Sustainable Spending Goes Beyond Quitting Fast Fashion — Here’s What You Need To Know

We make dozens of small decisions each day in service of sustainability: We bring our own tote bags to the grocery store, ride public transport in lieu of driving, sort our recycling, carry reusable water bottles. But one of the things we don’t always pause to assess is our spending — and the ways it may be harming the environment.   
“Every time you spend money, you cast a vote,” says Alexandra Horigan, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at neobank, Aspiration. “Whether you’re filling your tank up with gas — a vote for the fossil fuel industry — or purchasing a retro Patagonia fleece — a vote for the planet — your dollars are reinforcing something.” As she sees it, it’s not just what you’re buying that has environmental impact, it’s also about how the brands and corporations you’re helping fund with your purchase are spending their money. 
Advertisement
“Aspiration centers its mission around using its resources to transparently back a coalition of independent, environmentally responsible businesses, rather than pushing client funds towards major corporations or special interest groups — which is common among banks,” she explains.  
So what does “green spending” look like? To Horigan, “it’s spending with companies who have made a commitment to not just decreasing their negative impact on the earth, but to making a positive contribution as well.” This applies to everything from the groceries we buy, to the vacations we take, to the homes we invest in. But here’s the tricky part: Even when our intentions are good, it’s not always easy to tell just how “green” the companies we’re giving our money to really are. 
That’s why we tapped four sustainability experts across common areas of expenditure — shopping, housing, traveling, and eating — to help outline the ways we can all adopt greener spending practices in 2021. 
Illustration by Sarah Cliff

SHOPPING

When it comes to clothes shopping, sustainability is not as simple as swearing off fast fashion. Alden Wicker, sustainable fashion expert and founder of EcoCult, encourages shoppers to dive deeper. 
Check the label
Wicker suggests investing in clothing that’s labeled as bluesign certified — which is essentially a way of verifying that the garment in question is produced without a “toxic finish.” 

A “toxic finish” is what it sounds like: If a manufacturer employs harmful chemicals in the final stages of production for a garment, they linger on the clothes once they hit the store, and not only can those chemicals wreak havoc on your skin, it’s also likely that the toxicity has a much larger negative impact. “If clothing has a toxic finish, that means the workers in the factory and the community surrounding the factory have it a lot worse,” Wicker explains.  “The factory might be spilling toxic wastewater right into the local waterway. This affects local waterways because aquatic life can’t live in acidic or alkaline water.” 
Advertisement
Check the return & repair policy
Buying from brands with generous return or repair policies is more environmentally friendly because it means you’re ultimately buying fewer things over time. “It matters more that you buy fewer and better things than it does that you obsess over the materials listed on a label,” Wicker advises. “There are some brands that have a return policy that goes on forever. That’s the kind of brand that makes something they really think you’re going to wear and use and love forever.”
Bring your used clothing to a charity or thrift shop
Rather than try to flip old clothes on a resale app, consider donating them to a local charity or thrift shop. “Americans buy too many clothes to recirculate them within our borders,” Wicker says. If you’re selling to a local spot, transportation costs are lower both for the seller and the buyer. “Carbon emissions on shipping one thing at a time to California or Mississippi are gonna be a lot higher than selling to your local thrift shop or offering them to someone within the community,” Wicker explains. The same is true of charities. Even if your clothes aren’t usable in their current form at your local women’s shelter, chances are, donated garments can be resold or repurposed for other necessities. 
Don’t be a bracket shopper
We’ve all done it: You aren’t sure what size will look best, or you’re stuck deliberating between a few different dress options for a wedding, so you order en masse with the intention of returning the things you don’t want. This is what Wicker calls “bracket shopping,” and as she sees it, it’s one of the least sustainable choices you can make as a buyer. 

“[The returned items] might get repackaged and resold, or they might just end up in a landfill. For many big-box retailers, it’s too much trouble to try to repackage and resell those items, so they get destroyed. Then there’s additional carbon costs that go with shipping things back and forth.” Of course, doing away with online shopping entirely feels impossible right now. So, Wicker encourages digital shopping only from brands you’ve shopped with before, and know your size in.  
Advertisement
Fact-check that cute Instagram shop
It’s tempting to shop directly from that cute, seemingly affordable Instagram shop. But before you pull the trigger, be sure to double check their credentials. “I have friends who will send me a supposedly ‘eco brand’ they found on Instagram, and I’m like, ‘this isn’t eco-friendly at all,” Wicker says. “Someone just slapped a bunch of words on the About page. It has nothing to do with ecofriendliness.” When you see words like “sustainable” or “green” in a bio, Wicker recommends looking for further credentials or verifications, or even DMing the brand, for information on the ways their products are made and with what materials.   

TRAVEL

Environmentally friendly travel isn’t as simple as avoiding airplanes but it doesn’t have to be a leave-no-trace camping trip, either. Fortunately, Kelley Louise, executive director of Impact Travel Alliance, has plenty of tips on little and big things you can do to prioritize the environment in your wanderings.
Pack light; fly coach
If you’re in need of a reason to pack less (and skirt around baggage fees), Louise notes, “The less luggage that you have, the less the plane or train weighs, which causes a lesser carbon footprint.” The science here is fairly simple: Heavier planes require more fuel to run, all of which goes back into the air. Also, skip the business class fare. “[Business class uses] more resources, more weight, more space,” Louise explains. “As a whole just being in a coach seat, generally speaking, is your most eco-friendly option for a flight.”
Advertisement
Buy green flights
Louise advises using a resource for booking overall greener flights, such as skyscanner. “When you search for a flight, the site uses an algorithm to consider data about the route, how old or new the vessel is, the kind of fuel it uses, and the sorts of products they use or serve on board. Each option that they deem ‘eco-friendly’ has a green leaf listed beside it so you can feel good about the flight you’re booking,” she says. While it’s certainly a privilege to book exclusively green flights (some of these flights can be a bit pricier than your standard options), she notes that sticking to coach and avoiding baggage fees can often be enough to even out the cost. 
Upon arrival, eat local
You’re probably thinking: well, where else would I eat? But we’re talking about the food served at said local restaurant. “Your food on average travels 1500 miles to get to your plate, so that means your every meal you have has some sort of carbon footprint as well,” Louise says. “If you can find something that’s farm-to-table directly from that region, then it’s going to be fresher food, taste better, and most likely, it’ll be the kind of food you wouldn’t have access to anywhere else.” 
Illustration by Sarah Cliff

