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Sustainable shopping on a budget

Here are some tips on how to shop in a more environmentally friendly way without breaking the bank.

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A graphic showing a large shopping bag with the recycling logo in centre, a rubbish bin with 0% annotated, and 3 people holding plastic-free food.

As things change rapidly during the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis, this guide will be updated regularly to reflect changes in rules and regulations.

With our oceans overflowing with plastic, wildfires raging across the globe and fossil fuel use continuing to be a major energy source, the environment and our impact on it is high on the agenda.

As COVID-19 restrictions slowly ease, we’re looking at ways that you can reduce the environmental impact of your shopping choices, whether in fashion, food and drink or homewares.

At the same time we’ll show you that shopping more sustainably does not have to cost a fortune. In some cases it can even save you money.

Disposable Masks vs Washable Masks

Scientists at UCL have estimated that if every person in the UK used one single-use mask each day for a year, we would create 66,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste and create  10 times more climate change impact than using reusable masks. 

In a hospital environment, single-use protective wear such as masks and gloves are contaminated items, and there are systems in place for their safe disposal, which involve segregation and incineration. 

Surgical grade N95 respirators offer the highest level of protection against COVID-19 infection, followed by surgical grade masks. However, evidence suggests that reusable masks perform most of the tasks of single-use masks without the associated waste stream. Material, reusable masks present a great eco-friendly alternative as long as they are washed ‘routinely’. If you fancy getting your hands on protective face masks that are environmentally friendly and reusable, there are a range of brands you can check out.

Clothing and fashion

The fashion industry has come under increased scrutiny in recent years for the way that it wastes materials and how it treats garment workers across the world.

According to the charity the Waste and Resources Action Programme, over 350,000 tonnes (or £140 million) worth of used clothing ends up in landfill each year.

One key way to reduce waste in our clothing choices, is simply to change our habits and shop less. So, next time you’re browsing an online retailer or passing a high street shop ask yourself: ‘Do I really need to buy more new clothes?’.

Recycling and repairing clothes

Second-hand or vintage clothing stores are not an especially new idea, but they are growing in popularity. Many younger shoppers are more concerned about the sustainability of their clothing choices.

Shopping for used clothes in charity shops and vintage stores can also be a great place to find bargains.

Mending clothes that are damaged or worn is also becoming an increasingly popular alternative to buying new garments, particularly with younger people.

Clothing swaps and re-selling apps

Clothing swap events are a trend that have gained in popularity in recent years. 

Sadly, while the threat of Coronavirus remains with us you may find it difficult to go to many of these events.

However, once conditions have improved enough for us to be able to meet in larger groups, it may be worth checking for swap meets in your local area.

Do an online search on sites like Meetup and Eventbrite to look for clothes swap events near you.

There are also a range of smartphone apps and online marketplaces offering you the ability to swap clothes with other users or buy and sell used clothes. 

These platforms all work in slightly different ways, so it’s worth taking some time to explore what each of them has to offer before signing up and creating a profile.

Here are some of the most popular platforms:

Shopping at sustainable stores

This is a bit of a tricky one, as some stores that describe themselves as ‘sustainable’ have been accused of doing so only as a PR stunt, without really doing much to show that they behave in an environmentally responsible or ethical way.

However, some shops genuinely do take great strides to sell items sourced in a sustainable way. The consumer group Ethical Consumer has compiled a list of fashion brands that behave sustainably and ethically

Plastic bags

Plastic pollution is one of the more visible ways that our environment is blighted. Walk around town centres, road sides and even many green spaces and you’ll find plastic litter strewn across the ground.

It doesn’t only look horrible, but plastics can also be extremely harmful when eaten by animals. Much of the plastic we use ends up in our oceans, contaminating the food chain. 

In the UK we have begun to recognise the impact that single use plastics are having on the environment. As of October 2015 most stores have had to charge a fee to provide customers with disposable plastic bags. 

