Shopping Sustainably Is Easier Than You Think: Here Are 3 Simple Rules To Abide By
We're pretty familiar with the fact that climate change is a rather complex problem. Despite the dire need for things to change, there isn't one straightforward answer or plan of action. (Although, here are 10 ways you can start.)
It only makes sense that sustainability, as it turns out, is a bit hard to define. "Sustainability is a nebulous term, but it should stay that way," Joey Zwillinger, the co-founder of sustainable footwear brand Allbirds, tells me on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. The reason sustainability deserves its big, nebulous recognition? It means so many different things—there's animal welfare; chemical disposal; processing fabrics; social compliance in treating employees; the list goes on.
That's why, as a consumer, it can be quite difficult to "shop sustainably." With a word that means so many different things to different industries, how do you know you're making a correct, sustainable decision?
Luckily, Zwillinger offers his tips on how to truly shop sustainably. While it's important to narrow in on the problem you're trying to solve (and yes, individuals do have the power to spark change!), here are three general rules to keep in mind when browsing aisles—or in the case of COVID-19, scrolling through online shops:
1. Educate yourself on materials.
"Petroleum should be something of the past," Zwillinger says. And yet, petroleum is present in most of our apparel, and we don't even know it. "Even the word polyester is just a bucket of petroleum," he says.
In order to start shopping sustainably, you have to be mindful of what materials come from renewable sources and which are just glorified versions of petroleum. In terms of what materials are naturally derived, Zwillinger mentions Merino wool, sustainably harvested eucalyptus fiber, sugar cane, and vegetable oil as some of the top dogs in sustainable manufacturing.
"Materials are a foundational place we need to start with," Zwillinger says. It does take some time and effort, but it's not as big of an issue to tackle as you might think. In fact, we don't necessarily have to invent anything new: "Nothing needs to be invented for us to solve our problem." It makes total sense—when we manufacture with natural materials, they come from—you guessed it—natural resources. That said, it might take some creativity, but the foundation is already there in the earth (an optimistic statement, if not galvanizing).
2. Be mindful of carbon emissions.
Here's the big one: We need to start monitoring how much carbon goes into making a single item, let alone an entire product line. Zwillinger makes it easy by offering a carbon score on all his labels. The closer it is to zero, the less carbon impact it has and the better it is for the environment. He believes all labels should have this method of scoring, as it would make consumers' choices a whole lot easier when it comes to buying sustainable goods.
"If it's close to zero, buy it. If it's super high and above the industry average, don't buy it," he says simply. It sounds incredibly easy, and yet companies don't typically admit how much carbon they release into the atmosphere. That's where the government (and the consumer) comes in: "The FDA requires all food to have labels (the amount of sugar, carbs, etc.). Apparel doesn't have that—labels just state what the material is," Zwillinger says. "No consumer can understand from that small amount of information how much carbon footprint the product has."
If our government did enforce carbon emissions on labels (like how it enforces the calorie count on packaged food items), shopping sustainably would be a whole lot simpler. For now, it's up to the consumer to discern.
That's not to say all companies should operate at carbon zero—unfortunately, it might not be possible. Even for stellar companies like Allbirds, who has some carbon emissions in the process (they harvest their wool from Merino sheep, and when those sheep burp, they release methane into the air). The difference is sustainable companies pay for those emissions in the form of carbon offset projects.
"Businesses have to take responsibility and pay for their emissions," Zwillinger adds. "Consumers might pay for it in the form of higher prices, but they can trust the process."
3. Make your shopping an emotional purchase.
Whether you like it or not, what you buy reflects who you are in some ways. "Consumer products are an emotional purchase," Zwillinger says. "You express yourself by what you wear, what you do, and what you consume." And it's not a bad thing! When you define yourself based on what you consume (whether it's food or commercial items), you can express your values.
When more and more people shop based on their values, more people might gravitate toward a sustainable company instead of a conventional manufacturer to grab their goods. If politicians and government leaders notice consumers purchasing items based on their values (rather than not caring about where their shoes come from, as long as they're on trend and available), they might create legislation to ensure all companies meet sustainable guidelines. After all, politicians tend to realize that many people vote with their wallets, so they do want to appeal to the average consumer.
In terms of climate change, Zwillinger is a realist. He recognizes the bleak future we have if we continue to live (and shop) unsustainably, but he's optimistic that it won't be so hard to make necessary strides.
"All the tools are there," he says. "It's about willpower and getting consumers galvanized to demand change. The government will follow." Let that sink in the next time you're shopping for shoes.