I’m humiliated by the backlog of cardboard boxes currently sitting in my garage waiting to be broken down. We have too many to recycle in our bin weekly, plus I’ve read rumors on my town’s Facebook page that recycling is currently suspended. I can’t motivate to confirm this; it’s too depressing to contemplate. These boxes contained the many “necessities” I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to afford to order online for my family of four, plus my mom who is now living with us since we’ve been hunkered down at home, doing our part to slow the curve of COVID-19. We also have two cats, plus Mom’s dog and cat. All of us require a certain amount of stuff. I’m not the only stuff-loathing environmentalist to feel disgust over my recent uptick in online shopping. See “We’re Shopping a Ton Online. Let’s Be Conscientious About It” in The New York Times, and “Coronavirus risks a return of the throwaway culture” in Politco. That’s the thing with this global pandemic; everything is communal, even shame.
But I can’t help feeling a little unique; I’ve spent the past fifteen years teaching people how to become conscious consumers through books, articles, consulting, and appearances. I’m obsessive about voting with my dollars for better products and supporting local producers. In an effort to truly understand the supply chain that sustains me, I’ve written books with the people who make my toilet paper, cut my meat, and even manufacture my condoms! What the hell am I doing with a leaning tower of Target and Amazon Prime boxes?
The following are some thoughts on how anyone can shop better right now. And, yes, I get how absurd it is to write this without acknowledging privilege. It’s not only a financial thing; by sheer luck I have a career I have been doing from home for years. Still, those of us able to work from home are supposed to stay at home. If you find yourself in this position, conscious shopping is important. What we buy now will directly impact what kind of consumer goods will be widely available when we at long last emerge from this pause into an unknown world. Demand equals supply. Use your power.
Bulk buying online is tempting. It creates some sense of security. Yes, you can stock up shelf stable items at Walmart online, but I guarantee you there are small businesses in your town offering similar items for contactless pick up or delivery. A lovely vegan chocolate spot near me also sells coffee beans, jam, oat milk, and even local ramps. We’re in the market for all that, so we’re partaking. If you can’t find what you need locally, there are eco-friendlier alternatives to Amazon. Sometimes the big box stores are the only answer, like for a math workbook my 7-year-old’s teacher wanted her to have recently. That’s fine.
PRODUCE, DAIRY ETC.
If you live near a farm or a dairy, buying direct is a no-brainer. Early spring isn’t growing season yet in the Northeast where I live, but there are still mushrooms, eggs, stored radishes, and more available. A lot of these farms used to sell to restaurants that no longer need ingredients, or used to drive to NYC farmers’ markets. They have quickly created new, more local economies for themselves by offering contactless pick-ups on farm. We’re making sure to use all of what we mange to buy. Sturdy and long lasting (cabbage, potatoes, apples) are a better bet than fragile (lettuce, spinach, berries) at the moment.
RESTAURANTS FOR WHOLESALE
It’s devastating to think about how this pandemic has floored restaurants, especially when you mentally go through their supply chains and realize how many workers are touched and suffering. Some are still offering contactless take-out and delivery. This means they are still having wholesale food delivered! I’m hearing stories of people working with restaurants to DIY makeshift food co-ops, ordering in bulk through wholesale suppliers and dividing stuff up. If you know someone in the restaurant business, ask if this might be an option for you—and a revenue stream for them. This is an especially good option for anyone who can’t safely enter grocery stores right now.
CURBSIDE & CONTACTLESS LOCAL
Many local businesses, including wine and cheese shops, and small stores like health food shops, are reorganizing the way they sell. They’re taking online and phone orders, packing them up themselves, and setting them out for pick up at specific times, or even delivering. Use these services.
My town had just implemented a plastic bag ban earlier this year. Plastic is now back with a vengeance. Keeping safety in mind, there are ways to try to minimize packaging and plastic. Opt for reusable masks. To open all of these infernal cardboard boxes, after letting them air out for a few days, use reusable gardening or work gloves and then wash them. When you order online, things sometimes arrive double bagged in plastic. When I buy locally and pick up my orders, this happens less frequently.
A lot of this collective online ordering is for cleaning products. I’ve written a lot about green cleaning over the years. Illness is a reason to disinfect. Remember to dilute bleach if you have to use it; most of us don’t read the label and are using an unsafe amount of it. But if you’re sheltering at home and not sick, there is just no need for harsh cleaning products or endless wipes that will make their way to landfills. Personally, I’m cleaning a lot lately with a white vinegar and water solution and a reusable rag since we have so much more foot traffic with all of us home from work and school. And, of course, wash your hands!