5 Principles

1. Every purchase makes an impact
2. Avoid unnecessary consumption
3. Learn about the issues
4. Seek out a Best Buy
5. Make lasting change

1. Every purchase makes an impact

… therefore, your choice makes a difference…

You make a difference. To shop with a conscience is to start to see the connections we have with the environment around us. Whatever the product, it will have or has had, some impact on the environment somewhere.

Often you can feel that your small purchase doesn’t really matter. You are 1 person in a world of 6 billion. In fact, it is because each small purchase does have an impact and there are 6 billion+ people that it all adds up to one big difference. It is actually because each of our purchases do count, that we are in the environmental crisis of today. With each conscious choice we can minimise this impact.

What is the real cost? For most people, most of the time, ‘cost ‘ and ‘convenience’ are the main reasons we buy what we do. These aren’t bad reasons, but don’t reflect the true cost to the environment and people of the things we purchase. It’s worth asking, “how much extra am I prepared to pay today to minimise my impact?” Will it be 5%, 10% or more? Keep in mind too that each dollar spent on more sustainable products and services increases the demand for them.

Story of the Hummingbird. Wangari Maathai tells an inspiring tale of doing the best you can under seemingly interminable odds.

2. Avoid unnecessary consumption

… ask, ‘Do I need it?’

Where possible, avoid unnecessary consumption. About 80% of all saleable products end up as waste, on average, within just 6 months.

“In Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, Heather Rogers estimates that 80 percent of U.S. products, like this plastic wrap, are discarded after a single use. Of course, it takes a special kind of person to use a banana more than once. Food, the quintessential consumer good, has become a Grade-A disposable in our overstocked markets. A supersized portion of comestible goods in this country does not receive even the fleeting honor of a single use. The average American household wastes a quarter of all the food it presumably worked hard to bring home. Add to that the other wastage that occurs along the entire length of the production and distribution line—from the farm to the supermarket—and the total percentage of food wasted before tasted approaches a shocking and shaming 40 percent. ” [Trash Talk, May 7, 2012, Gregory M. Kennedy, source]

How we buy will influence directly what we buy so it is important to think about the way we spend money. Is the purchase based on need, importance, urgency, or impulse? Do I really need this? How much is enough? Can it be borrowed? Or sourced from a retailer with environmental credentials?

Make a preferred shopping list and keep to it. By planning ahead and anticipating the goods and services we will need – rather than making impulse buys – we give ourselves more time to find the most socially and environmentally responsible alternatives.

Sasha Milne from ‘Inked in Colour‘ shares about her ‘Buy Nothing New’ project and the ‘Economy of Human Connection’.

3. Learn about the issues

… but take on one issue at a time

There are many issues connected to the products on our shelves, some of which are specific to particular product types. (Such as labour and fair wage issues are specifically relevant to coffee, chocolate, clothing and sports equipment here in Australia). Learn about the issues relevant to the products that you buy. See some examples of issues related to products in the supermarket in our “What did you vote for today” chart.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the multiude of issues. So it is important to remember to take on just one issue at a time. This week start with one item, say milk, and find out the issues and best alternatives. When you’ve found a ‘best buy’ for milk, move on to another product.

If you take on one issue or product type a fortnight, that’s 25 in a year. If it was one a week, that would be 50. It’s easy to see how you can transform your shopping list over time to one that reflects the things you value.

The world is amazing.

4. Seek out a Best Buy

… according to what you value and the options available

There are no right or wrong purchasing decisions. Instead there are ‘better’ or ‘worse’ purchases according to what you value. A ‘best buy’ for you will depend on what you’re looking for in that particular purchase. (ie. coffee that is fairtrade, or perhaps coffee that is organic, or perhaps coffee that’s roasted locally).

Mostly it is not possible to find a product that meets all the criteria that we could choose, so it’s important to prioritise our values. You might decide to buy local over organic, or choose to buy with minimal packaging over local. In this way you can determine the criteria you see as most important, knowing that you’ll have to make tradeoffs.

Often you may find you have worked out what you value most (what you’re looking for in this particular purchase) but then you get to the store to find there’s nothing that remotely meets the criteria. Frustrating? Yep. A ‘best buy’ will be choosing a product that best meets your criteria from amongst the items available. Of course you could seek out a better option from another retailer, however this usually happens next time you shop. (ie. you discover over time the best places to get the items that reflect your values).

(…. hmmm?)

5. Make lasting change

… celebrate good choices, create good habits, give feedback

Celebrate good choices. Each good choice makes a world of difference. It’s not about ‘saving the world’ but rather ‘taking responsibility’ where possible for our own impact.

Glass half empty or glass half full. It’s sometimes easy to view our good choices as ‘just a drop in the ocean’. Although we have changed our coffee to fairtrade, we can see all the other issues we’re yet to tackle, and feel guilty for what we’re not doing. Guilt is not a useful emotion. And all change takes time. Remember that each positive difference is just that – a positive difference. It means your shopping list is ‘more ethical’ than before.

Share your discoveries. It’s all difficult by ourselves, but when we share what we learn and get excited by our discoveries everyone benefits. Change starts with you but it doesn’t end there. If you find a ‘best buy’, get excited and tell your friends. Perhaps you can encourage those around you to review their approach to shopping?

Create good habits. It’s looks like a huge task to change your shopping patterns, but once you’ve found a best buy, remember it and move onto the next product type on your list or issue to address. It only takes 20 days to change a habit. Remember you’re on a journey.

Give feedback. Let those companies know, via letter or email, of the choices you have made. Real change can only come with communication and encouragement. You are not only supporting and encouraging sustainable practice, but also you are exercising your consumer power.