Sustainable Shopping: An Oxymoron?

Bamboo Utensil

Okay, so I’m always harping on about the dangers of being swept away in the aesthetics of the Zero Waste ‘lifestyle’,  with its shiny stainless steel bottles and cotton produce bags in muted tones. After all buying ‘stuff’ is an anathema to sustainable living.  All of that still stands but sometimes investing in a few well-considered products can help us live more sustainable in the long run. The trick is having enough knowledge to make the right purchasing decisions and not just end up with more useless crap in our lives, and that’s where this article comes in!

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Hierarchy of Sustainable Shopping
I did a talk recently for a local Grow it Yourself Group and as part of my presentation I created this hierarchy for sustainable shopping.

The reason why buying new is nearly always the least sustainable option is not just because of the energy or resources required to make the item itself,  it’s all of the resources and energy used to replace that bought item. Take for example compostable coir plant pots that are so popular in the gardening world at the moment. When you buy a packet of coir plant pots you put into action the following chain of events;

  • The processing of the coir for the plant pots, most likely using electricity generated by fossil fuel
  • The transportation of that coir to the plant pot factory, most likely by a vehicle run on fossil fuel
  • The manufacturing of plant pots, most likely using electricity generated by fossil fuel
  • The manufacturing of packaging for the plant pots, which is most likely plastic, which was most likely made using electricity generated by fossil fuel
  • The transportation of that packaging to the plant pot factory, most likely by a vehicle run on fossil fuel
  • The transportation of plant pots to the store or online retailer, most likely by a vehicle run on fossil fuel
  • The delivery of those plant pots to the customer or the collection of them by the customer,  most likely by a vehicle run on fossil fuel
  • The collection of the packaging for disposal, most likely by a vehicle run on fossil fuel
  • The recycling of packaging (unless compostable at home), most likely using electricity generated by fossil fuel

So it is nearly always far more sustainable to borrow, reuse or make something, or buy second-hand than to buy new, even if that new item is compostable or recyclable and from an ethical retailer. The exception could be made for existing items that cause harm or use (excessive) energy as part of their use, i.e. fleece clothing, inefficient fossil fuel cars or old refrigerators. I’ve struggled to find research comparing the carbon footprint of such items, e.g. new clothing made from organic natural fibres and pre-loved synthetic. Sometimes the more sustainable option is clear and in those instances I will clearly state that but where it’s not I will simply give you as much information as I can find and invite you to decide the best option for you.

If you’ve considered borrowing, reusing, making or buying second-hand but find that you really do need to buy new there are a few guidelines on how to buy wisely.

  1. Avoid single use
  2. Buy something that is long-lasting and repairable, and from a company that gives a guarantee or a repair service.
  3. Buy objects made from materials that are recyclable/compostable at the end of their life. Remember that plastic noted as recyclable, may actually only be downcyclable and will eventually end up in landfill / incineration after it’s been downcycled 3-5 times.
  4. Buy locally made from local materials, if possible.
  5. If you can’t buy locally then buy from an ethical retailer that is doing their best to lessen their impact on the planet. See below for a list of sustainable ethical e-tailers.

Sustainability of Materials
Before you do start shopping its worth talking about the sustainability of the materials that we typically see in eco-products. There are pros and cons to every material and what you buy should be determined by what suits your ethics, values, needs and budgets. Here’s a rough guide to the materials that you’ll may well come across as you shop for eco-products. I’ll update this list as I come across new information.

Pros – Light so requires less fuel to transport, energy-efficient to make, robust if suited to application, waterproof, wipeable
Cons – Not always recyclable/downcyclable*, uses a finite resource, chemicals in plastic can leach into food, it becomes brittle over time, it can break easily if unsuited to application, it wears badly and can look ugly after short-term wear, stains badly when exposed to acid based liquids / foods.

Compostable Plastic
Pros – Doesn’t last hundred of years, made from renewable resources, light so requires less fuel to transport, energy-efficient to make,
Cons – Need to be segregated from other plastics to decompose, chemicals in it may leach into food, long-term impact on soil and water is untested, typically made from GM crops and can be made from animals

Plant-based Plastic (Polyethylene)
Pros – From a renewable resource, light so requires less fuel to transport, energy-efficient to make, robust if suited to application, waterproof, wipeable
Cons – Not recyclable, not compostable, not biodegradable,

Recycled / Downcycled Plastic (including recycled synthetic fabric)
Pros – Uses up a waste product, light, waterproof
Cons – Could be contaminated, downcycling of plastic generates micro-plastics in the environment, downcycling uses up water, recycling can’t reclaim all of the energy embodied in an item so downcyclable plastic is still damaging our planet, plastic downcycled into fleece adds microplastics to our oceans with every wash.

