What Is Sustainable Shopping? Tips for Making Responsible Purchases

Every dollar spent shopping casts a ballot for or against a sustainable future. While many goods are produced in ways that deplete natural resources and destroy ecosystems, others are made in more socially and environmentally responsible ways. Learning about sustainable shopping practices means that individuals can work to ensure that their buying choices do not support the exploitation of people or the planet.

Why Shopping Sustainably Is Important

The average person in the U.S. generates about 14 tons of greenhouse gasses each year, according to Statista. That’s more than three times the global average.

Two shoppers in a clothing store read a jacket label.

To prevent a 2-degree Celsius rise in global temperatures, which scientists say would lead to a collapse of natural systems, the average global footprint needs to drop substantially.

Human activity has already begun to strip the earth of resources, resulting in deforestation, water and soil contamination, overfishing, and climate change. For these reasons, the planet needs people to adopt eco-friendly purchasing habits, which can help in the following ways.

Reducing Waste

Single-use items and other products people buy are quickly thrown away, creating excess waste. Many products also come with packaging that is immediately discarded. “We do so much over-packaging here in America. And, by the way, you pay for it,” states Dr. Kyra Krakos, assistant professor of biology and sustainability program coordinator at Maryville University.

Sustainable products, however, don’t end up in landfills; they’re specifically designed to be reused, repurposed, or recycled.

Often, the materials of sustainable products come from items that would have otherwise gone in the garbage. For example, you can buy wallets made from non-recyclable billboard vinyl and eyewear made from discarded plastic pulled out of the ocean.

Lowering Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The manufacturing of conventional products typically involves the burning of fossil fuels for energy and the use of chemicals. Both emit large amounts of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. More than 20% of greenhouse gas emissions come from the industry sector, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Sustainable product manufacturing, on the other hand, makes use of green and renewable energy, such as wind and solar power. It also aims to use the most energy efficient processes, which helps reduce or eliminate greenhouse gas emissions.

Improving Health

Improved health should also motivate individuals to shop sustainably. Traditional products often contain chemicals such as flame retardants, formaldehyde, and BPAs, which can interrupt endocrine function, affect the immune system, and even have adverse effects on fetal development.

Sustainable products that avoid the use of such harmful substances can help reduce people’s exposure to chemicals with negative health risks. Additionally, because sustainable products tread more lightly on the planet, they help decrease disease-causing air, water, and soil contamination. The World Health Organization estimates that 4.2 million people die each year from air pollution alone.

How to Shop Sustainably in Your Daily Life

There are a number of changes you can make in your shopping habits to minimize your impact on the environment. “Whether you live in a dorm room or a full house, everyone can take a look at their carbon footprint or energy footprint,” state Krakos.

While you should consider adopting sustainable shopping practices when buying items such as electronics and household furniture, you also can make responsible choices for your most frequent purchases. These include clothing and personal hygiene products.

Sustainable Shopping Tips for Buying Clothing

The fashion industry is the world’s third-largest polluter, according to a recent World Economic Forum report. Additionally, a 2021 report by thredUP estimates that 64% of the 32 billion clothing items produced annually end up in landfills.

These numbers underscore the importance of making responsible choices when purchasing clothing. Some general ideas to keep in mind when it comes to sustainable clothes shopping include:

Thrift Shopping Instead of Buying New Clothes

Buying secondhand clothing helps preserve the earth’s natural resources and prevents the additional pollution created by producing new garments. Not only can thrift stores provide shoppers with excellent bargains, but they often sell nearly new clothing alongside unique vintage pieces.

Choosing Clothing Made from Natural Fibers Instead of Synthetic Fibers

The production of synthetic fibers, such as polyester and nylon, creates significantly more carbon emissions than the production of natural fibers. Even conventionally made cotton requires the extensive use of harmful pesticides and involves the use of more water and energy in its production than organically produced cotton. However, choosing clothing made from plant-based and organically produced fabrics can substantially reduce one’s ecological footprint.

Selecting articles with longevity and versatility can cut back on a closet full of clothes that have barely seen daylight. Fast fashion trends often lead to people wearing clothing items one or two times. Steer clear of fads; instead, focus on buying timeless styles that will endure.

Opting for High-Quality, Durable Clothing Rather Than Cheap, Poorly Made Clothing

Though purchasing high-quality apparel can cost more initially, the clothing’s durability makes up the difference in the long run. It’s also worth noting that cheap fashion has an extremely high environmental price tag considering most of it ends up in the dump. So, instead of buying a slew of poorly made items, purchase a smaller collection of well-crafted, durable ones that will last across many seasons.

