If you’re reading this, chances are you are already on your way to being a conscious consumer. We try to make it easy for you with low-waste packaging and mindfully sourced ingredients, but what about when you’re not shopping with Meow Meow Tweet? We use a few simple guidelines to ensure that our purchases are not causing harm to people and planet, and we hope that you’ll start using them, too ;)
WHAT’S THE PROBLEM WITH SHOPPING?
Capitalism is based on the idea of endless growth - that successful businesses are the ones who continue to grow their revenue year over year, indefinitely. This economic expectation has caused companies with faster trend cycles and cheaper production costs to rise to the top, as they write off the true environmental and human costs along the way. When there are new fashion trends every week, smartphones are designed to break, and big box stores are constantly slashing prices, it becomes easy for us to shop and shop and shop, constantly acquiring new things that will soon need to be replaced.
This cycle of consumption does more than cause dissatisfaction in our lives, it also harms the environment through the over-extraction of natural materials, the abuse of wild places, and pollution. Humans are harmed by being forced to work in poor conditions for low wages so that the companies they work for can sell products at the lowest possible cost.
But shopping is not inherently bad, and it’s not necessary for us to revert to a “back to the land” economy where everyone must needs to farm, build, and sew all of their own things. There’s a simpler answer. Instead of continuing to consume cheaply made & exploitative products, we can all ask a few simple questions and choose to spend our hard earned money on products that will improve our lives, last a long time, and create as little harm as possible. If enough consumers opt for more conscious shopping habits and advocate for better regulation of big corporations, the greater economic system will begin to shift towards a model that benefits everyone. Here are a few things to look for that will help you do just that:
FIRST ASK YOURSELF - DO I REALLY NEED TO BUY THIS?
Modern advertising is designed to make us feel as if we absolutely need a product, that without it we are incomplete or failures. The first step towards shopping responsibly is deciding whether you even need to shop in the first place - do you need this item? Will this purchase enrich your life or is it simply another thing to add to the clutter?
If you really do need something, then the next step is to see if you can purchase it secondhand, rent it, or borrow it instead of buying new. Purchasing secondhand keeps items out of landfills and prevents new materials being extracted from the Earth to make something new. Similarly, renting or borrowing an item that you only need for a short period of time is an excellent way to save both resources and your hard-earned dollars.
SHOP SMALL AND LOCAL
Shopping with local boutiques or hardware stores instead of heading to big box chains means that your money is going directly into the hands of another human, not a big corporation. That money ends up getting circulated back into your local community, strengthening the people and other businesses who share your neighborhood and creating a more resilient, thriving place for you to enjoy life.
SHOP HANDMADE & FAIR TRADE
The way that something is made is just as important as what it’s made out of and who is selling it. Searching for fair trade (whether they are certified or are simply committed to paying fair wages to their workers) is one way of ensuring that your purchases are not contributing to the harm of humans in the supply chain.
Similarly, most handmade items are inherently eco-friendly and ethically produced because of the way that they are made. When someone makes something by hand, they have invested years into learning and practicing their craft, and therefore take pride in the quality of the resulting product. Handmade items are often built to last longer than mass-produced products, and the special infusion of culture and handwork means that they will be treasured by you for years to come. When shopping for handmade items, it’s best to stick with small businesses or to buy directly from the maker, since large scale hand production often results in exploitation of the workers as well as their cultural arts. For example, purchasing a mass produced, handwoven rug that is “Guatemalan inspired” from a large company (especially if it’s owned by someone who is completely unrelated to that culture) defeats the purpose of putting money into the hands of the makers, whose craft is often passed down from generation to generation.
Whether you are shopping with a big corporation or a small business, you can always seek out products that are made in an environmentally friendly way. Everything from the materials used and the processes required to create a product to the way the product is packaged and shipped has an environmental impact. Most items that are made in an eco-friendly way will proudly proclaim their merits, which can make sustainable shopping easy - but just make sure not to be fooled by greenwashing! Always look at the ingredients in food, beauty, and home products, and look for the material content on clothing and furniture tags. Natural ingredients, recycled materials, and processes that use less water or require less energy to produce are all good signs.
BUY LESS, BUY BETTER
Even if a product fails to meet any of the criteria above, it is always more responsible to opt for a product that is high quality over one that will fall apart quickly. An item that lasts longer means that it will not be sent to the landfill quickly, and new materials will not be required to replace it. If you can purchase something that will last a long time or that can be easily upgraded or mended, then that is already a much more responsible choice than a product that you will only use for a short time before discarding it.
Remember, shopping responsibly is not about perfection (because we are all shopping within a system that prioritizes profits over all else) but about making the best decision possible with what is available to you at any given time. We also want to recognize the inherent privilege in being able to shop responsibly, since the ability to make these choices is not accessible to everyone. As a small business, we benefit from your responsible shopping choices (and we greatly appreciate them!), which is why we do whatever we can to work towards a fairer system for all.
Faye Lessler is a California-born, Brooklyn-based freelance writer and founder of lifestyle blog, Sustaining Life. She loves to write mission-driven content while sipping black tea in a beam of sunshine.