The convenience of online shopping and ubiquity of sales holidays like Black Friday and Prime Day have made it harder for many shoppers to resist impulse purchases, which can take a toll on our wallets and the planet. If you want to take a more mindful approach to shopping, these six tips will make you a savvier shopper, save you money, and help limit your environmental impact.
1. Ask why you want it
Some things that we buy are necessities. Some things that we buy, while perhaps frivolous, bring us tons of joy. And some things that we buy quickly turn into regrets that we use just a few times.
Shopping and returns generate a lot of greenhouse gas emissions and also contribute to landfill. But there are ways you can help. Concerned shoppers can strive to buy less, and when you do, “to hold on to things for longer, reuse things, buy products that have a longer lifespan, and not replace things so often,” said Lorraine Whitmarsh, an environmental psychologist and professor at the University of Bath. Fortunately, those are all actions that also save money.
Asking yourself a few questions before clicking that buy button can help you avoid over-purchasing for emotional reasons. What need or problem is this thing going to solve? What do you have already that does the job? You can also try visualizing yourself with the thing you want to buy in one, two, or three years. Do you think you’ll still want to wear it, see it, use it? How will it make you feel?
2. Double-check at checkout
Taking your time during checkout not only reduces returns and exchanges, it also saves you time and frustration down the line. To avoid returns and exchanges, make it a habit to double check what you’ve put in your cart, even for small purchases. Confirm dimensions, clothing sizes, colors, model numbers, product compatibility, and styles. And do some research: reading reviews and expert advice about who this item is for will help you avoid getting something that’s an imperfect fit for your taste or the problem you want to solve.
3. Shop secondhand (or DIY)
Buying a used item instead of new helps to reduce the environmental toll of the supply chain from making, storing, and shipping a brand-new item to you.
To help, we have guides to find the best pre-owned camera gear, furniture, air conditioners, laptops, and kitchen gear at a fraction of the original cost. But in general, take advantage of local secondhand stores, rental services, swapping or Buy Nothing networks, yard and stoop sales, and online marketplaces like ThredUp, Facebook Marketplace, or eBay. Many big clothing, furniture, and appliance retailers—such as Patagonia, WestElm, and Vitamix—as well as boutique brands are increasingly offering trade-in programs and secondhand marketplaces, so you may want to check on your favorites.
Sometimes, you may not need to buy anything at all: A clean pickle jar might hold leftovers just as well as a set of Tupperware, a simple bucket can double as a DIY foot spa, and your phone can double as a document scanner. Our favorite DIY life hacks might inspire a few of your own.
4. Keep it twice as long
Before you decide to upgrade, adopt a “fix it first” mindset. If it’s not broken, do you need a new one? Do you need the latest model, or can you commit to keeping the one you have for one more year? “It would be way, way more effective [environmentally] to hold on to, let’s say, a mobile phone for twice as long as you would otherwise do” than to order a new phone with so-called carbon neutral shipping, said Whitmarsh.
Planning to hang onto things even a little longer helps you avoid impulse purchases and makes you more discerning (and do more research) about what you do buy. And chances are, you may also end up loving and enjoying more stuff you already own.
5. Choose slower, grouped delivery
Shopping online, especially on apps, is terribly convenient, but people tend to be more impulsive and want things more quickly than they need them. All that means more delivery trucks and trips, and probably more returns—which add up to more emissions. Try to plan ahead and consolidate when you shop online. Group purchases from retailers like Amazon to make delivery more efficient, and choose slower delivery options whenever possible. Senior staff writer Tim Heffernan has more great tips to shop online more sustainably.
6. Spend more for things that last
The most sustainable thing to buy is usually the thing you’ll use and reuse the longest—even setting aside other differences. Wirecutter’s experts have spent hundreds of thousands of hours testing gear, and they’ve found it’s usually worth spending a little more on an item than buying cheaper stuff you’ll need to replace frequently (which can, in the end, cost you even more money).
Saving up makes good financial sense, and buying better, longer-lasting items is also far more effective at reducing your climate impact than spending on something like so-called carbon neutral shipping. Once you do buy something, use it, enjoy it, and repair it for as long as you can.
This article was edited by Christine Cyr Clisset and Ben Frumin.
1. Lorraine Whitmarsh, environmental psychologist and professor at the University of Bath, Zoom interview, September 19, 2022
2. Kimberly Nicholas, associate professor of sustainability science at Lund University and author of Under the Sky We Make: How to Be Human in a Warming World, Zoom interview, October 4, 2022