When it comes to e-commerce, there are plenty of ways shoppers can prioritize the planet and shop more sustainably this holiday season.
If you’ve been practicing eco-friendly habits when you’re shopping, you’re in good company. According to a 2020 survey conducted by the National Retail Federation, nearly 80% of consumers say that sustainability is important to them, and nearly 60% are open to changing their shopping habits to become more sustainable.
After all, people are doing a lot of their shopping on the internet these days. Online shopping has boomed in the past two years as a result of the pandemic, becoming a $26.7 trillion global economy, according to the UN. While this is great news for online retailers and independent sellers, it does come with some environmental downsides. In 2020, 2.63 million tons of returned purchases ended up in landfills, and in 2019, the amount of global packaging waste from e-commerce purchases totaled 942 million kilograms—and that’s not even taking into consideration the environmental impact of the products themselves.
The good news: There’s no shortage of ways businesses can improve their sustainability tactics, and plenty of strategies you can try to make your online shopping habits a little less stressful on the environment. Here are six ways you can shop more sustainably online this holiday season and beyond.
1. Buy second hand
The impact of the fashion industry alone on the environment is pretty staggering. According to World Bank, it accounts for around 10% of all global greenhouse gas emissions, and it is on track to surge more than 50% by 2030. That’s why buying clothes that already exist—and might otherwise be headed to a landfill—can make a huge difference. Thanks to online resale platforms like Depop and Etsy, as well as more high-end online consignment shops like The Real Real and Vestaire Collective, it’s never been easier to shop secondhand online.
You can also support small businesses by shopping secondhand online. Missouri-based store That Thrift Shop Down the Road offers personalized boxes of thrifted and confined clothing, which can easily be ordered and purchased via its Linktree profile, and Pennsylvania-based seller @didithriftthatcloset has regular Instagram sales of vintage clothes, accepting payment through he Linktree PRO ‘Support Me’ function. And remember: clothing and accessories aren’t the only thing you can shop secondhand online. Check out shops like Bellmawr, New Jersey’s Retrospect Vintage for cool, curated home goods and furniture.
2. Shop low- and zero-waste stores
Once you start taking notice of plastic waste, it’s hard to not see it everywhere—especially in your own routines. Beauty products, cleaning supplies, and other personal care items can add up to a considerable amount of trash that’s destined for the landfill. The zero-waste movement is all about removing as much plastic waste from your life as is feasible (of course, it’s hard to avoid it completely). Small swaps can make a difference, and you can buy sustainable, low-waste goods at online shops like the cleaning product shop Good Change Store and the plastic-free store Bee Joyful Shop. Low-waste beauty products (like lotion bars) and beautiful household tools are great way to shop more sustainably while also making great holiday gifts, too.
3. Do your research
Greenwashing—suggesting that a product is sustainable without any evidence—has become a pretty rampant issue in the retail world, especially as shoppers have increasingly eco-centric values. So it’s important to be a smart consumer. Look for shops that have certain accreditations that prove just how sustainable they are. Fair trade certified products meet rigorous standards for environmental protections, working conditions, and fair wages. Certified B Corps (like the home design store Goodee) are companies that “balance purpose and profits” and prioritize environmental standards. OEKO-TEX certifications are given to textile products, like bedding and clothing, that are tested and guaranteed to not include any potentially harmful toxins. Products with the 1% for the Planet certification are not necessarily sustainable themselves, but the certification notes that the brand donates (at least) 1% of its gross sales to environmental charities.
4. Prioritize natural materials
When you’re shopping for clothing and home goods, you want to buy things that will last—but not forever. Natural materials like wool, cotton, and linen are biodegradable, which means they won’t linger in landfills for hundreds of years to come. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, synthetic materials (like nylon, polyester, etc.) shed microplastic fibers their whole life cycle: during their production, every time they are washed, and when they are discarded. While natural fabrics can still have a negative impact on the environment (dyeing cotton, for instance, is a historically water-intensive process), reducing the amount of synthetics you buy can help to cut down on microplastic waste. And if you buy clothing or home goods second hand that are made with natural fibers, even better.
5. Look for upcycled and handmade goods
Especially when it comes to holiday gifting, handmade gifts—even if you’re not the one who made them—stand out as something really special. When you buy gifts online from shops that repurpose items, like Californian jewelry store Upcycled Works, you help a creator give old items a new life (and support an independent maker in the process). Buying handmade items—like candles or personal care products like lotions and body butters—helps you support small, sustainable businesses, while also proving your impressive gift-giving skills.
6. Invest in items with a long lifespan
Ultimately, the most important part of “reduce, reuse, and recycle,” is the “reduce” part—by thinking critically about your purchases, you’ll end up buying things that will actually have a long lifespan, instead of heading for the trash after just a few uses (according to the Environmental Protection Agency, 17 million tons of textiles alone go to landfills each year). While you don’t have to have a capsule wardrobe—let’s face it, minimalism isn’t for everyone—really think over each purchase and how much you’ll use it. Take some time to define what you really love, and avoid shopping for gifts that may feel overly gimmicky or trendy. The best kinds of purchases are the ones that will actually be used.
When you consciously shop more sustainably, remember that perfect is the enemy of good; small changes to your shopping habits can amount to a big difference. So, as you do your holiday gift-buying—and continue shopping online through the new year—take sustainability step-by-step. Before you know it, it will become a lifestyle.