FOOD

When it comes to food, you’ll be pleased to learn that conscious, sustainable eating doesn’t require immediate conversion to veganism. Sophie Egan, program director at Culinary Institute of America and author of How to Be a Conscious Eater: Making Food Choices That Are Good for You, Others, and the Planet, says a flexitarian approach is best.
Advertisement
Emphasize the plant kingdom
What is flexitarianism, you ask? “It’s called many different things — plant-rich, plant-forward, plant-centric,” Egan explains. “It basically just means that the majority of the foods you consume are plant-based.” That includes everything from legumes, nuts, fruits, and vegetables, to whole grains, plant oils, spices, and herbs. “This is your ‘greenest’ option, by and large, because food that comes from the plant kingdom has a lower environmental footprint, especially if we’re talking about carbon and water footprints, which are two big metrics.”
Cut down on food waste
It’s easy to over-shop at the grocery store. In theory, you’d love to use up all that produce. But in practice, a whole lot of wilted lettuce is probably ending up in your trash bin. “There’s an interesting tension between wanting to eat more fresh produce and food waste, because you’re up against that ticking clock,” Egan says, noting that globally, the two food categories most likely to be wasted are fruits and vegetables, and roots and tubers. “For fruits and veggies that don’t need to be eaten fresh, buy frozen. If you’re roasting veggies, baking with berries, or buying greens to make a smoothie, they definitely don’t need to be fresh,” Egan says. “If you don’t consistently use up your produce, it’s important to look at all the forms — dried, frozen, canned — in order to avoid unnecessary waste.” 
And before you give up on that almost-bad bag of salad, try batch-cooking. “Let’s say it’s a bag of spinach. You split half of it and say ‘ok, this is going to be my fresh greens for the week for my salads, for my lunch, whatever. And then you saute the rest of it and use it for dinner, or freeze it.”
Advertisement
Buy lower on the seafood chain
Seafood is a major part of a flexitarian diet, but overfishing can be a huge issue from a sustainability perspective. “There’s a crazy demand from both restaurants and consumers for just a small handful of seafood species: shrimp, salmon, tuna, halibut,” Egan says. But in reality, there’s a huge diversity of ocean species to be enjoyed. She suggests leaning into types of seafood that are lower on the food chain, like mollusks and sardines, as a way of combating overfishing. 
She also suggests following the SeafoodWatch guidance, which tells you how sustainable any cut of seafood you're considering purchasing actually is. Generally, there are two certifications to look for: “MSC-certified means it’s certified sustainable wild fish or seafood. For farmed, look for ASC certification. Those are great signifiers of full compliance with a whole host of criteria that has to do with how thriving the stock is of that species, the type of fishing equipment used, and other things like seasonality,” she explains. 
Illustration by Sarah Cliff

HOME

It’s likely that, in 2020, you either moved into a new place or started taking a good, hard look at your current one. Lynne Lambourne, sustainable interior designer and founder of Warriors on Waste, is plenty sympathetic to the impulse to home-improve constantly, and it’s her mission to make home design as eco-friendly as possible.
Refurbish your furniture
If you’ve got something lying around at home that’s not quite right, rather than trash it and spend on something new, see if it’s worth refurbishing. Think of it like tailoring, but for furniture. Whether your old desk is in need of a new paint job or  fresh shelves, these are adjustments that can be made. “If you don’t have the skills there are hundreds of small artisan companies who do this,” Lambourne notes. “There will be someone in your local community who is a furniture recycler. Go and support them.” 
Advertisement
When buying new, do research
If you need to buy something new for your home, make sure you’re spending somewhere with verified sustainability practices. See what the company’s recycling programs are or environmental initiatives they have. “What they do, where they source, what they’re doing to be kind to the planet. Other than that, look for brands that you can sell back to. This means they’re truly recycling their products,” she says. And if you tend to be flighty when it comes to new furniture, try a rental service like Feather.  
Invest in good insulation
Insulation might not be the most glamorous aspect of home decor, but it’s an important one. Not only is it a good investment for your home, it will also help limit how much heat you use. “A home that’s not insulated well is basically heating the sky,” Lambourne says. “If you’ve got old windows and the wind is coming through them, that’s a really inefficient way of keeping heat or cold air inside. Spending on good quality insulation, and double-glazing those windows will lower your energy bills and keep your home a more comfortable temp.”
Buy houseplants
Even if you don’t have a green thumb, it’s hard to kill a succulent. “Houseplants really do make you happy, and they’re healthy,” Lambourne says. “They clean the air, and they’re a really affordable way of dressing up a space without creating unnecessary waste. They bring that living element to a room. We need to surround ourselves with living things.”
Aspiration Financial, LLC is a registered broker-dealer, Member FINRA/SIPC, and a subsidiary of Aspiration Partners, Inc. (“Aspiration”). Aspiration is under separate ownership from any other named entity. Aspiration is not a bank.
Advertisement

More from Living

R29 Original Series