From Chad Hunter, Aspiration's Head of Sustainability.

Sustainable shopping is something more and more people are trying to do in their lives, but actually practicing it can be difficult due to on overwhelming amount of contradictory information out there.

In this guide to climate-friendly shopping, we'll cut through the noise so you can take more action, starting today.

💡 Key Takeaways:

  • The Hidden Climate Cost: Every product you buy has an environmental impact throughout its lifecycle – from raw materials to disposal. Understanding this helps make more informed choices.

  • The Power of Choice: Shopping decisions are powerful. Choosing climate-conscious companies and products can collectively drive positive change.

  • Multiple Paths to Sustainability: There isn't a single way to be a climate-conscious shopper. Options include buying secondhand, finding carbon-neutral products, and supporting brands with clear climate goals.


🙌 How to take action today:

  • Embrace Secondhand: Thrifting, upcycling, and reselling reduce climate impact, save money, and offer unique finds. Start by exploring online marketplaces like Poshmark and Thredup or your local thrift shops.

  • Identify Climate-Friendly Brands: Look for certifications like "Climate Neutral Certified" or “CarbonFree Certified.” These indicate companies are measuring and offsetting emissions.

What you buy impacts the planet and people

Every product has an environmental and human impact. Take toilet paper, for instance.

  • Is it made from cutting down forests or using recycled paper?

  • How much water was used at the factories that turned the raw materials into usable toilet paper?

  • What are the labor conditions at the factories?

  • How much packaging is used for the rolls?

  • Are the stores (or computers running the online marketplace) powered with coal or solar power?

All of these factors affect the “sustainability” of a company and their products.


The hidden climate cost of what you buy

The items you buy typically have a very clear price, but they can also have a hidden climate cost.

This cost represents the impact that particular item had on the climate, and is known as lifecycle carbon emissions. Basically, this represents the total climate impact (greenhouse gas emissions) generated over its lifetime: making the product, getting it to you, you using it, and its disposal.

I outlined some of the steps above for toilet paper, but let’s take a look at each step more directly:

  • Raw Materials: Extracting and processing materials like steel, aluminum, or the cotton in your t-shirt uses energy and releases carbon dioxide.

  • Manufacturing: Turning those materials into a finished product, whether it's a car or a pair of shoes, takes even more energy.

  • Transportation: Every mile your product travels - from factory to store to your doorstep - adds to its carbon footprint.

  • Use: In some cases, the way you use a product significantly impacts its carbon footprint. Think about the electricity your appliances consume, or the gasoline your car burns ⚡

  • Disposal: Finally, whether an item ends up in the landfill, is reused, or is recycled (if it can be, see my previous article on recycling) impacts its overall carbon footprint.

Thinking about lifecycle carbon emissions helps us understand the environmental impact of the companies we shop at and the products we buy.

Pop quiz: does your smartphone or your jeans have a bigger climate impact?

If you answered 'smartphone', you're correct!

The smartphone in your pocket probably has a much higher materials, manufacturing, and transportation carbon footprint than the pair of jeans you're wearing (Apple, 2023; Sohn et al., 2021). The production of electronics uses rare metals and complex manufacturing processes which tends to be far more energy-intensive than making clothing.

How you use the product and how long you keep it can change are really important as well! For example, countries like Sweden tend to wash their jeans a lot less and dry them on a line, while the custom in the U.S. is to wash them more frequently and dry them in the dryer. This additional electricity consumption to heat the water and dry the jeans in a dryer creates more emissions than the jeans themselves (Sohn et al., 2021).

Likewise, using your phone for an additional year or two can significantly reduce the climate impact of your lifestyle (since you are effectively buying fewer phones over your lifetime). This also helps you save money which is a win-win! Just make sure you put those savings in a climate-friendly bank.

5 Steps to Shopping More Sustainably

To sum it up, in order to minimize the climate impact of anything you buy, follow these steps.

