Skip to Content

How to Help the Environment: Conscious Consumerism Tips

Zero Waste Lifestyle

Last Updated on June 27, 2024

Knowing how to help the environment can be tough! With so many buzzwords like organic, fair trade, eco-friendly, etc. conscious consumerism is actually pretty hard. It’s hard to know how to make the right purchases that honor your budget while also truly helping the planet. So what’s a Zero Waster to do?

Being a conscious consumer is a lot easier today than it was even ten years ago. But there are still a lot of buzzwords around what is truly eco friendly and what is just clever marketing. Conscious consumers, or even those just trying to be more conscious, can get lost in what truly has the most impact. Organic or fair trade? Made in the US or plastic free? I’m going to break down some sustainable choices to help you do what feels best for you and your family.

How to help the environment: a nature photo with overlay text reading "how to make the best choice for the environment: fair trade, organic, plastic-free, local, palm-oil free, vegan"

how to help the environment

I ask myself a lot of questions about truly sustainable choices these days. Whenever I make purchases, I’m always looking to make the best choice for both the planet and my pocketbook.

For instance, I recently bought some undies. Some had a plastic tag but were made in the US. Others had no tags but were made in India.

The final ones were made in US and had no plastic tag, but were pricey. 

I find that everything is a balancing act. So, how do we make the BEST decision? How do we know what we’re buying is going to have the BEST impact? It feels impossible to always choose the most sustainable items without also spending a fortune.

trying to be a conscious consumer

I started questioning this as I was riding home on the train from Rainbow Grocery. I finally got to meet the wonderful Shia from Wasteland Rebel. After many hours of online chatting, we met in the flesh, IRL. 

It was so crazy because it felt like we’d been friends for years. I mean we have been online, but in person we didn’t miss a beat! We met up at a vegan Mexican restaurant in San Francisco to enjoy a zero waste meal and catch up.

Top view of a plant based meal to illustrate conscious consumerism

After we ate a delicious lunch, we headed to Rainbow Grocery. I plan to update that post with better photos, but it is the land of all things in bulk. And, I mean ALL things.

They have adaptogens, herbs, coffee, every type of dried fruit imaginable, fresh pasta, dried pasta, honey, maple syrup, the list goes on and on. 

But, the question of how to help the environment best popped up when both Shia and I were purchasing chocolate chips… 

Kathryn and a friend demonstrating how to be conscious consumer by shopping from bulk bins using reusable bags and containers.

There were organic chocolate chips and there were fair-trade chocolate chips. We spent a while debating the two because we both consider ourselves to be conscious consumers.

conscious consumers

So if you’re in a position where you have to choose in your quest to conscious consumerism, which one is better? Ideally, you’d want both right? I mean, ideally, you’d be able to buy everything:

  • fair trade
  • organic
  • plastic-free
  • local
  • palm-oil free
  • vegan
  • in budget

Do you know how many things actually check ALL of those boxes? Not very many. It’s an unfortunate but honest truth that as of right now, you can’t do it all when looking into how to help the environment.

In fact, until this conversation moved from internal to external, I never even realized how much time I spent running down this mental checklist.

I spend a lot brain power weighing the pros and cons hoping that in the moment, I pick the BEST option. 

I’m going to guess many of you who pride yourself on being conscious consumers also run down some sort of mental checklist when looking to purchase items. 

So, how do you know you made the best choice for the environment? 

Honestly, you don’t. 

how to help the environment with sustainable choices

We don’t live in a perfect world. All any conscious consumer can do is do their homework and work with what they have.

The choice I make might not be the choice you make. That’s totally OK! We have to remember that we’re all on the same team.

We’re all fighting for a better world, and it’s OK if we come to different conclusions as we might have different priorities. 

Being allergic to dairy, box number one for me is no dairy. Clearly, I cannot compromise on that aspect.

Plastic-free and package-free is also on the top of my list. Which means organic and fair trade might take a backseat. 

You might, however, have organic and fair-trade first and foremost. It’s OK if we come to different conclusions. We both made the best decisions we could, and there’s no one right answer when trying to help the environment.

