How to shop without destroying the climate

Walmart shoppers
Walmart shoppers
Image: Gunnar Rathbun/AP Images for Walmart
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A couple of years ago, Tim De Chant wanted a deep freezer, so he could more easily manage grocery shopping and meal prep for a growing family. As a science journalist and lecturer at MIT, he was conscious of how much energy freezers suck when they’re running around the clock, and wanted to minimize its carbon footprint.

But the US government’s Energy Star database of energy-efficient appliances was clunky, outdated, and required deliberation between bewildering engineering specs. “It took me two hours to find something that worked,” said De Chant. “No consumer in their right mind would sift through that.”

De Chant’s experience is a common one, as a growing number of people in the US and globally see climate change as an urgent threat. Many people want to do something, but global warming is a juggernaut unleashed by the machinations of the entire global political and economic system. It’s hard to know where to start. Shopping choices feel like a way in: an actionable decision point, completely under your control.

Those choices do add up. Emissions from household consumption in just 94 of the world’s biggest cities amount to 10% of the world’s total carbon footprint, according to a study last year from the University of Leeds and the environmental group C40. Yet even for people with the resources and inclination to make a well-informed consumer choice, it’s not always easy to do. The “lifecycle” carbon emissions of consumer products—from raw materials, through the product’s use, to disposal—are complex, and lack transparency from manufacturers.

For De Chant, the solution was to build a website, FutureProof. It analyzes independently-audited corporate emissions data to recommend products with minimal carbon footprints. But in addition, for anyone keen to curb the climate footprint of their consumption, there are a few guiding principles to help you make the right choices on the things that matter most—and not beat yourself up about everything else.

One of the most important is to recognize that consumer choices alone won’t solve the climate problem. That might sound scary—but it can also be liberating.

Find your “gateway drug”

To start your decarbonization journey, you can use a personal carbon footprint calculator (like ones designed by The Nature Conservancy or the Klima app) to get a measure of where your emissions are coming from. For most households in developed countries, the biggest sources will be transportation, food, and electricity. Each presents opportunities for carbon-conscious shopping, with some choices more expensive than others: Buy an electric car; eat fewer animal products, especially beef; install solar panels or simple weatherization upgrades, join a community solar co-op, or see if your local power company offers a renewable energy subscription.

Not all of these options will be equally available or affordable to everyone, of course. The important thing is not to obsess over finding the one thing that will provide the biggest CO2 reduction, but to find a starting place that makes sense for your needs and budget, and keep going from there. If you can afford the big-ticket items, go for them! But don’t worry if you can’t: There’s a built-in fairness there, since wealthier households have bigger carbon footprints to begin with.

“People should find their gateway drug, and go on and expand it,” said Mary Heglar, a climate author and host of the Hot Take podcast. “Always ask yourself what’s next, and fall in love with the fact that there’s always another level to go to.”

Sweat the right small stuff

Setting aside EVs and solar panels, what about smaller consumer products? Which are the most important to make climate-savvy decisions about?

One of the most comprehensive answers came in a study in April 2020 from Columbia University economists, who analyzed lifecycle emissions data on 866 consumer products ranging from blue jeans and pasta to laptops and cars. Because these data are patchy, reliably reported by a relatively small number of companies, and inconsistently measured between industries, the researchers converted each product’s footprint into a per-weight carbon intensity: kilograms of CO2 per kilogram of product.

Computers and tech equipment had the largest carbon intensity—but since tend to be relatively lightweight and durable, that’s not the same as saying they’re ultimately responsible for the most emissions. On average, across all products, the total lifecycle emissions of a product was around six times its weight, and almost half of emissions occurred “upstream” in the production supply chain, rather than during the product’s actual use.

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.”