Low-impact shopping: introduction

What is it?

Shopping is one of the most environmentally-damaging things that humans do. The sheer scale of it is constantly increasing, and we are forever being pestered to buy more by the advertising industry. Products contain more and more unhealthy, synthetic ingredients; and then there is the huge growth of just a few retailers who dominate our economies, concentrating wealth and power in a way that seriously damages democracy and decimates small businesses.

Shop eco: check the ingredients label for nasties.

Shop eco: check the ingredients label for nasties. Every purchase you make is a vote for or against certain products, companies, activities and/or ingredients – and it works – companies are very responsive to customer preferences.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. We have a choice in how or whether we spend our money. There’s a positive aspect to it – supporting products and companies we approve of, and a negative one – boycotting products and companies we disapprove of.

It’s not about ‘green consumerism’, which is a contradiction in terms – it’s just shopping. We all have to shop, unless you live in a remote villages where people grow or make everything they need. If you do, I guess you’re not reading this, and don’t need this advice anyway. Good luck to you.

There are 3 main features of low-impact shopping:

Shop less

This is linked with ‘downshifting’, which involves earning and spending less. It’s about deciding that you just don’t need a lot of stuff that’s on offer, but it’s also about buying more durable products that last longer, buying things with less packaging, and doing things yourself, like producing your own food, crafts etc.

Shop local:

Shop local: the closest independent shop to Lowimpact.org’s office sells, amongst other things, locally-produced honey, free-range eggs, fruit, vegetables, bacon and sausages; let’s support local shops and producers.

Shop eco / ethical

Positive: buying products that are recycled (including second-hand), biodegradable, organic, fair trade, and contain natural ingredients.

Negative: boycotting products and companies associated with things such as environmental damage and pollution, sweat shops, toxic ingredients, animal cruelty, working with oppressive regimes and arms manufacturing.

An easy place to start is by boycotting Nestle, who have caused the deaths of many babies in Africa with disinformation about powdered milk v. breastfeeding.

Shop local

Shopping at local, independent shops rather than giant chains, and buying locally-produced goods rather than goods that have been flown half-way round the world.

What are the benefits?

Shop less

Shopping less means less production, land use, resource use and transport – all of which involve environmental damage. It can also make you healthier and happier, as you reduce stress by having to earn and spend less, and ignoring advertising, which is designed to make us dissatisfied and unhappy.

Shop eco / ethical

Helps to reduce pollution and environmental damage, and promote social justice. Boycotts really work – they force companies to change their ways. Also, if you avoid nasty ingredients in food, bodycare and other products, it will be much healthier for you and your family.

Shop local

Most small, local, family-run shops are being put out of business by supermarkets. Independent grocers have fallen from over 120,000 in 1960 to less than 20,000 now. That means more money concentrated into just a few enormous companies – i.e. just a handful of individuals, which damages our society and democracy. Everything that supermarkets do is damaging in fact – flying goods around the world, squeezing suppliers to increase profits, concreting green belts, requiring customers to drive due to their out-of-town location, selling only the products of giant corporations – damaging democracy even more. And yet they control 80% of the UK grocery trade, and are after 100%. Let’s not let them. And shopping malls are concentrations of multinational stores that look the same wherever they are – boring as well as damaging.
Local shops spread money more evenly, provide more (and more satisfying) employment, sell more locally-produced goods, and you can often walk to them. Locally-produced goods don’t have to travel so far to the shops, reducing transport and all the resource use, pollution and CO2 emissions associated with it.

Shop less: have a go at growing some of your own food

Shop less: have a go at growing some of your own food – in your garden, in tubs or window boxes, or if you’re really ambitious, you could apply for an allotment.

What can I do?

First you have to get into a certain mindset, which involves ignoring the dominant messages in society – to earn more, consume more, buy brands etc. It’s very difficult, and involves a slow change in habits, until you get to the point where TV adverts, shopping malls and T***o make you feel slightly unclean. It’s worth getting there.

Even when you’ve decided to do it, there’s a lot of greenwash around, so you have to be careful.

Shop less

First think carefully about whether you actually need something. Can you do without it or find/make an alternative? Buying unnecessary eco-gadgets isn’t green shopping, it’s just consumerism.

Tips: don’t believe the hype of the advertising industry – learn to ignore it;  don’t follow fashion, and have to throw away your clothes after a year; don’t go food shopping when you’re hungry – eat first; use libraries and freebie websites – see the bottom of this page; buy more durable goods – they may cost more, but they’ll save you money in the long run; re-use things like envelopes, glass jars etc. – be creative.

You can provide yourself with many of the things you need without shopping by doing-it-yourself – for example crafts, natural cleaners, bodycare products, soap, and of course, food.

And you can boycott the shopping bonanza that has taken over Christmas. There’s nothing about Christmas that says you have to spend lots of money – we’ve been persuaded to do it by big business. Make a pact with your friends (how often do you get what you want anyway?) – spend time instead of money, make them something, give them a fruit tree or vegetable seeds, and instead of a card, send a charity e-card.

Shop eco / ethical

You have to do your homework. There are lots of different ratings, certification and labelling schemes; they change regularly, and some are more reliable than others (e.g. some are voluntary, or run by the companies themselves).

Do a bit of reading – other people have done the hard work for you, for example the Good Shopping Guide or Ethical Consumer magazine and website, which contains reviews and ratings for thousands of products and companies. They look at materials used and energy-efficiency as well.

Check the ingredients lists. It’s a minefield, but you’ll quickly get used to it. Avoid nasty ingredients like aspartame, chlorine, or ethy-/butyl-/alkyl-anything. For a detailed look at the ingredients in your shopping, have a look at What’s Really in Your Basket, which covers thousands of ingredients – natural and synthetic – and gives an easy red, amber and green code for health risks.

You can also go for organic, fair trade and recycled (including second-hand) if you can, and donate unwanted goods to second-hand shops.

And try and avoid anything disposable – including taking your own bag shopping with you.

Don't follow trends

Don’t follow trends: or you’ll have to throw your clothes out next year (or next week if you look like this).

Shop local

You can read up on the problems caused by allowing our economies to be controlled by supermarkets – e.g. books like Shopped, Sold Out or Tescopoly.

You’ll need to do a bit of research into what local shops you have, and if you have a local market day, veg box scheme or farmer’s market. Farmer’s markets are just markets on the continent. We only see them as something special because we’ve gone so far in the opposite direction.

You can also check your food miles, and try to buy more local food that’s in season. Plus why drink Californian or Australian wine when Europe produces so many fantastic wines?

Shopping local may not be easy, as so many small shops have been put out of business by supermarkets, but try and see it as a little adventure. It can also be more expensive (although not always), but if you cut your overall consumption it should be do-able, and as more people do it, prices will come down.


We'd love to hear your comments, tips and advice on this topic, and if you post a query, we'll try to get a specialist in our network to answer it for you.