It’s why perfectionism has no place in this movement or in the minds of the conscious consumer. More than anything we need education and awareness.

making the best choice for you to create demand

Hopefully with more people making demands for products that check every box on the list, the more of those products we’ll start seeing in the marketplace. 

That takes voices, and it takes people working together. So let’s support each other and work towards making a better world. 

…. but really, which of the chocolate chips would you have bought? I’m genuinely curious!

Sustainable choices can be made by conscious consumers by choosing to shop from bulk bins and shop plastic-free.

faqs about conscious consumerism

what does conscious consumerism mean?

The phrase conscious consumerism refers to being more thoughtful about your shopping choices. The goal is usually to consume less and prioritize ethics and sustainability in the purchases you make.

And believe it or not, it’s not new! The idea of consuming consciously can be traced back to the 1820s.

what are the benefits of consuming consciously?

The conscious consumer can sleep at night knowing that they really are making a difference! If you want to know how to help the environment, encourage big brands and businesses to produce ethically and sustainably! The only way to do this is to choose to support brands who already do to send a message that that’s what we want.

how else can you help the environment?

There are loads of small ways to help the environment. Aside from consuming less — and consuming consciously when you do — consider eliminating or reducing meat from your diet. Reduce your water consumption. Compost your food waste. Take a plastic free challenge like Plastic Free July. As mentioned above, there’s no one right way to help the environment, but there are a ton of ways to accidentally harm the environment.

By doing your best to consume responsibly and waste less, you’re helping the movement go in the right direction!

Join The Conversation

Share Your Thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. I’d have bought the organic ones 🙂 Organic trumps fair trade if I have to make a choice.
    I recently noticed how much energy it costs, wanting to make the single best choice based on all these boxes. It is seriously draining at times and paradoxically a cause for inaction when I keep searching for the best, not yet finding it and continuing the old way as long as I haven’t figured it out yet.

  2. Interesting question! I’d have bought the fair trade chocolate chips since there’s so much child labor in the chocolate business. Plus, they’re cheaper, and I suspect Rainbow Foods has at LEAST a trillion other things I’d want to buy…. theoretically, you could have bought a little of both to find out which brand tasted better.

    I met Shia of Wasteland Rebel a couple of weeks after discovering the whole Zero Waste movement. I was a total newbie and probably said a lot of stupid things, PLUS I didn’t realize how involved Hanno was in the movement and thought he was just hanging around for fun, PLUS I used a paper towel in front of Shia! Ha! Such a ZW beginner’s faux pas. She and Hanno are great, and it’s fun that you all got to connect in person.

  3. Great post! On the topic of faire trade v organic, I guess it would depend on where it first came from. In this case, I can’t tell from the labels where each chocolate chip option came from, so I would choose dark choc hands down because I don’t like bitter-sweet choc!

  4. For my husband and I, this is a weekly grocery shopping struggle! We have no farmers market in the winter so we have to rely on Walmart for produce. Almost ALL of their organic produce is in plastic while their non organic is often not. SO frustrating. Sometimes I forgo and wait until we can make the 1 hour drive to the organic grocery, but convenience ya know. Doubly frustrating is that our recycling center often doesn’t take the type of plastic used to package spinach and other things that we end up getting. Thank you for encouraging us to do our best while also understanding perfection is not always possible.

  5. I probably would have bought the fair trade option. I’ve come to the conclusion that sometimes, taking care of the planet means taking care of people.

    1. It’s so true, and it’s also just so hard because fair trade isn’t perfect and organic isn’t perfect either. It’s just such a conundrum. Being alive these days creates a lot of issues. If you think too much about it, I think you’ll drive yourself crazy. You just have to do your best!

  6. Great post!! It is impossible to make a perfect choice. As you said we have to make always a compromise when buying. Try your best and forget the rest! However, I am not sure that fair trade is really what we think that it is. I watched a documentary about fair trade bananas and it was terrible in which conditions they were working

  7. Thank you so much for writing this! It’s been on my mind a lot recently, particularly as I want to be vegan but I’m struggling with where to get my protein as beans, chickpeas etc wreak havoc on my gut. It’s really hard to find a balance between money, health and environment, particularly as it feels like it’s harder to be zero waste in the UK (or at least we don’t have Rainbow, which sucks)!

