mom and toddler looking at shopping bags

Want to be more environmentally friendly? Start with these four questions

If you’re looking for ways to help the environment, ask yourself these questions before you make a purchase. Not only will they help you to be more eco-friendly, but they’ll also help you to save money!

The ding of the doorbell reverberates through your home. You rush to your front door to see who’s there, but instead of a person, there’s a small pile of packages.

You feel a rush of excitement as you scoop them and bring them inside.

Pile of packages at the front door
The thrill of getting packages delivered to your front door (Image by Drew Stephens)

“What are those, mama?” your child’s curiosity peeked as you bring in the pile .

“It’s some things I ordered. Want to help me open them?”

You grab a pair of scissors and you and your Mini Me carefully cut through the taped closures. Inside one box is a box of pens oddly wrapped in a giant box and protected in plastic air pillows. In the next, you find a beautifully packaged pair of shoes, each one in its own plastic bag with plastic inserts and paper stuffed inside to protect their shape. In the third, a new Instant Pot is encased in styrofoam and another box.

You put away your new belongings, break down the boxes to stick in your recycling box later, and scoop up the small mountain of plastic, paper, and styrofoam that has formed by your side and stuff them into your now half-full kitchen trash bin.

Pretty typical, right? But consider with millions of households doing this how much extra trash we’re throwing away each year..

Oof, so much trash! (Photo by Alan Stanton)

More than half of our household trash is packaging and about one-third of the trash in a typical dump of packaging material. (source)

Related Post: How to Cut Down on Food Waste to Help the Planet and Your Wallet

We’re filling our garbage cans with things the moment they enter our house.

Not only is that terrible for the environment, but we’re also wasting our hard-earned money on packaging. After all, someone has to pay for all that plastic, cardboard, and styrofoam. And guess who it is — it’s you and me.

While the answer is not to never buy something ever again, there are some things we can do to cut down on the amount of unnecessary waste we’re bringing home and throwing away. It starts with asking yourself a few questions.

Questions to ask yourself before buying something new

  1. Do I really need it?
  2. Can I borrow it?
  3. Can I buy or get it used? And if so, can I get it locally?
  4. Is there a more eco-friendly alternative?

That’s it. But if you know me, you know that I like to talk. So grab a cup of coffee, and let’s dig a little deeper into those four questions. You’ll find lots of goodies here with ideas to help you on your own eco-friendly journey and reducing how much you throw away.

And just a heads up, this post contains affiliate links. You can read my full disclosure policy here.

Now, onto the first question:

Question 1: Do I really need it?

Is it me, or does it feel like we live in a culture of “stuff”? Buy this, buy that, click a button and have it delivered at your front door in as little as a few hours. It’s like we’re conditioned to want things yesterday.

And no wonder, wherever we turn, we’re exposed to ads for things that seem to follow us no matter where we go. (Gotta love when you seem to mention something to a friend and next thing you know you see an ad for it on Facebook. Creeeepy!)

Before you buy, hit the pause button and ask yourself: Do I actually need this?

(And same goes for buying things for your kiddos.)

And then wait a day or two and see if you feel the same way. (Unless, of course, it’s something like toilet paper or food. Then obviously don’t wait.)

Believe me, I get it. It’s so much fun to get something other than credit card offers in the mail. And that rush of excitement that you get from something brand new.

woman looking happy as she shops
Ain’t it fun to carry a rainbow of shoppings bags? (Image by Roderick Eime)

Related Post: 40+ Changes You Can Make Right Now to Live a More Eco-Friendly Lifestyle

But a bit part of moving toward being eco-friendly is shifting our mindset. We don’t actually need a specific gadget for everything. Like a friggin butt paste spatula. (Yes, that’s actually a thing.)

And even if you do need it, not everything has to be tag-still-on-in-its-original-packaging brand new for it to be of value or use to us.

Which brings me to my next question to ask…

Question 2: Can I borrow it?

We are social beings who crave community. People generally want to help each other out.

(Ok, well maybe not everyone, but chances are if you’re reading this you’re part of a network of the kind of people who do.)

two woman walking down the street talking
They look like the type of people who want to help out a friend in need! (Photo by Mike McBey)

I don’t know why we think we can’t ask each other for help — which, by the way, I’ll be the first to admit I’m guilty of doing. But you’d be amazed at how willing people are to lend out things. All you have to do is ask, and here are a few places to:

  • Facebook — Post it a status update. I recently was looking for a babysitter for an out-of-town trip and within a few days, I had the names and phone numbers of several babysitters, all through friends of friends…of friends. And with childcare a hot commodity, that was a pretty big ask. So while technically no one was lending a tangible thing, it just goes to show that people want to help.
  • Nextdoor — This private “social network for your neighborhood” allows you to connect with your neighbors and share information. It’s a great way to ask to borrow things from people who live nearby.
  • Buy Nothing — This is an international network of self-described “hyper-local gift economies” where you share, lend, ask, or give away items. Search for one in your community here. Similarly, there are Everything is Free Facebook groups by municipality.
  • Local listservs — Whether it’s for your neighborhood, city, children’s school, or religious group — heck, I’m on one for urban canners where people give away fruit growing in their yards! — there are tons find a location-bound listserv where it would be appropriate to ask to borrow something. You can usually find them on Yahoo or Google.
  • Friends — Guys, there’s a reason people are your friends. You like and support each other. (At least, one would hope.) If you know a friend has something that you need for a bit, call her up, catch up on each others’ lives, and ask her if she’ll lend you a fancy maternity dress to wear to a wedding. Most of our baby stuff, including cloth diapers and big-ticket items such as a swing, we borrowed from a friend and have lent out our stroller to other friends. Seriously, people want to help!

