The researchers note that there is almost as much variation within sectors as there is between them. But again, there’s no need to teetotal the emissions of every purchase—pluck the fruit that’s most readily available to you, make it a habit, and conserve your stress for bigger prizes.

Sometimes, trade-offs are required: De Chant said that he recently bought an energy-efficient washer and drier, as well as an eco-friendly brand of laundry detergent. But something in the detergent was causing grit to build up on the heating element of the drier, he discovered, causing it to work less well. So he went back to a conventional detergent.

“You can use your gut,” he said. “If you have experience with one product and it’s not working, then do something else.”

Waste less

If the chart above doesn’t help you, and you’re stuck in a shopping dilemma, it never hurts to be guided by waste. The average American generates about five pounds of waste per day, and only around 10% of plastic placed in recycling bins actually gets recycled. So whatever the product in question, the less you can use of it, the better. Products made from recycled materials are great, as are energy-efficient ones that waste less electricity.

But as a rule of thumb, having one well-made new thing that you use for a long time will almost always be preferable to buying multiple lower-carbon things. If you use a green household cleaning product, for example, but find that you burn through more of it because it doesn’t work as well as the conventional option, make the choice that wastes less.

Think beyond carbon

It’s helpful to remember that carbon emissions or natural resource consumption aren’t the only way to think of a product’s contribution to climate change. Ultimately, your spending sends a message—to the market, to elected officials, to your community, and to yourself—about what you want the future economy to value.

In addition to carbon footprint, you might consider giving preference to companies that have committed to science-based climate goals, or avoid those whose political contributions favor obstructionist politicians. You might choose to buy beef from a nearby ranch despite the emissions because you care about supporting local businesses, or take a road trip to a climate protest because you care about raising your voice.

Make it a mantra—but cut yourself some slack

Ultimately, climate-conscious consumerism is a marathon, not a sprint. If you buy one green product and then rest on your laurels, that serves your ego a lot more than the climate. Instead, the goal should be to make climate a part of your everyday life—in your shopping, reading habits, conversations, voting, choices about where and how to live, even your career, depending on how far you can or want to go.  That’s how the tons of CO2 really start to pile up.

“How do we allow a person to engage with climate change on a healthy, frequent basis?” said JP McNeill, founder of Ando, an app that allows users to invest their checking accounts in low-carbon industries. “The more engagement we create, the more the consumer will become an advocate.”

At the same time, Heglar said, it’s important to remember that climate change isn’t your individual fault. Little consumer choices might make you feel empowered, but they also come with an unreasonable burden: If I don’t choose the LED lightbulb, I’m killing the planet.

In reality, it’s not on any one person to solve climate change. In fact, the entire concept of personal carbon footprinting originated in the 2000s as a marketing campaign by BP, the oil and gas major whose products, along with those of just a handful of other global companies, are responsible for most historic greenhouse gas emissions.

“People feel overwhelmed and extremely guilty because we’ve been force-fed this narrative that it’s our own fault,” Heglar said.

She compared climate action to a yoga class: The point is to practice, not to nail every pose every time. And when you look around and see that everyone else is also sweaty and unsteady, it makes the whole challenge feel a lot more manageable.

“It feels scary when you look at it as an individual,” she said. “But if you’re focused on your consumer actions, just understand that you’re not the only one doing that, and that’s a lot less pressure.”

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