Going Green: Smart Consumption [24 Tips]

Part 3 in an 8-Part Exclusive WebEcoist Series on How to Go Green


Image via Rob Holland

Some environmentalists understandably deride eco-friendly consumption as nothing more than greenwash or a new opportunity for clever marketers, but consider: some of the latest and best green innovations are in fact coming from consumer-driven trends. Buying organic jeans is not going to save the planet (buying ten pairs is definitely not helping things), but green consumption is helping to mainstream green living.

As explained in the first article in this series, reducing consumption is one of the most important things you can do to help the planet. But it’s impossible to avoid consumption altogether. The best strategy – after appraising the inherent earth-friendliness of the product – is to ask yourself if consuming a good will benefit you long-term. Is it healthy? Is it of the highest quality? Will it last? Sustainability isn’t just about saving the planet; it’s about a sustainable body, bank account and standard of living.

General areas of consumption are listed here, with tips to get started on your journey to green. As always, this post isn’t comprehensive, but rather a starting point, so feel free to add more tips in the comments.



Image via Wendalicious

– Dining Out

Yes, burgers are delicious (tasty, tasty murder…or so the t-shirt says). But they – and most prepared foods – are inherently bad for the planet due to the high level of resources required to create these fast, and caloric, meals. So try to eat out less – the average American dines out at least 4 times per week. You might try skipping out on one restaurant meal per week to start, or get into the habit of splitting meals with your friends. You’ll help the planet and maybe even lose a few pounds. You’ll save a lot of money, too. You don’t have to become a gourmet chef; cooking at home is more about planning in advance than anything.

– Fewer snacks

All those Snickers bars and Powerades taste great when you are craving a snack, but these heavily-processed snacks are terrible for the planet (not to mention you). They represent the ultimate in thoughtless consumption. The shelf-stable ingredients are often genetically and chemically modified with no regard for nutrition, food miles, or sustainability. Make a point of snacking on whole, fresh, organic treats like almonds, apples and organic string cheese. There are plenty of delicious organic treats these days, like artisan whole grain crackers and exotic trail mixes, but they can be a little pricey.

– Join a CSA

Support community agriculture by joining a CSA. There are now meat CSAs in addition to produce CSAs. This is inexpensive and is a great way to cut out the middleman of a trip to the store.

– Farmers’ Market

Most cities have farmers’ markets, where you’ll have access to local, seasonal, fresh and often organic or organically-raised (but not certified) produce. Show up 30 minutes before closing and the farmers will practically give you your week’s worth of produce for pennies – no one wants to haul fruits and vegetables home.

– Less Meat

You don’t have to become a vegetarian to be a green consumer, but reducing meat consumption is a major way you can lighten your environmental impact. It’s been estimated that beef consumption may in fact be worse for the planet, in the aggregate, than driving. Start with one tasty vegan meal a week.



Image via Rob Lee

– Go Vintage

Who wants to look like a GAP ad, anyway? Secondhand clothes are unique, original and often better-made than new clothes. They’re also dirt cheap. Vintage clothes – whether organic, vegan or not – are inherently eco-friendly because no new resources were required to make them.

– Organic brands

If you want to splurge on some new duds, go for organic cotton, bamboo and hemp to help the planet. Ecomall has dozens of green clothing links. Girls can also check out Tobi’s eco section to get started. (Though even Nordstrom has a green online section now.) The guys can find classy threads at Rawganique and everyone should check out Treehugger’s guide to greening your wardrobe.

– Quality

One important part of green consumption means buying things that will last. Fast fashion – the stuff at Target, Forever 21, and Urban Outfitters – is cheaply made and will not be around next year, if even next month. Buy fewer things, but buy the best.

– Jewelry

Whether it’s an engagement ring or simply a gift, minimize the great environmental and social impact of traditional jewelry purchases (think Blood Diamond). Choose vintage gems, eco gold and fair trade diamonds.

