It is unlikely that even those with the most extensive of permaculture plots will be able to be entirely self-sufficient. This means that we have to shop for at least some food and other manufactured products. This doesn’t mean we have to forgo the ethics and principles that underpin our permaculture plot when we venture into the marketplace; in fact, using the ideas the underpin permaculture in every aspect of our lives, including shopping, is a way to live more responsibly. When we are purchasing products, we need to have the reduction of waste, sustainability and care for the Earth at the centre of our buying habits.
And by shopping in a sustainable way, and choosing the products that we purchase based on the way they are produced, the impact they have on the natural world, and the resources they use, we are making a stand against the overarching way economies and business function in the modern world.
The good news is that the more and more people that make sustainable choices with regard to their shopping habits, the more likely changes in the way products are produced will occur. After all, the vast majority of companies are concerned above all else with making as much profit as possible. If consumers, by eschewing certain products and services, and patronizing others based on environmental credentials, demand more ethically produced goods, companies will respond so as to maintain their profits. A company is not an ethical entity; it’s prime motive is the accumulation of capital – if we as consumers can make the preservation of that capital dependent upon more ethical, ecologically sound business practices, we will force a change in the market.
So every dollar you spend is, in effect, a vote on how you would like products to be produced. Here are some guidelines to make your shopping more sustainable.
One of the best ways to make your shopping more sustainable is to buy produce that is locally sourced. This helps to reduce the carbon footprint of your shopping, as local products have not been transported long distances, which uses more fuel as well as potentially chemicals for refrigeration and preservation. A good way to pursue this tactic with regard to fruit and vegetables is to eat seasonally. Supermarkets have created a situation in which all varieties of these products are available all year round – which means when they are not in season locally they must be imported, often from halfway round the world.
Plastic bags are one of the most environmentally unsound parts of modern shopping. Plastic does not biodegrade, so if it is deposited into landfill or, worse, dumped in the ocean, it will remain there for hundreds if not thousands of years. In their complete form, plastic bags pose a threat to wildlife, as they can suffocate unsuspecting animals or be ingested by them (sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish), while as they break down into smaller pieces they can enter the food chain. Reuse bags wherever possible to avoid adding to the waste problem. Even better, source an organic bag, made from hessian or cotton, and take that every time you go shopping.
Avoid Disposable Products
We live in a disposable culture. The majority of businesses are predicated on the notion that things wear out. Indeed, some companies design entropy into their products to force consumers to replace them earlier than would be necessary otherwise. And products that are thrown away almost always end up as landfill or in some other form of waste disposal that harms the natural environment. Choose products that are built to last and maintain them well. Taking a little bit of time to clean and store items properly after use can preserve their life for many years. Buying disposable products may be cheaper in the first instance, but it is a false economy, as those items need to be replaced more often, costing more in the long run. And don’t feel as though you have to have the latest model of something, if the one you have works perfectly well. This notion of newness is a marketing ploy to make consumers buy something they don’t really need.
Plastic packaging needs a lot of resources – including industrial quantities of water – to be manufactured. Much of this packaging is unnecessary, designed only as advertising space. Choose products that have little or no packaging – keep fruit loose rather than putting it in a plastic bag, for instance – or whose packaging has been made from recycled materials.
Buy in Bulk
When buying goods that have a long shelf life and that you use regularly – pantry stales like flour and salt are good examples – buy in bulk. This is cheaper for you, uses less packaging and means you are not using as many resources by shopping less regularly. You might also consider collaborating with your neighbors to car pool or buy wholesale quantities of items together in order to reduce the cost, time and resources involved in going shopping.
Only Buy What You Need
For perishable goods, it is important to only buy what you need. In many modern societies an incredible amount of food is thrown away every day. Not only is this a waste from a human point of view when so many people, even in those same societies, don’t have enough to eat, but also it wastes the energy and resources that went into growing, harvesting, packaging and transporting those products.
Buy Recycled Products
On your permaculture plot, recycling materials, getting multiple uses out of an item is part of the process of designing and maintaining your site. It should be applied to everything else as well. Where possible, reuse, repair items, or if they are damaged, find another use for them in their altered state (using old car tires as housing for garden beds is just one example). For items that you need to purchase, choose recycled products when possible. These can include everything from clothes and bags to toilet paper.