1. Do you really need it?
Facing economic stress unprecedented in our lifetimes, we might not need this reminder the way we did a couple years ago, but it's always a question worth asking. Separating your "wants" from your "needs" is a good first step toward reducing the environmental impact of your purchases (not to mention the financial impact on your wallet). The environmental impact from buying comes primarily in the use of natural resources to manufacture the products in the first place. If you don't buy it, you eliminate its impact.
In the case of home products, furniture and cabinets can be made out of wood from virgin forests, or processed woods made with toxic glues. Deforestation not only wipes out the habitat for species many of which, particularly in the case of tropical rain forests, have yet to be studied by scientists hunting for the next medical or nutritional breakthrough but deforestation also is a leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions (Indonesia and Brazil rank behind China and the U.S. in carbon emissions because of rapid deforestation, rather than heavy industry). Avoiding the purchase of wood-based home goods is one good decision you can make to help preserve the world's forests and its climate.
2. Can you get it used?
Many products have a useful life that extends far beyond the needs of one owner. Before buying new, check local garage sales, thrift and antique stores, classifieds, auctions and their global online equivalents, Freecycle.org, Craigslist.org and Ebay.com to look for items that can be given a second (or third or fourth) life. Bottom line: Buying used is the most environmentally sound way to buy, because it not only requires the use of no new natural resources in manufacturing, but also because it keeps a useful product out of a landfill or trash incinerator. Also, consider renting rather than buying when it makes sense.
3. How was it made?
Particularly if you're buying new, consider how a product was made: What materials were used, who made it and how were those workers treated? It's often not the end user or the end user's community that suffers from the manufacture of products that aren't made according to high environmental standards, but workers and local communities and ecosystems near the factories. Some suspect chemicals are also found in many common consumer products, so the question of progeny isn't important just for the health of workers, but for consumers as well. Among the online retail stores that traffic in ethically made goods, eBay WorldofGood.Ebay.com stands out, but there are others. Whether shopping online or in stores, look for Fair Trade-certified goods, and ask shop owners questions if you don't see certification.
In the case of home goods, consider carefully the materials used to manufacture your decorations and furniture. The gold standard for sustainable forestry is Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification. Look for the label whenever shopping for wood-based products. But you can do one better by choosing products made from recycled materials. Buying artwork and decorations? Consider the work of local artisans, or the independent artists selling through the likes of Etsy.com.
4. How is it packaged and shipped?
The making of a product is only part of what contributes to its environmental footprint. The materials used to package it and the fuel used to transport it are two other biggies. Studies have generally endorsed the proposition that online purchasing has a smaller environmental footprint than buying from a brick-and-mortar store, in large part because of the reduced energy costs associated with lighting and heating. Look for goods packaged minimally, and packaged with post-consumer recycled materials. If packing something of your own for sale, get creative: Crumple the paper that you'd otherwise have recycled to protect fragile items. Set aside a few boxes as you come across them, so you can re-use them when you need them. A minimum of thought can save significant resources over the long term. If you are buying from a brick-and-mortar store, ask questions of the store manager, or consult the company's Website for information about how they manage the efficiency and wastefulness of their supply chain.
5. How much energy or resources will it require to maintain?
The environmental impact of newly purchased items doesn't necessarily end when you get them home. Clothing needs to be washed, and jewelry shined. Buying a new dress that you can run through the washer has less impact than one that must be dry cleaned, for instance, since many dry cleaners clean with toxic solvents. Furniture may need to be washed, oiled, waxed or eventually reupholstered. On the other hand, buying furniture than can be easily spruced up with some simple maintenance, or repaired when needed, is a smart choice for your wallet and the environment since it will last longer before needing to be replaced.
6. Is it reusable, repairable or at least recyclable?
What happens to that product once you're done with it? Is it durable enough to be of use to your grandchildren? Can it have a second (or third or fourth) life once you're done with it? If it breaks, do you have the means to repair it?
Not only does it save resources to buy durable, long-lasting goods, but it can also provide a good return on investment. When you've tired of a new product, you can sell it to recoup some of your costs or even turn a profit. But often that's only possible if you've purchased a good quality item with lasting value.
7. Does it help me go green in other ways?
The crown jewel of ethical buying comes if the purchase you make helps you maintain a green lifestyle. That may mean supporting local artisans with a purchase of a painting or piece of jewelry. It may mean buying a piece of clothing that lets you wear your passions on your sleeve and educate friends and passers-by in the process. Or it may be as simple as buying a good raincoat...so you can walk instead of taking the cab on rainy days. It may mean that your next gadget isn't a new video-MP3 player but a home energy monitor, so you can track down and eliminate unnecessary electricity use.
Finally, maybe the purchase itself contributes to a cause because the seller donates a portion of proceeds. Check with the organizations you support to see which companies they work with, and get in the habit of reading the environmental and sustainability sections of companies' Websites. One great way to connect with sellers that share your passions and who will back up that passion with a donation based on your purchase is via eBay EbayGivingWorks.com.
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