Personal Care


Image via Raphael Quinet

– Free of Toxins

Many personal care products – from shampoo to soap to conditioner to lotion – are essentially a cocktail of rendered animal fat, chemicals, and petroleum-based agents and fragrances. Look for organic and nontoxic products. There are literally hundreds available now, and even large chain grocery stores and drug stores are offering eco options, from Tom’s of Maine to Abba to Burt’s Bees and many more. Read the ingredients and make sure you avoid parabens and synthetic fragrances. Look for real vegetable and fruit extracts and plant ingredients. There’s no reason the label should read like chemistry class. We’ve just become accustomed to that.

– Animal-Friendly

Many products are no longer tested on animals, but may still contain animal products. Look for goods that say “no animal products”.

– Safe Cosmetics

If women knew the ingredients in their makeup, they’d all go natural. Mineral makeup is a healthy, nontoxic option, and anything that is free of artificial fragrance (read: parabens) and animal ingredients is generally fine.



Image via stefan.eissing

– Used

Buy electronics used – you’ll save hundreds or even thousands of dollars and your choice will be green because no new resources will go into yet another gadget. Just make sure to buy any available insurance or care plan in the event your used gadget is a dud. Buy only from trusted sellers.

– Look for efficiency

Look for Energy Star certified appliances and electronics, LED or CFL lighting and screens, and efficient electronics models. Most companies happily promote efficient aspects of their televisions, computers and coffee makers, so it’s not hard to find green options.



Image via Aaron13251

– Safe cleaning products

From Method to Seventh Generation to Meyers’ to Dr. Bronner’s to Planet, there are so many great cleaning products so you can scrub, launder and clean safely. Or, get a little geeky and make your own. You may be surprised to know that a little vinegar and Borax is about all you need for every cleaning job.

– Non toxic paint and carpet

Look for low-VOC paints (Benjamin Moore makes a good selection) and carpets made of wool, hemp, sisal and other organic fibers – there’s even bamboo these days. Do what you can to minimize indoor pollution and off-gasing.

– Organic textiles

Part of green consumption means reducing the amount of chemicals we all use – and cotton, believe it or not, is one of the worst offending industries. Fruit of the Loom? Think again. Thankfully, even Target now carries cheap organic cotton toweling, so it’s getting pretty easy to select organic linens for around the home.

– Eco-friendly furniture and decor

There’s an eco option for everything, so forget about IKEA. Costco even offers sustainably-harvested furniture these days. If you’re buying furnishings, consider going vintage for the most carbon savings. If not, online outlets like Branch Home, Hip & Zen, VivaTerra, EcoEtsy and (what else?) Eco Furniture are fun places to start. Also check out the green sections of social shopping communities like Delight and This Next. Once you start looking you will be amazed at all the options.



Image via scubadive67

– Hand made

People are touched by hand made gifts because of the time involved. Consider a batch of chocolate chip cookies or a thoughtful letter instead of another gift certificate for crap. Simple, home-made goods are often more meaningful than something new.

– Time

The gift of your time is what those you love want most. Cook a meal for their birthday; have a long phone call; rent cheesy movies and spend an afternoon on the couch being lazy together. These things have almost zero environmental impact and are likely to be more memorable than an expensive gift you might splurge on.

– Eco friendly gifts

If you’re short on time and want to give a great gift, why not make it an eco-friendly one? Whether your friend is green or not, he or she will love a Sigg bottle or the ultra-cool HYmini. You can even start your friend on a green path with an eco starter kit (just make sure your friend wouldn’t be annoyed by this).



Image via phoosh

– Used books and games

Most of the time there is no need to buy a book or game brand-new. It can be hard to wait, especially when a hot game is released, but exercise a little restraint and buy used. You’ll help the planet and save money.

– Go digital

Why buy a magazine, CD, DVD, game or book when you can get it online or tote it around on your iPhone or Kindle? Keep everything digital to go really green.

– Invest wisely

Think long term when you’re tempted to make a purchase. Rent a snowboard until you’re sure that you’ve developed a long term love for the slopes. Hold off on the guitar until you’ve had a few lessons. In general, spend a little bit more for better products once you know you really want them. A great rule of thumb is to wait a day before making any non-essential purchase.

Come back next week for the next installment in this series, and be sure to share your tips with others in the comments.