10 ways to reduce the carbon footprint of your shopping

C Free’s guide to reducing carbon emissions when it comes to the things you buy – from food to technology, cars to clothes, and everything in between.

Sept. 23, 2020, noon by Anna Prendergast

Ultimately, improving the way you shop is about making informed choices – in other words, working out how to buy less and buy better. As consumers, our purchases have power: the more we buy products that are ethically and environmentally sound, the more businesses want to supply them, the more investment goes into them, the less expensive they become and the more they improve. The planet benefits, and so do we.

1) Put your money where your mouth is. Every time you spend money, you’re putting your pounds behind a brand, its business model, its environmental policies and its impact. Clever marketing has changed our consumer culture over the years, cultivating wasteful attitudes towards shopping, so next time you’re about to hand your money over, consider where a product comes from, what it’s made of, what it costs, how it gets to you and how easy it is to dispose of it. Does the brand make this information easily available? If not, why not? Anything made abroad will have increased emissions as a result of the air miles required, and some materials are more damaging to produce and dispose of than others (e.g. plastic, synthetic fabric, polystyrene).

2) Stop before you shop. The easiest way to reduce the impact of the things you buy? Don’t buy them. Be mindful of why you’re buying certain things – identify patterns in your behaviour (e.g. boredom buys, retail therapy) and address them before you spend your money. We’re all susceptible to a quick pick-me-up or impulse buy, and in a world of same day delivery, we’re used to having what we want, when we want it. Start challenging your own thought processes when you shop, and ask yourself: do you really need this? Will it improve your quality of life as much as the emissions used to make it will harm others? Would you still buy it if it was double the price? How many times will you use this? Unpicking the ways in which we hand over our credit card can reveal bad spending habits, and save you money in the long term.

3) Buy less and buy better. This means quality over quantity: often the majority of a product’s carbon emissions will be created when disposing of it, so buying items that last is more efficient, plus saves you making repeat purchases. Food waste alone is responsible for 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions – so only buy what you need, and check out C Free’s guide to reducing the carbon footprint of your food

4) Look after your belongings. Whether that’s having your car serviced regularly, fixing a button on a shirt or buying a case for your phone, taking care of products extends their longevity, saves you money and stops you having to buy a new one as a result of avoidable neglect. Befriend your local tailor, seamstress, carpenter, mechanic and handyperson – they’ll be able to advise you as well as service your stuff.

5) Ditch fast fashion. The fashion industry is accountable for 10% of global carbon emissions, and is incredibly problematic for the environment. Manufacturing processes, transport, packaging and disposal all demand a huge amount of energy and waste, so instead of buying ‘new’, shop vintage and second hand on eBay, visit charity shops, hit car boot sales and swap clothes with friends. Campaigners such as Venetia LaManna and Aja Barber regularly post useful resources, online communities such as PLC Buy, Sell and Swap advise members on plus-size second hand shopping, and journalists such as Lauren Bravo and Lucy Siegle have been calling out the industry for years. Challenge the outdated idea that you need a new outfit for every event, or use a rental company such as Hurr Collective or My Wardrobe to borrow designer clothing without the expense or commitment. 

6) Prioritise sustainability. Slow fashion is the opposite of the mass-produced garments produced by giant brands with little accountability or transparency. Avoid brands like H&M, which produces around 1,000 tons of clothing every 48 hours – the sheer scale of which inevitably results in surplus stock that ends up in landfill and perpetuates consumers’ throwaway attitude towards clothes. Instead, find small, independent businesses that provide transparency at every stage, and has clearly outlined environmental practises, such as Story mfg, whose approach is not only 'zero impact' but 'positive impact', and People Tree, which was founded by environmental campaigner Safia Minney and makes garments from Fairtrade certified organic cotton and natural dyes. Good On You is an excellent resource to learn more about brands’ green practises (or lack of), as is sustainable ecommerce platform Project Cece: on both, you can shop brands and products with user-friendly filters and comprehensive environmental ratings.

7) Great things come in small packages – or no packaging at all. When you shop, take a reusable bag and refuse single-use plastic carriers. Plastic-free alternatives are increasingly available, such as toiletries in recyclable packaging – we like Alter/Native by Suma’s shampoo bars and Wild’s refillable deodorant. Supermarkets are experimenting with plastic-free sections, like Waitrose’s Unpacked initiative, and bulk-buying stores where you can bring your own reusable containers are springing up all over the UK. Ordered something online and disappointed in the excessive packaging? Apply pressure to the retailer to find a solution.

8) Cut the screen time. Paying for unlimited data? Addicted to Instagram? The bad news is that mobile data, and the IT and technology that supports it, all require vast amounts of energy, often from non-renewable sources like coal. Processing and storing all our data accounts for around 3-4% of global CO2e emissions, a number that’s thought to double by 2030 (read more here). Use a search engine like Ecosia that uses ad revenue generated by your searches to plant trees, and apps like Forest which has planted over 800,000 trees whilst helping customers concentrate and reduce screen time.

9) Dispose of old purchases properly. Donate clothes to charity shops instead of sending them to landfill; take old furniture to your local recycling centre or rehome them on Gumtree; return electronics to the store you bought them in (most will provide recycling options). If they’re still in good condition, use apps like eBay and Depop to sell them on and make some cash in the process.

10) Once you start tweaking your spending habits, it becomes second nature. But if you want to take it one step further, offset the rest of your shopping-induced carbon emissions by calculating your footprint with C Free’s calculator, and helping fund projects such as Sidrap’s Wind Farm, which generates renewable energy in Indonesia.


Read more:

10 ways to reduce the carbon footprint of your food

10 ways to reduce your carbon footprint when you travel

10 ways to reduce your carbon footprint at home