And in the event you can’t borrow it, you can often find an option to rent just about anything. (Hello, sharing economy!)

For example, if you’re traveling, there are sites for renting baby gear at super cheap prices so you don’t have to lug around pack-and-plays or heavy carseats.

We recently rented a steam cleaner through Home Depot. Not only did it save us hundreds of dollars of having a professional do it — which, interestingly, was more than it would have cost to buy a new coach, and we definitely weren’t looking to replace our stained yet otherwise perfectly good 3-year-old couch — but we didn’t have to buy something we rarely need to us.

(Total aside, I was both amazed and grossed out by the dirty water that filled the machine when my husband was done cleaning our couch. Apparently with two kids and a cat we need to do that more than every three years…)

While it’s impossible to list out every single place to rent things, a quick Google search will get you there. And if it’s something you need for an extended period of time and want to own, the next thing you should ask is..

Question 3: Can I get it used locally?

Not only can you borrow things for free, but people also give away things no longer need, or you can buy things at greatly reduced prices. It’s just a matter of looking in the right place. And here’s just a few to get you started.

  • Freecycle — This grassroots international network strives to get things out of landfills and it does that by connecting people who want to give away things for free. I can’t even remember all the amazing goodies I have asked for and received through this goldmine of a listserv (and given away). Look up your town or city and join a local listserv.
  • Craigslist — Maybe this is so 2004, back when I used the site to find apartments, furniture, and dates, but Craigslist is a treasure trove of used items.
  • Facebook — In addition to the general marketplace, you can often find local buying/selling groups. I’m in several for kids & maternity stuff.
  • Consignment & thrift shops — Oh my goodness, do I love a good thrift store. Seriously, whenever I travel I look up local thrift shops and make sure to hit up at least one. This one does take a bit more patience, but you can get things for yourself and your kids at amazing deals. (My personal favorite was a brand new with tags still on leather jacket for just $7.99 at Goodwilll!) I’ve also heard great things about Savers, but a quick Google maps search of “consignment” or “thrift” should pull up some great choices.
  • Yard sales — These are a great way to get things at a bargain. Of course, the danger of yard sales is bringing home random stuff you didn’t realize you wanted or needed until you saw it. Find out where they’re happening on Craigslist or keeping your eye peeled for signs.
  • Host a swap — Get together with your friends and trade books, toys, clothes — things you no longer use or need but someone else could use. I’ve attended some great clothing swaps with my local mom crew over the years. You get to clear out your closet or home and stock up on some new-to-you items, and it’s free!
Stuff you probably don’t need, but look, it’s only $1! (Image by Rubbermaid Products)

If you’ve exhausted your options for buying it locally — or, more realistically, you have limited time because you have a family, next ask yourself…

Question 3 (Part 2): Can I buy it used online?

There are so many great places for buying things used online. The upside is it’s generally a huge time saver since there’s no need to coordinate schedules or hope that you’ll find what you’re looking for at a store or yard sale.

The downsides are you can’t check out the quality in-person, you may have to also pay for shipping, prices might be higher than buying it locally in-person, and it needs to be packaged so that it can be shipped. Some sites or individuals are better than this than others at reusing packing materials and limiting how much they use, or you can also try asking them before it’s shipped.

Here are a few places to buy things used online:

  • Swap.com — This online thrift store sells toys and clothes for the whole family. Over the years I have bought so great clothes for my kids and high-demand toys including Duplo blocks and wooden trains.
  • eBay — Again, I’ve had great luck finding great items for me and my family. Just make sure you turn on “pre-owned” under Condition since plenty of people use it as platform for selling brand new goods. For kids stuff, I particularly like searching for “lots” where you get a bundle of clothes for a specific size. You have less choice over what you get, but as long as you like most of it you can give away or sell the rest. I also got a MacBook Air on eBay years ago, saving hundreds of dollars.
  • Threadup.com — Similar to Swap.com, you’ll find a huge selection of second-hand clothes and accessories for women and children. They also have remade and a Rescue Box with bargains. They also offer the option to shop from My Home Warehouse, so that all of what you buy gets shipped from one warehouse instead of multiples ones. If you use this link, you’ll get $10 to spend on your first order.
  • Gazelle — I have not yet personally tried this one out, but you can get electronics, including phones, computers, and tablets, used at Gazelle.

Finally, if you can’t find what you need used online, the next things to ask…

Question 4: Is there a more eco-friendly alternative?

Unfortunately there is no easy answer to this one, but some thing to consider:

  • Is it made from natural materials such as linen or organic cotton?
  • If it’s made from not-natural materials, are they made from recycled or reclaimed materials? For example, there are some great toys companies made from recycled containers!
  • What is the packaging like? Is everything bagged up or do they try to minimize any waste?
  • Does that company talk about sustainability on their website?

Obviously, this takes time, and not everything (understandably!) has the time to research that. Over time, I will be adding more eco-friendly product recommendations to hopefully help you sift through this!

How do you minimize waste while shopping for your family?

5 thoughts on “Want to be more environmentally friendly? Start with these four questions”

  1. When I get a request from a company which over-packaged, I always review… “Too much packaging.”, and take away an extra star. These cpanies need to hear it!

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