times. That applies to loads of other things, too (apart from food!) – it’s best to buy something you know you won’t be throwing away for a very long time. 
  • Do your research. It’s great if you’ve got time to do some investigating into a brand before you buy from them. Try using the questions we’ve laid out above, and see if you can find the answers on their websites. Also, look for standard certifications, and if it’s a fashion brand, check their rating on the Good On You directory
  • Ask questions. Can’t find anything satisfying on the brand’s website? If you want a brand to explain what they’re doing to be sustainable, reach out! If a brand is truly doing everything they can to be more eco-friendly, they’ll be happy to answer your questions about it. 
  • Share. Sharing and swapping items with family and friends is a great way to make things last longer, rather than shopping. You could even try smartphone apps like Olio, or the website Freecycle, to find useful stuff that other people are throwing away.
  • Shop local. Staying close to home is doubly sustainable. Why? Firstly, because it generates way fewer carbon emissions (as there’s no need to drive). And secondly, it supports your local community.
  • Eat what’s in season. When planning your meals, try using fruit and vegetables that are in season. When veggies are grown out of season, it takes a lot of energy (for example, to heat up greenhouses), and also often means they have to be transported a long way, creating higher emissions9. The Vegetarian Society has a guide to seasonal UK-grown produce.
  • Look for eco-friendly materials. Check the labels on your food and other products. The fewer toxic chemicals and artificial ingredients or fibres you see in there, the better for the environment. In food, look for things that are certified organic. In everything else, look for natural and recycled materials, like bamboo or cork. 
  • Buy less. This is the principle that underpins all the other points on this list, and the idea of sustainable shopping generally. The best thing we can do for the planet and ourselves is to think carefully about all our purchases. Rather than impulse buying, we should take it slow, take care of the items we already own, and make things go further. This could mean slimming down your beauty routine, or eating leftovers, to avoid food waste. The biggest golden rule of sustainable shopping? Less is always more.