Sustainable Shopping Tips for Buying Personal Hygiene Products

From plastic microbeads in soap poisoning wildlife and polluting waterways, to avobenzone in sunscreens compromising coral reefs, to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in perfumes creating smog — personal hygiene products can take a heavy toll on the environment.

However, switching to sustainable personal hygiene products can help lighten this load. Helpful guidelines to keep in mind when buying everything from lotions to toothpaste include:

Finding Alternatives to Single-Use Personal Hygiene Products

Today, many reusable personal hygiene items exist that allow people to ditch single-use products. Some examples include:

  • Reusable bamboo-stemmed cotton buds (instead of plastic-stemmed cotton buds)
  • Reusable bamboo facial pads (instead of disposable cotton pads)
  • Reusable menstrual cups (instead of tampons and feminine pads)
  • Electric or metal safety razors (instead of disposable plastic razors)

Switching to these alternatives can greatly reduce the waste individuals create.

Using Refillable Containers

Bodywash, shampoo, conditioner, and many other personal hygiene items typically come in plastic bottles that become waste once they’re empty. Buying these products in large bulk containers alongside refillable ones helps cut back on some of this plastic waste. Another option is to find a local store with a refilling station. Shoppers can also reduce this waste by buying shampoo and conditioner bars instead of shampoo and conditioners in plastic bottles.

Making DIY Products

Conventional personal hygiene products often contain ingredients harmful to people and the environment. They also come in packaging that becomes waste or needs to be recycled. By making their own DIY deodorant, shaving cream, soap, and mouthwash, people can avoid harsh ingredients and skip the packaging.

Other Sustainable Shopping Tips

There are many other areas where you can buy sustainable goods, including household products — such as cleaning and kitchen supplies — and food purchases.

“Stop buying paper towels. Get a couple of dish towels and wash them regularly,” says Krakos. In addition, you can cut down on packaging and fuel consumption by shopping at farmer’s markets and local produce stands. “If you can, buy your food locally. That means you’re eliminating shipping costs and large amounts of travel.”

Safeguard the Planet Through Sustainable Shopping

Shopping sustainably makes an impact on society’s ability to build a sustainable future. Conscious consumers help reduce harmful emissions and landfills while supporting practices that safeguard their own health and the planet’s.

Those inspired to become stewards of the environment by leading communities and businesses to more sustainable practices need the right education. Maryville University’s online bachelor’s degree program in sustainability offers three tracks: environmental science, business, and policy.

Discover how Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Science in Sustainability prepares graduates to launch successful careers promoting sustainability.

Recommended Reading

Importance and Future of Sustainable Agriculture

Sustainability vs. Sustainable Development: Examining Two Important Concepts

What Is Sustainable Living? Ideas and Innovations to Help Get You Started


The Cut, “An Exhaustive Guide to Sustainable Shopping”

Donegood, “What Is Ethical Shopping — and Why Is It the World’s Most Powerful Force for Change? (Updated for 2022)”

Earth 911, “What Makes a Product Sustainable?”

Edge Fashion Intelligence, “Fashion Industry Environmental, Waste, and Recycle Statistics”

Forbes, “Why Sustainable Fashion Matters”

Good on You, “8 Ways to Green Your Personal Hygiene Routine”

Green With Less, “How Second-Hand Shopping Can Save the Planet”

Mint Lounge, “Unseen 2019: The Ugly Side of Beauty Waste”

Network for Business Sustainability, “What Is Social Sustainability?”

Onya, “48 Eco Friendly Products You Can Buy Today to Help Stop Plastic Pollution”

Select, “Ideas to Make Your Bathroom More Environmentally Friendly”

Statista, Average Per Capita Carbon Dioxide Emissions Worldwide from 1960 to 2020

Statista, Per Capita CO2 Emissions Worldwide in 2020, by Country

Sustainable Brands, “Brands Missing Opportunity to Highlight Health Benefits of Sustainable Products”

Trvst, “5 Reasons to Buy Sustainably”

United Nations, “UN Climate Report: It’s ‘Now or Never’ to Limit Global Warming to 1.5 degrees”

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Vogue, “A Guide to 2022’s Best New Sustainable, Circular, Refillable Products”

World Economic Forum, “Net-Zero Challenge: The Supply Chain Opportunity”

World Health Organization, Air Pollution

Be Brave

Bring us your ambition and we’ll guide you along a personalized path to a quality education that’s designed to change your life.