Like many people who have taken the initiative to educate themselves on sustainability and the impact of our purchases on our environment, animals and fellow humans, I find myself at times in a state of overwhelm when it comes to making a purchase. Since I have become more aware of the common practices of the industries we interact with almost every day with regard to ethics and sustainability (food, fashion etc.), my efforts to change the way I consume in order to make a positive (or even just less negative) impact as a consumer have been met with many challenges.
My personal values are something that I spend a great deal of time and energy considering and defining and I make a conscious effort to live a life that fits those values. Once I decided that being a conscious consumer was a value that I held, I had to look at my habits and address what was in alignment and what needed to change. It didn’t take long for my perfectionist tendencies to take over and drag me down the familiar spiral of ‘nothing you’re doing is good enough’.
I examined my purchasing habits; what I was actually purchasing, the companies I purchased from and their practices, how much I was spending and why I chose to purchase what I did. The more I learned about sustainability and ethics the better picture I had of what was the ‘optimal’ conscious consumer. The clearer that picture became, the further away from it I deemed myself and my habits to be. I felt as though I had to completely overhaul my my life in order to be a good person. Driving a car, buying Colgate toothpaste from the drugstore, picking up a shirt from H&M that I would only wear once for a dance performance, getting on a plane, buying bagged lettuce, purchasing jewellery that wasn’t recycled and/or ethically and sustainably sourced all became things that I thought made me ‘bad’ if I chose to engage in them knowing full well that they have a negative effect on either our planet, people or animals. Sound exhausting? It was.
My greatest error, I believe, is operating under the belief that ‘all or nothing’ is the best approach when it comes to changing my habits as a consumer. Wanting to be as compassionate and conscious as possible when it comes to your spending is a noble and worthy effort, however I don’t believe that anyone should have to martyr themselves in order to do so. In my opinion, it is perfectly okay to make small incremental improvements and to have areas of your life where you don’t make the most perfect, sustainable choices. The very meta and ironic thing to note here and what I hope to help you achieve with this post is that our approach to sustainability also has to be sustainable for our current life situation.
The overarching theme
The simplest way to describe my current approach to sustainability is as follows; Zoom out. No one can be perfect all the time but if when you zoom out and look at the big picture of your life you see that you’re continuously improving, I think that is both something to be proud of and can be considered a sustainable approach to sustainability, ya feel?
Sometimes you have to buy toothpaste at the dollar store instead of toothpaste that is vegan and packaged in a recycled receptacle. Sometimes you have to wear the single use face mask instead of your reusable fabric one. Sometimes you have to purchase packaged food instead of unpackaged. And sometimes any one of the former elements of the last three sentences are your norm and that’s okay. Beating yourself up over not being able to make the most sustainable choice due to lack of access or affordability is a surefire way to make giving up more enticing. Again, you will have your moments and your areas where you can’t make the perfect choice. Whether you clearly define these pre-emptively or take them as they come, accepting them and focusing on the big picture is key to keeping your momentum.
Another thing to note is that you the more you learn, the more you will understand that it’s nearly impossible to make a perfectly ethical, sustainable purchase. You know, one that does no harm to any human or animal or our planet, one that gives back, one that doesn’t create more waste in our world etc. If you can check one or multiple of the boxes you feel are important, you’re doing well.
Buy from anywhere, consciously
The easiest and most sustainable way to shop sustainably and affordably is to change your approach to consumption. This means you can continue to shop anywhere that works for you, your lifestyle, your budget and your geographical location and still make strides towards becoming more sustainable.
Whether you make a purchase out of necessity or choice, do not demonize yourself for shopping from somewhere you consider unsustainable. Additionally, do not demonize the place from which you chose to shop – even if it is by definition unsustainable and unethical. Wait, what? Yes. No one is a ‘bad person’ for purchasing cheap clothes from Target, despite them not being the pinnacle of ethics and sustainability when it comes to manufacturing and production. Are you and all of the other millions of people who shop there or have shopped there automatically bad? No. You are not a bad person for shopping at the cheapest place possible if that’s what is accessible and affordable to you. And you are also not a bad person if you could afford to buy a new dress from somewhere more sustainable, but you chose to buy a $20 dress from Target.
If you can afford to only shop at local, ethical, sustainable companies, great! But don’t expect that of yourself if that’s not your reality and don’t expect it to be anyone else’s reality if it does happen to be yours. And remember, that company that you think is unsustainable still provided you with a product that you could afford and that provides some sort of value to your life. So before you go and boycott big box stores like WalMart and Target, think of how you can change your own interactions with those companies to be more sustainable and consider pushing for change within them. These are massive companies with millions of customers which gives them an influence in society that is nothing to scoff at. Maybe rather than cancelling them we push for them to change and that could mean sustainable choices for exponentially more people.
In a recent episode of She’s On The Money titled “Fast fashion needs to slow down” an interesting perspective on shopping at big box stores like Target, Walmart etc. was brought to light. On the topic of a pair of $15 Kmart jeans, host Victoria Devine said “If I’m going to go and buy something from Kmart, the same principles apply for when I’m purchasing there or if I’m purchasing from a really expensive luxe brand. Am I actually going to wear this item? How long will I wear this item for? Is it going to get the wear out of it? It would be nice if we could all step back and say no I’m only ever going to support local, but let’s be honest that is … not something that a lot of us can do, but what we can do is be more conscious with how much we are adding to our wardrobes.”
