Twenty years ago, I saw a catalog filled with practical household products that were better for the environment than the stuff we’d been using: laundry and dish and cleaning products made from plants and natural minerals, paper products made from recycled paper, tampons and cloth towels made from organic cotton. I was excited! But I’d just lost my job, and I was living with my partner Daniel and two housemates in a penny-pinching lifestyle because none of us had an impressive income. I couldn’t just squander the household budget on expensive versions of everyday stuff!
That’s the point when I really integrated my comparison-shopping skills with my environmental concerns and developed the 5 questions for deciding what to buy that you’ll see below. Sometimes, the greener option costs more. This is how we decide whether it’s worth it for our family.
Let’s make this as basic as possible by imagining the choice between buying “the usual thing” you’ve bought before or “the green thing” that might be better for the environment and maybe also better for your health.
1. What is it?
What makes the green thing better than the usual thing? Maybe it’s reusable, organic, vegan, recycled, made from plants instead of petroleum, less toxic . . . How important are those features, in their impact on the environment or in your personal values?
2. Where did it come from?
The environmental impact of the shipping industry is huge. Earth’s economy is very complicated, so it can be difficult to tell exactly what traveled how far to make a product and get it to you. But there are a few basic ideas you can apply:
- If the green thing was made from materials that could be obtained in this country, processed or manufactured in this country, and distributed by a company based in this country, then it’s very likely that it traveled less than a thing made on the other side of the planet or made from imported materials.
- If the green thing was made by a company near you and purchased from a store near you, then it traveled less than a thing made farther away and/or purchased from a store far away for shipment to you.
3. How is it packaged?
Maybe the thing is wrapped in much more plastic than a similar thing. Maybe one thing is wrapped in plastic, but another is in a recycled-cardboard carton. Look at how much packaging you’d be discarding and what proportion of it you could reuse, compost, or recycle. Aim to minimize the amount of instant garbage created by your purchase.
I’ve been surprised to find that in some cases, what appears to be a green thing actually has more wasteful packaging than the usual thing! It’s weird how some companies will make all-natural, organic items and then wrap them individually in plastic and put them in a non-recyclable plastic spacer tray inside a larger plastic bag inside a glossy cardboard box!
4. How will it get to your home?
In general, ordering online for non-rush delivery will burn less fuel than driving a car to a store and back. But if you’re going to go to that store in person, transporting one more item in your car will have a smaller environmental impact than ordering that item for a separate delivery. I get into some of the details in my article on buying toilet paper.
Of course, walking or riding a bike to a store to buy the thing is greener than driving to the store or ordering for delivery!
Combining more purchases into one order usually saves energy (and time and money), whether it’s an online order or a trip to the store. Sometimes, this is a good reason to buy the usual thing from the same store where you buy other things, instead of getting the green thing all by itself from a different store.
5. What is the price difference?
If all the other questions are making the green thing look pretty good, consider its price compared to the usual thing. Is it a lot more expensive, or only a little, or is it actually cheaper?
Make sure to compare the amount you’d actually use. A liquid laundry detergent, for example, might be designed to use 2 oz. per load, whereas another brand might be 4 oz. per load–so compare the cost per load, not per ounce.
If the green thing is reusable but the usual thing is disposable, focus on the price per use. That can be hard to calculate when you don’t know how long the reusable thing will hold up. I ask, “Will it pay for itself in a year?”–because most durable objects last at least one year with normal use. I estimate how many times per year I use the thing and divide the price of the reusable thing by that number; then I compare the price per use to the price of the disposable thing.
Once you’ve tried the green thing and know that you like it, you might be able to reduce its price by buying a larger amount at one time.
Okay, so: Will you spend the extra money?
If the green thing turns out to be cheaper, yay, you’re all set! But if it’s more expensive, you’ll have to think about what the answers to your 5 questions mean to you and which is most important.
One way to handle this is to set a rule about how much more you’ll pay to be greener. Twenty years ago, we agreed with our housemates that we would try one green thing at a time and only try ones that were no more than 10% more expensive than the typical thing–not our usual thing that was the least expensive available, but the name-brand, normal-sized product that most people would buy. We took a leap of faith and ordered a case (6 jugs of about a gallon each) of Seventh Generation liquid laundry detergent, because the case price + shipping charge worked out to just slightly more than the cost of liquid Tide that would wash the same number of loads. We loved it! I have never again bought conventional laundry detergent.
What’s the real cost of your toilet paper? Walk through the process of finding the best toilet paper, and learn more about in-person vs. online purchasing, in my article at Kitchen Stewardship!
Read about some of our other quests to find the best value for our values, here at The Earthling’s Handbook:
- cleaning products
- hygiene products
- breakfast cereals
- lunchboxes and accessories
- saving money by buying a case
- saving money by bringing our own packaging
- giving up imported goods for Lent