  • When needed, find more climate-friendly companies to buy from

  • Buy quality products that you will use for a long time

  • Try to minimize the climate impact of using the product over time like washing it less or powering it with solar/wind electricity

  • Be thoughtful about when you really need to buy something

  • When you no longer need it, try to use it for something else, recycle it (if it can be!) or find a responsible way to dispose of it

Great, so how do I actually find companies and products that are more climate friendly when I need them?

There are four ways to take action today when looking for climate-friendly buying options:

  • Buy from recommerce marketplaces (thrifting, upcycling, and reselling).

  • Look for carbon neutral companies and products.

  • Look for lower carbon companies or those with climate goals in line with science-based recommendations.

  • Look for additional certifications that indicate the company or product has a more positive climate impact.

Let's dive deeper into each of these.

1. Give clothes a second life: thrifting, upcycling, and reselling for climate impact

Thrifting, upcycling, and reselling are great for both the climate and your wallet! Here are some of the benefits:

  • Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose: Buying pre-owned clothing prolongs their life and reduces the demand for new clothing production which avoids creating emissions from the lifecycle steps I described above.

  • Turn Your Closet into Cash: Gently used clothes you no longer wear can be sold on platforms like Poshmark or Thredup, or at local consignment shops. This is a great way to earn some extra money while helping the climate.

Here are a few resources to help make this easier:

Remember to focus on quality over quantity. Look for items in good condition that you'll love and wear for years to come.


2. Choose carbon neutral companies and products

“Carbon neutral” signifies that a company has calculated the carbon footprint of the company or a specific product, and then taken steps to offset that footprint. Most companies that measure the carbon footprint of their company or their products use this data to create a roadmap to reduce their impact over time which is a huge step in the right direction.

Additionally, “offsetting” allows companies to support projects like tree planting or renewable energy development to avoid or remove as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they emit.

Since we still live in a world with fossil fuel power, it's effectively impossible to not emit carbon emissions when making products, so “carbon neutral” products are a great way to vote with your dollars as we transition toward a better future. Some companies are trying to be carbon positive which is incredible and may be achieved over the next few years.

So how can you choose carbon neutral? I recommend looking for independent verifications and certifications that help support those claims. In particular, I recommend:

  • Climate Neutral Certified: This certification program verifies a company's commitment to measuring, reducing, and offsetting its carbon footprint. Here is their brand directory where you can find fully carbon neutral brands and products (all of us here at Aspiration are proud to be on the list of brands!).

  • Carbonfree Certified: This product-specific certification ensures a product's carbon footprint has been measured and offset. You can find Carbonfree products on Amazon.

  • CarbonNeutral: CarbonNeutral is a label backed by a consultancy, Climate Impact Partners, that claims to measure all the emissions created in the product’s creation, makes internal reductions and offsets the remainder. You can find CarbonNeutral products on Amazon.


3. Shop at lower carbon companies or those with climate goals in line with science-based recommendations

Finding climate-friendly companies and products means finding those companies that are climate leaders within their industry. They could be leaders by being among those companies with the lowest carbon footprint, or by being transparent in their climate impact and having a clear plan to reduce it that is aligned with the leading science-based recommendations.

How can you easily tell if companies are doing either one of these? Unfortunately, right now, it’s really hard. It usually requires individuals to find the company’s annual sustainability report and evaluate it.

To help find lower-carbon companies and products, there are a few independent certifications that can help guide your decision making. While not perfect, these can be helpful tools to navigate this complex space:

  • Recycled Content: Products that use recycled content (plastics, fibers for clothing, etc.) or labels like GreenCircle Certified: Recycled Content mean they help reduce the need to produce brand new materials, saving energy and resources. When looking at clothing, review the materials used to see if they highlight recycled materials. And you can find GreenCircle Certified: Recycled Content products on Amazon.

  • Organic: While primarily about farming practices, often indicates lower fertilizer use and reduced climate impact compared to conventional farming. This can be especially important for clothing materials like cotton. (Bonus: Look for Regenerative Organic Certified® Cotton which is even better than organic as it helps suck up carbon emissions while making the cotton.)

  • Cradle to Cradle Certified: This label indicates that a product has been designed from the start for responsible disposal and minimal environmental impact. You can find Cradle to Cradle Certified products on Amazon.


