Will a household products subscription help YOU save the earth?

A household products subscription is an arrangement by which a company mails you certain items–like soap, toilet paper, and laundry detergent–on a regular basis.  A number of companies have started offering this service recently.  Some of them only sell environmentally preferable products like plant-based detergents and recycled paper.  Others offer these items among a wide range of products.  Will subscribing to earth-friendly products delivered to your door help you to reduce your environmental impact?

Well, it depends!  Here are some questions to consider.

Would this get you to change to greener products than you’ve been using?  If you’ve been washing your dishes in petroleum distillates because your local stores don’t carry plant-based dish detergent, then buying the green stuff would be an improvement.  But if a subscription just means buying by mail the same products you’ve been sticking into your cart as you walk through your local store buying milk and vegetables each week, then the subscription is actually worse for the environment because of the additional energy used to ship your package and deliver it to your home, on top of the energy you use going to and from the store.

Could you buy the same products locally?  If you haven’t been using the green stuff just because of old habits, but you could buy it in stores where you already shop, that’s the way to go.  You don’t want stores to stop selling green alternatives because nobody’s buying them!  Support stores stocking these products.

Does buying green products in person mean a special trip to a store where you otherwise wouldn’t go?  If you’re driving a significant distance just to get to that store, a subscription may be greener.  Deliveries often use less fuel than in-person shopping.  However, consider what else is sold at the store that has the green stuff: Could you do your full grocery shopping there one week a month, without spending a lot more money or missing items you need?  Could shopping at that store even be your motivation to switch to better milk or some bulk-bin foods in reused containers, along with the green cleaners?

Where is the subscription company located?  Usually, at least for small companies, the city named on the “Contact Us” webpage is the place from which they’ll be shipping your order.  The closer it is to your home, the shorter the distance those things travel and the less energy is used to get them to you.  (Big companies like Amazon may be shipping from multiple warehouses around the U.S.  It would be great if they always shipped things the shortest distance possible, but they have lots of other considerations in keeping their expenses low and filling orders rapidly, so it’s hard to guess how far your order will travel.)

Do you tend to run out of essential household items so that you have to make a special trip to the store?  People vary widely in their ability to keep track of what they’re likely to need soon so that they can buy it before it’s needed.  If this is a problem for you, a subscription might help to solve it by dropping the products on your porch before you run out.  If that stops you from doing extra driving, or it gets you to use green stuff consistently instead of half the time buying whatever you can get at the corner store, then it’s better for the environment.

Are you lacking storage space?  One of the main reasons my family rarely runs out of things on short notice is that we use part of our basement as a pantry, where we keep extras of many things we use regularly; when we take the last one out of the pantry, it goes on the shopping list, so by the time that item is used up we’ve probably bought another.  If you don’t have enough storage space to do this, buying by the case is not the best approach for you.  A subscription could bring you more manageable amounts–and some companies give you a discount for subscribing, so that you’ll spend less than you would buying the products individually.

Will the subscription bring you excess stuff you won’t use?  I’ve been shocked by some of the subscription packages I’ve seen offered: Who uses an entire bottle of every imaginable type of cleaner each month?!  If you have a small family and a small home, you may need only one bottle per year of things like furniture polish and glass cleaner.  Look carefully at what the subscription offers, how much you can adjust it to your personal needs, and whether or not you can exclude unneeded items from your next shipment or even skip a shipment altogether without financial penalty.  If the subscription is too large and inflexible, of course you can donate your extra cleaners, but that’s an extra hassle that might increase waste and will certainly increase your costs.

Will the subscription motivate you to try new things?  If the company is flexible about the contents of each order, and especially if it offers occasional bonus items, that might get you to experiment with a wider range of green products than you’ve been using.  Especially if your local stores that carry green products are all major chains like Target, they probably offer only one or two brands of eco-friendly stuff, and maybe you’re not thrilled with the performance or fragrance of all of those products.  A subscription could help you “shop around” and try other brands.

It can be tricky to balance your environmental responsibility with your time, money, and convenience.  Does a subscription service make sense for your family?  I’ll be writing more about my own decisions soon.  Meanwhile, I’d like to hear about the earth-friendly buying strategies of other families, or what’s been stopping you from trying greener options–feel free to leave a comment!

Visit Waste Not Want Not Wednesday and Works-for-Me Wednesday for more great tips!

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About 'Becca
author of The Earthling's Handbook, about the environment, parenting, cooking, and more!

7 Responses to Will a household products subscription help YOU save the earth?

  1. For us, having a subscription would mean consuming more. I’m lucky that I can get pretty green options where I live. If I couldn’t a (small) subscription would make sense. People seem to think they can shop their way out of climate change. This is my big worry with a subscription–it encourages consumption. That’s what the companies selling the stuff hope! As you have laid out, with any consumer decision we make, we have to really think about all the pros and cons and do our best.

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