So, whether you buy a $15 pair of pants from Kmart or a $100 pair of sustainably made pants from a local shop, if they are bought intentionally and are something that you will get good use out of, then you have made a more sustainable choice. Allowing yourself to fall into the trap of fast fashion and buying more than you need simply because it’s cute and cheap is how you end up with things that you don’t need and won’t use and will likely discard of for those reasons and won’t think twice about it because the investment to acquire them was so little.
Note: I know I’ve made mention to ethics multiple times in this post and you may be thinking ‘well even if you purchase mindfully from fast fashion companies aren’t you still supporting their unethical practices?’ And the answer would be yes. Which is why the topic of ethics is too nuanced to adequately consider in a blog post about sustainably without turning it into a novel. In other words, ethics is something I also believe to be incredibly important and intertwined with sustainable purchasing, but believe it would be best discussed in another post. Stay tuned.
Sentimental value & loving your things
Devoting some energy to considering the things I own and the value they bring to my life whether that be practically or sentimentally has been an impactful way of shifting my perspective on what I own. In short, when I look at my belongings and see the years they’ve been in my life, the memories they’ve been a part of and the service they’ve been of to me, I don’t feel the need to replace them with newer, shinier things. I may be a weirdo who has peculiar level of affection for their inanimate objects, but I do believe it serves me well.
I purchased the hat pictured below for about $10 at Target in Miami nearly a year and a half ago because I decided my fair-skinned self would greatly benefit from such an item during the 8 months I would subsequently spend in the Caribbean. The purchase of this hat embodies both the principle of ‘buy from anywhere, consciously’ and ‘sentimental value & loving your things’. We love a good value overlap. Perhaps the hat itself was not made with sustainability at front of mind, but I have loved it and used it to the point where it’s colour is seriously faded by the sun. It’s been with me on beach days in St. Thomas, roaming the streets of Paris, sleeping on the beach in Nice and back home in Vancouver, B.C.
There’s a difference between buying a hat at Target every time you’re going outside and buying one hat and using the heck out of it. I find that even if the item isn’t the perfect fit, perfect colour or perfectly on trend, the more I use it the more it becomes mine and therefore the more I love it.
I don’t know about you, but I own a fair few things that are broken or damaged that just end up sitting around waiting to either be fixed or tossed. Can you guess what I’m going to say? Fix em’! Anytime that I have taken the time to fix something that is broken instead of replacing it, the item ends up feeling good as new again and I realize that I never needed to replace it with something new anyways. Enlist your friends, local professionals or your own resourcefulness to get the job done and you’ll be surprised at how good it feels to make use of what you already own.
Intentionally taking care of what you own is also a really good way to cultivate love and appreciation for your material belongings. Yeah, I know it sounds woo woo and time consuming but it’s actually kind of cool to really care for what you own. I have found it surprisingly therapeutic to read every care label for my clothing and properly take care of it and I’ve applied this approach to many of my other belongings as well. When you love and care for what you have you are less likely to fall victim to the mentality that you need to replace it with newer and better = more sustainable!
Reframe what you own
Or what your friends own. Or what your sister owns. Or even what your dad owns. Over the last few months of isolation, many of the people in my life (myself included) have had time to go through pretty much everything they own which has lead to bags on bags and boxes on boxes of treasures. I’ve acquired at least five new pieces of clothing from my dad, something I never thought I would choose to do. Add in a few things from my sister, a pair of discarded Lululemon pants from my roommate and a never-worn bikini from a close friend and boom! Your girl is feeling fresh af.
On the home front, I recently moved into a new apartment and have only actually purchased one new decorative item for my bedroom – a $70 solid oak mirror from a guy on Facebook Marketplace who sells repurposed items (the mirror was from an old hotel.) The rest of my room decor is made up of things my family no longer wanted, things I had owned for upwards of 10 years and had stored at my moms house and I couple decor items from my last apartment. I will be doing a separate blog post on this – with lots of pictures!
Now, I’m not just mooching off of everyone in my life. It’s become a common practice amongst my friends and family to trade and gift things we may not have use for anymore. That new bikini from my friend? I traded her a jacket I had bought 2 years ago and worn once. She was actually with me when I bought the jacket and loved it and so we were both happy to trade something we owned for something we had more use for.
In going through my own things I was able to categorize them into things to get rid of (to sell, trade, donate) and things to repurpose. Take clothes for example – If I found an item that I didn’t really wear anymore, before getting rid of it or trying to replace it, I would ask myself; is there something I could change about this item that would make me want to wear it? If the answer was yes, then I would do just that. Old t-shirts became crop tops, old dresses became tops, old button downs became beach cover ups etc. If you’re not inclined to do any alterations yourself, you can definitely do so with the help of a good seamstress, which I find is often still less expensive than buying new things and again, more sustainable. Win win!
I should point out that I am now a few years in to my journey with sustainable purchasing and that all of these lessons have taken time to learn and implement into my life. I think there is a lot of advice out there about what to look for when aiming to shop more sustainably and a lot of great brands to shop from, but to reiterate my point, the most valuable thing I did was change my approach and my mindset. From there I found joy in discovering new sustainable brands and stores rather than feeling pressured to only shop from sustainable companies.
My hope is that this post will help to inspire and excite you when it comes to sustainable purchasing, and reinforce that it is possible to do so in a way that is sustainable for your lifestyle. Happy shopping!