Pros – can be recycled infinitely (except for borosilicate glass like Pyrex), is inert (chemicals don’t leach into or from it), is long-lasting if cared for carefully, washable
Cons – is heavy and so uses more fuel to transport, can break easily, requires a lot of energy to make and recycle,

Stainless Steel
Pros – can be recycled infinitely, is inert (chemicals don’t leach into or from it), is long-lasting, washable
Cons – requires a lot of energy to make and recycle, heavier than some other materials

Pros – light so uses less fuel to transport, can be recycled infinitely, washable, not as durable as other metals
Cons – uses chemicals as part of the recycling process if printed with images, i.e. soda cans,

Tin Cans
Pros – lighter than glass so uses less fuel to transport, can be recycled infinitely
Cons – typically coated in BPA which some research has linked to cancer, requires a lot of energy to make and recycle

Ceramic / Pottery
Pros – is inert (chemicals don’t leach into or from it), lasts a long time if cared for carefully, sometimes repairable
Cons – prone to chipping and cracking, isn’t recyclable

Bamboo (Solid Form)
Pros – mould resistant, is a crop that grows quickly and so is an efficient use of land, doesn’t require a lot of chemicals to grow although organic bamboo is hard to find, compostable, from a renewable resource,
Cons –  the farming of bamboo is a cause of deforestation in some countries, is not grown locally to Ireland and so involves shipping from a distance

Wood / Timber
Pros – from a renewable source, compostable and recyclable, long-lasting if cared for, looks better with age, may be sourced locally, repairable
Cons – can lead to deforestation if not grown sustainably, chemicals used to finish it can leach into soil if composted, affected by water and pests, is heavy and so may use more fuel to transport than alternatives

Paper / Card
Pros – recyclable, compostable, from a renewable resource
Cons – easily damaged, heavier to transport than plastic so uses up more fuel, uses a lot of water during processing and recycling, chemicals often used during processing and colouring which leach into compost if composted.

Pros – recyclable and compostable, long-lasting if cared for, washable, from a renewable resource, repairable
Cons – requires a lot of water to grow and process, requires the use of toxic chemicals unless organic, genetically modified cotton has caused hardship for many poor cotton farmers in India,

Pros – compostable, byproduct of meat industry, long-lasting, looks better over time, repairable
Cons – although leather can be tanned without the use of heavy metal, chrome or nickel, conventional tanning still uses these toxic chemicals used in processing stage, animal welfare in slaughter industry is a concern,

Pros – compostable, from a renewable resource, may be sourced locally, long-lasting if cared for, repairable
Cons – animal welfare in agriculture industry is a concern, toxic chemicals are used in dying process unless it’s organic

Pros – compostable, from a renewable resource, long-lasting if cared for, repairable
Cons – involves the boiling of silk worms alive or, as is the case with peace/ ahimsa / vegan silk, the industry has resulted in such over breeding as to render the silk worm incapable of living beyond a day, not grown locally,

Pros – grows easily, doesn’t require as much water as cotton, lasts a long time if cared for, compostable, repairable
Cons – not grown locally,

Pros – mostly grown in Europe, doesn’t require as much water as cotton, last a long time if cared for, compostable, repairable
Cons – needs more frequent ironing than other fibres,

Rayon (includes all plant-based fabric including bamboo and soy)
Pros – crease resistant, inexpensive, uses a renewal resource, mould resistant, repairable, is biodegradable (up to 80%)
Cons- not recyclable, may leave toxins in soil when it is degraded, needs intensive processing with toxic chemicals to convert into fabric although eco-brands Lyocell, Tencel claim to use non-toxic chemicals and have a closed loop system that reuses 98% of processing chemicals, not grown locally

Sustainable Ethical Bricks and Mortar Stores
I’ve put together a map of Eco-Businesses in Ireland. You can access it from my home page by clicking the text Map of Eco Businesses. I’ve created layers in the map for different types of companies;  retailers, hairdressers, repair companies. I’ll continue to update this as I come across new businesses. If you know of any missing from this map please let me know in the comments below.

Sustainable Ethical E-tailers
If you need to buy online then check out my list of Irish and European Sustainable Ethical E-Tailers


*downcyclable means to remake something into a product of lesser quality than the original. Plastic can’t be recycled into a newer version of its original form, it can only be downcycled into something else like fleeces, clipboards, seating benches. Although downcycling saves the resource in the original item from being lost it isn’t a completely circular systems and does little to prevent new plastic being made to supply the demand for the original item, i.e. water bottle or food packaging.

Published by Elaine Butler

I am a circular design consultant helping manfacturers prepare for the circular economy

2 thoughts on “Sustainable Shopping: An Oxymoron?

  1. I would like to know where I can buy pasta or rice loose and also olive oil by the jar? Are there many products that can be bought like this?


    1. Hi Imelda. Thanks for the message. It all depends on where you live. I’ve a map of eco-businesses on the home page of the blog. It’s just at the top. If you’re looking on a mobile phone you’ll have to swipe down to see the menu, then just click on .Map of Eco Businesses’ and a map will appear. There’s different layers on the map and the one that you’ll want is ‘package-free stores’. Some are just butchers or health-shops that do refills but full zero-waste stores are listed there too. Elaine


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