Building Green Habits: Understand your consumables!

In previous columns, we’ve looked at a simple but effective approach for embracing green habits and a sustainable lifestyle, when you are unsure where to start and are overwhelmed with the information around: Understanding the ‘5Rs’ (Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot).

But how do we know what is sustainable and what is not, and which R to apply? Sustainability is a broad term and it includes several aspects, such as climate, circularity, biodiversity, social and other elements. As a common consumer in today’s world, how can we make the most conscious decisions whilst keeping the holistic sustainability view in mind? Let us try to understand our consumables.

Asking the right questions
When you’re meeting a date or interviewing a new teammate, would you not ask this question: “So, tell me about yourself?” After all, we try to understand a person as much as possible before we open our life or workplace to them. But why is it that when it comes to products or services brought to us by multibillion-dollar companies, with their green-washed ads and big bold letters flashing “Natural & Green” all over the label, we trust them immediately? Are we asking them enough questions?

We use a variety of products throughout the day, starting with our toothbrushes to the clothes we wear, but how many times do we think about where it comes from? What is its story?

In this column, I would like to introduce you to a five-question framework I use @greenbyhabit to understand my consumables.

What is it made of?
Just grab the first thing close to you and ask this question: Is it made of paper, metal or plastic? Is it a durable material like stainless steel that can be reused several times?  Does it have fossil fuel sources like plastics? Is it infinitely recyclable like glass or aluminum? There is not a perfect sustainable source or product, as everything uses resources, but some are better than others. Appreciating that any product utilises resources from nature also helps us to be mindful of how much we consume.

How is it packaged?
Packaging is very important in many cases for the safety and integrity of the product, but also in many cases unnecessary or overdone. Let’s look at what can be bought package-free in our local community – from bulk shops or local vegetable vendors. Let’s choose products with better packaging, such as reusable or recyclable options, or (better still) ones that hardly use any, like solid soaps over liquid ones.

How far has it travelled?
Many a time, when we look for the best or cheapest options to buy a product on the internet, it might end up from halfway across the world, which means transportation emissions on their way to us. Trying to buy locally, eat seasonal produce, and support local businesses can go a long way.

How is it made?
This question covers the social and ethical aspects of sustainability. Do we want to support brands that compromise human dignity and safety in their production? Were workers paid fair wages? Fast fashion brands are notorious for compromising these.

What happens after its use?  
It is equally important to look at how the product/material will be handled after its use. Can it be disposed of or upcycled safely, or will it continue to linger around in the environment? Can the material be recycled in your local area or will it end up in a landfill or incinerated?

Asking these questions equips us as consumers with choice, so we can refuse to buy – or at least reduce our use of – products with an unacceptable history or overexploited source, thus making conscious decisions that keep the planet and our fellow-beings in mind. These questions may not be perfect, but they have helped me be more mindful.

Check out @greenbyhabit on Instagram for short videos and fun reels that discuss each of the five questions in detail.