Finding companies with transparent climate reporting and targets is even harder for everyday consumers. The leading science-based carbon emissions reduction organization is the Science Based Targets initiative which allows you to find companies who have set targets. This is a nice tool but typically only applies to larger companies that have the resources to support a formal Science Based Targets initiative goal. 🎯


4. Look for additional certifications that indicate the company or product has a more positive climate impact

As you can see, the above items can be very hard to assess for everyday shoppers! There are other certifications and labels that help provide additional ways for you to shop sustainably.

First, curated networks like our Conscience Coalition can help identify if companies and products are more climate-friendly than others. If you know of any brands you want us to consider including in our network, please let us know! 🌏

Aspiration’s Conscience Coalition network

Second, companies can make more general climate commitments to help demonstrate that the whole company is committed to environmental progress. Two labels I recommend are:

  • Certified B Corporation: This means the company has met rigorous social and environmental performance standards, demonstrating an overall commitment to the climate

  • 1% For the Planet: Businesses bearing this label pledge 1% of their sales to support environmental non-profits

Why climate-friendly choices can cost more (and why they can be worth it)

I want to be honest: more sustainable or climate-friendly products often come with a higher price tag. This can be frustrating, especially when you're on a budget. 🫤

Here are a few reasons why this can happen:

  • Hidden Costs: Traditional pricing often doesn't reflect the true cost of a product. Pollution, resource depletion, and unfair labor practices aren't factored in. Sustainable companies internalize these costs, leading to a higher upfront price for the consumer

  • Quality Products: Sustainable companies often prioritize higher-quality materials and more ethical manufacturing practices. Durable, well-made products last longer, reducing waste and the need for frequent replacements

  • Innovation and Transparency: Sustainable practices often involve cutting-edge materials and processes. Research and development come at a cost, which can be reflected in the price. Additionally, sustainable companies are often more transparent about their supply chains, adding another layer of cost to collect and report this data

  • Smaller Company: Many climate-friendly companies are smaller which means they likely sell fewer products. To cover their fixed costs like employee salaries, they need to have a higher margin on each product they do sell

Every climate-friendly purchase, big or small, makes a difference. Here are a few ways to make sustainable shopping more affordable: 🙂

  • Focus on Thrifting: Thrifting and buying second hand are fantastic ways to find quality items at a fraction of the cost. See my suggestions above on where and how!

  • Prioritize Needs: You don't have to buy everything at once. Replace the items you really need and will use daily first, then consider others

  • Wait for Sales: Many climate-friendly brands offer seasonal sales or discount programs, so sometimes it pays to just wait a little!

The final chapter: responsible disposal

There is a lot more we can do at a product's end-of-life than just recycling or sending it to a landfill. 🚮

Here’s a few other options to minimize your climate impact when you no longer need the product:

  • Rethink and Reuse: Consider if a product can be given new life before discarding it. Many brands like Patagonia and REI offer robust gear trade-in or used gear resale programs

  • Explore Refurbishing: Some electronics manufacturers like Apple have trade-in programs for used devices that are refurbished and resold, extending their lifespan.

  • Recycle Right: Always try to recycle when you can to reduce the need for virgin resources. See my previous article on recycling for more tips here.

Feedback welcome! 🙏

As always, I hope you found this insightful and actionable! If you tried to use these steps to shop more climate friendly, how did it go?

To better provide you with useful content and insights on living sustainably, please share your feedback to sustainableliving@aspiration.com on what you liked, didn't like, found useful, or want to understand better.

 

References

Apple. (2023). Product Environmental Report. iPhone 15 Pro and iPhone 15 Pro Max. https://www.apple.com/environment/pdf/products/iphone/iPhone_15_Pro_and_iPhone_15_Pro_Max_Sept2023.pdf

Sohn, J., Nielsen, K. S., Birkved, M., Joanes, T., & Gwozdz, W. (2021). The environmental impacts of clothing: Evidence from United States and three European countries. Sustainable Production and Consumption, 27, 2153–2164. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.spc.2021.05.013


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