A simple way to cut costs and your plastic consumption is to always carry a material tote bag. According to our Sustainable Living Calculator you could save a kilogramme of plastic and £42 in bag fees each year by replacing single-use plastic bags with reusable bags. 

Find out what you could save, and the environmental impact you could have, by living more sustainably with our Sustainable Living Calculator.

Food and drink

Reusable packaging

One of the quickest ways in which you can cut down your environmental impact when you’re shopping is to avoid disposable food packaging. Doing so can also save you money over the long run too!

Coffees and hot drinks 

Many of the large coffee shop chains offer a discount off the price of a hot drink when you provide your own reusable cup.

When the Coronavirus outbreak began taking hold earlier this spring, many coffee shops decided to temporarily stop allowing customers to buy a hot drink with their own reusable cups, in order to reduce the risk of infection.

There are now reports many of these stores are starting to ease these restrictions as customers return.

Takeaway Pint Glasses vs #PlasticFreePints

As pubs reopened on the 4th July, many were turning to plastic cups in order to aid takeaway orders and to reduce the need for staff to touch used glasses. 

Similarly to reusable coffee cups, if washed thoroughly, a reusable glass or tumbler could be a simple sustainable swap to help curb the growing coronavirus waste problem. 

Ours to Save, a platform for global climate news, and EcoDisco, a sustainable events company, have created the #PlasticFreePints initiative to encourage pub-goers to use reusable alternatives in place of the typical single-use plastic on offer. Check out the hashtag to find your nearest eco-conscious local.

 Cutting down on food packaging

A great deal of the food we buy from supermarkets is still provided with huge amounts of plastic packaging. Some retailers have been making efforts to reduce the amount of non-recyclable packaging material that comes with our food.  

 Some larger supermarket chains also offer the chance to earn cash when you bring back used packaging to be recycled

 Bulk food shopping

One option to cut down on packaging is to buy non-perishable food, or food that does not go off for a long time, in bulk from large warehouse stores.

While this may involve a bigger upfront cost, you’ll be able to use less packaging and you’ll hopefully benefit from the lower per unit price that comes from buying in bulk.

It’s a good idea to make a shopping list and visit a larger supermarket or bulk food store just once a month. Here you’ll be able to stock up larger packs of products like flour, nuts, sauces and washing up liquid.

Our Sustainable Living Calculator estimates that choosing unwrapped, less expensive goods instead of plastic-wrapped organic produce, could save you over £2,700 and still have a positive environmental impact. 

If you‘ve identified the products you want to buy, you can do a quick online check to compare prices at the larger supermarket chains, using these tools:

  • ShelfScraper.co.uk allows you to compare the ‘price per unit’ of a range of products. Simply type in the name of the item you want and you’ll be able to compare prices from leading chains like Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco

  • LatestDeals.co.uk offers a smartphone app that includes a supermarket comparison function. You can use this to compare prices on products from Asda, Iceland, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose

Hand Sanitiser vs Soap

Once all your shopping is done, it’s essential to wash your hands.

Hand sanitiser has been in high demand globally during 2020, but the 70% alcohol gel which kills bacteria and viruses (including COVID-19) often comes in a plastic bottle. 

In order to reduce your plastic consumption, consider switching to a bar of soap and warm water for washing your hands. 

Bars of soap can often be found in entirely biodegradable packaging, making the impact on the environment considerably less than hand sanitiser. Alternatively, opting for liquid soap which can be refilled would allow you to reduce your plastic consumption without major changes to your lifestyle.

Ensuring you follow hand washing advice, the government states washing your hands is as effective as hand sanitiser for reducing the risk of getting ill. 

Paying for your sustainable alternatives

If you're planning to make sustainable swaps and switch out plastic for bio-degradable, you'll likely need to invest in some new items.

If you are planning to borrow money to finance your shopping, you could consider a credit card. A credit card requires regular repayments and can accrue interest if you do not pay back the full amount.

Read our guide for more tips on shopping smartly during lockdown.