How to be a more sustainable consumer

Willow Alexander How To Guide #1
garden shot from above
By Willow Alexander

Over the last two years we’ve all become more sustainable consumers. But what does that actually mean and why?

Thanks to the pandemic we started shopping more locally and used our cars less. Thanks to supply chain issues we had fewer choices. Thanks to inflation we started looking for ways to spend our money wisely on things that last longer. Thanks to the gas crisis we’re looking at ways to reduce our energy consumption.

All these ‘solutions’ to problems are actually part of the solution to climate change – and that’s being a conscious consumer. Forgoing our quick-fix buying habits and replacing them with a more considered approach.

Taking a moment to think about what it is you’re buying, where it’s coming from, what it’s made of and how that company looks after its people can really change your mind about something. Especially when you look at what companies are prepared to share about all this with all of us.

How to spot fact vs fiction

Many brands make this easy by putting their eco-values front and centre. With others you have to dig a bit deeper to find them. But beware – if it sounds too good to be true, it’s because it probably is.

Below is our guide to things to think about, things to look for and things to be wary of when making a purchase or choosing someone to do a job.

Think about circularity

Do you love upcycling ebay finds? Do you buy second-hand furniture or clothes? Have you ever repaired something rather than throwing it away and buying a new one? If you can say yes to any of these you’re contributing to a circular economy by mimimizing waste. It should be getting easier to find parts to repair things too. In 2021 the UK introduced a Right to Repair law which means that manufacturers have to make spare parts available. So next time something breaks have a look for your nearest Repair Café or independent specialist instead of chucking it in the bin. Or maybe your trash is another person’s treasure and you can sell it.

Think about renting

Carrie Johnson got married in a £45 rented wedding dress and made fashion rental mainstream. There has been a massive increase in the renting revolution of everything from clothes to power tools. It works best for single-use occasions like an outfit for an event or a piece of equipment for some DIY. It also works for fast turnover items like kids bikes (see Bike Club) and baby clothes (see thelittleloop who were on Dragon’s Den). And it’s not just companies renting these things out. Apps like MyShed and Hurr help you monetize your stuff by renting it out to others. There’s that circular economy at work again!

Think about packaging

Single-use plastic is something we’re all well aware of but it’s hard to avoid. Less than 10% of all plastics are currently recycled. A good way to get an idea of how much you’re using is to do a plastic audit for a week. Save all the plastic you’d usually throw away and not put out for recycling and then look at ways you could either avoid it or recycle it. Supermarkets like M&S now have market-style fruit and veg counters or you can take the family to a local PYO farm. Things like crisp packets, pasta bags, multi pack wrapping and frozen food bags can be taken back to over 4,000 UK supermarkets that are part of Recycle Now. If you’re still not sure download the free recycling app Scrapp that lets you know what to do based on your local recycling rules. If they don’t already have it listed you can add it in to help others out.

Look at their website

Now it’s time to get nosey! Find out if your favourite brand is one you want to give your money to. Take five companies that you buy from often and do a bit of research on their website. Do they have a sustainability section, and if so what does it say? Things to look out for are facts and figures to back up promises in something like a Sustainability, CSR or Carbon Report. Do they offset their emissions and have net-zero targets in place? Do they work with partners that have similar values? Does it all feel right to you? 34% of people say they’ve stopped buying certain brands or products because they had ethical or sustainability related concerns about them. 37% have switched to brands that are vocal and transparent about what they’re doing.

Look beyond the obvious

While you’re looking at their website have a think about the bigger picture and the impact of how something is made. Who is the company owned by? Where was your product made? Has it been shipped a long way? Who made it and how are those people looked after? This will be more relevant for some things than others but the truth is sometimes hidden behind smokescreens of sub-brands and carbon neutral claims. Ask yourself if you want to support a company that’s offsetting shipments from Asia if you can find an alternative made closer to home.

Look at your options

In the case of sustainability cheaper is not necessarily better. Doing things right costs more money – for the company making it and therefore for you. But it’s usually worth it. It’s likely to last longer, you can get it fixed locally and you’re supporting a localised economy. 52% say being more sustainable is too expensive. If this is the case for you pick and choose where you can afford to be sustainable.

Still can’t find what you’re looking for?

Companies are coming round to the fact that sustainability isn’t just something they report to their investors. They’re now making this information much easier to access for all of us. Plus, if they’re making an effort they’re usually pretty keen to talk about it in their marketing too! If a company doesn’t mention sustainability anywhere on its product or website you’ll have to make a judgement about whether it’s so obvious they don’t need to. Most of the time if someone is over talking about it and doesn’t have anything to back it up then it’s greenwash.

Spot the greenwash

Greenwashing is massive and 42% of companies could be exaggerating their sustainability claims online. So much so that the CMA is clamping down on companies who make false claims that lead us astray. Anything that isn’t backed up by evidence, uses vague language or seems a bit over the top should ring alarm bells. Some companies claim to be zero emissions. This doesn’t really exist. Nothing has zero footprint as it needs to be created in the first place. Instead the term you should see is net zero emissions. Other companies have one product that is eco-friendly but use the term across their whole business. Even offsetting isn’t 100% legit these days if it isn’t accompanied by a carbon reduction plan.

If in doubt, check for certification

Given all this uncertainty many companies get a third-party accreditation like a carbon neutral or industry-specific certification, or become a B Corp. These require them to measure their impact environmentally and socially as well as putting together reduction targets each year. This gives you a guarantee that they are being transparent, accountable and responsible within their business and their supply chain. Something that’s now important to 35% of us, and growing.

Ultimately, there’s no right way or wrong way to be a more thoughtful consumer. Just spend a bit of time thinking about it next time and you’re on the right track.

All stats taken from Deloitte’s Sustainability & Consumer Behaviour 2022 report published in June 2022.

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