  8. I do have an impossible mental checklist too. In this case, I look at the ingredients and would have probably chosen the fair trade ones. The organic lists sugar first and not chocolate and seems to have “filler” chocolate rather than the real deal.

  9. This is a great post! It’s something that’s missing from the overall conversation. I find I struggle with it a little bit because while there is so much produce available in bulk, almost all of the organic produce is pre-wrapped in plastic bags. It’s frustrating.

    As for which chocolate I would purchase, I probably would have gone with the Fair Trade chocolate. It has less sugar, and I perceive it to be less processed based on the use of the cocoa beans in the ingredients list rather than blending the individual subcomponents. Also, while conventional pesticides may be used, Fair Trade standards do cover aspects of environmental stewardship that encourages farmers to think about the long term as well as their immediate production volumes. I would expect the chemical load of Fair Trade chocolate to be slightly lower than conventional. It’s also cheaper, lol.

  10. Great article! Ideally, all the items I buy would check all those boxes — except you can’t really have local AND fair trade, unless it’s a local company selling fairly traded items. Otherwise, that’s not necessarily fair trade. Next time you’re at Rainbow, you should request that they carry Equal Exchange chocolate chips in bulk! They’re organic and authentic fair trade grown by small farmer cooperatives who actually own their land – and many of the cooperatives harness biodynamic farming practices and emphasize biodiversity within their farm plots. They also don’t have any soy lecethin in them, which is something I always look out for when I buy chocolate. Emulsifiers are super unnecessary, the only companies that use them are ones that choose quantity/volume over quality.

    Also, super cool you got to meet Shia and Andrea in the same week! Congrats on your new job with Pela 🙂

  11. Thanks Kathryn, this post lifted me up! I’ve been vegetarian for years and fair trade has always been very important to me. In the past year I’ve been trying to avoid packaging, I went vegan and I’ve got some informations to make my diet more ethical (like all the problems connected to quinoa, for example). I’ve been feeling frustrated because I wasn’t able to buy everything organic, packaging free etc. etc. at the same time and reading this post made me feel better about the fact that I can’t be perfect, and that’s okay. Thank u!

  12. Hi Kathryn .Very valid concerns. So glad you did this post.I have a similar checklist and sometimes it is difficult to decide what is the best option. I would mostly choose fair trade over organic. I am in the UK and it irritates me that organic vegetables are sometimes wrapped in plastic. So I forego the organic in that instance and wash the vegetables thoroughly . We are all trying to do our bit for the environment but we should not feel guilty if we slip up sometimes! Keep the good work up?

  13. Unfortunately it is rare that I purchase organic! All the produce in my area that is organic (from the store) is packaged in plastic, and farmers markets generally only run during the year. I definitely would choose fair trade over organic though. My justification is that I am already doing my best to live a healthy life, and to forgo organic to ensure that a product was produced ethically and that the workers were treated properly trumps my desire to eat something certified organic. Love this post!

  14. I have the same dilemma between Apple cider vinegar, one is from a big brand (not cruelty free) and comes in a glass container and another is from a local brand that comes into a plastic container.

  15. Thank you so much for this post! This checklist is always there when Im shopping. Every couple of weeks I have this debate with my coffee. I already have to drive across town to get bulk beans and then I have to decide betweenness organic, fair trade, or rainforest certified. I can never make up my mind and tend to get something different each time! I know pesticides are a big issue for coffee so I lean toward and organic, but I am also starkly aware of the consistent loss of forested habitat. What can ya do?!

  16. I can’t decide if using white board markers on a glass white board is better got the earth than using a piece of paper… As the white board obviously saves paper, but the marker is made from plastic and will eventually need replacing… I try to use scrap paper, and shred it when I’m done.

  17. Great and much needed article! I would’ve picked the Fair Trade 😉 Part of Fair Trade regulations and requirements include making proven progress towards environmental sustainability and organic practices. Fair wages and non-exploited labor is definitely not part of what an "organic" labels stand for… just look at the massive banana corporations that have embraced organic for profit.