How Buying Sustainable Products is Helping Me Consume Less

According to Consumergoods.com, retail disruptors are everywhere. The website defines a retail disruptor as a company that reshapes the established landscape of unified commerce, informed insight, customer acquisition, and “the role of the store.” Basically, a disruptor is any company that disrupts the standard way consumer goods are bought and sold. A disruptor is considered a disruptor only if it has an impact on the industry (otherwise it’s just a squashed bug on the giant windshield of Big Commerce).

Retail disruptors come in many different flavors. For some, it’s about reinventing an established product — absorbent, leak-proof underwear that replaces sanitary napkins and tampons, for example.

For others, it’s about the way a product or products is delivered to consumers. Prepackaged meal delivery services are a good example of this.

Most retail disruptors dispense with (or augment) the traditional means of distribution (e.g., retail stores) by offering subscription models and/or selling directly to consumers. Amazon disrupted the traditional “big box” approach to retail by offering everything and anything via one megalithic website while giving customers the opportunity to receive most items in 1-to-2 days (for an annual membership fee).

I’m ready to be disrupted

I’m interested in disruptors that can help me consume less stuff and be gentler on the environment. Bonus points go to companies that enable me to save a little money too, but this isn’t my number one priority. In fact, I’m willing to pay more for a product if I know it meets the first two criteria and also provides some kind of benefit to the world at large. Which reminds me of another thing I find intriguing about retail disruptors — the ones I love are socially conscious.

In addition to offering convenience, sustainability, and unique products, many of the most successful retail disruptors are associated with a cause. When TOMS Shoes was founded in 2006, their “One for One” program provided a free pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair of TOMS purchased. In 2011, they expanded the program to provide glasses and clean water to communities in need.

In addition to the social cause that defined TOMS when it was founded, the company also made cute, comfortable shoes. At the time, they offered a type of shoe that wasn’t readily available at most retail outlets. Their popularity (and appeal) was spurred on by celebrity endorsements and social media. For a two year stretch, they were pretty much all I wore on my feet. I stopped buying shoes at local retail stores (and didn’t miss the experience at all.) My “TOMS Phase” was the first of many disruptor experiences, most of which involved incidental purchases like shoes or glasses, but that would soon change.

Searching for a better supply chain

Whenever I’m in the supermarket or a big box store like Target, I wonder to myself, “Isn’t there a better way to purchase the everyday stuff — a better way to buy, use, and dispose of such and such a product?” It’s not just that I’m perpetually running out of toilet paper, toothpaste, soap and kitty litter — it’s that these things are expensive, encased in plastic and filled with chemicals.

The question isn’t motivated solely by my desire to avoid yet another trip to the store. I also want to reduce packaging waste, and purchase products that are more sustainable as well as natural. A perfect example of this is laundry detergent which I used to but at least monthly in large plastic containers. It was expensive and full of chemicals.

So, I decided to try Dropps, a natural, biodegradable laundry detergent in a dissolvable pod. I was a bit reluctant at first because I didn’t want to commit to a subscription for laundry detergent, so I ordered their smallest package to try it out and paid the non-subscription price. I was instantly hooked and had no reservations subscribing to their delivery service when my sample box ran out.

Now my laundry detergent arrives at my door about every five months in a recyclable cardboard box. The pods are extremely easy to use. They also smell delicious, are gentle on clothes, and don’t make my skin itch (a clear bonus!) The best part? There is zero plastic involved with this product.

I’m not here to hawk laundry detergent. I mention Dropps by name because they were my introduction to a new type of retail disruption — household goods. My initial reluctance to try Dropps made me realize how ingrained my own consumerism is within the realm of household products like laundry detergent and soap.

I’ve been consuming these kinds of goods my entire life without thinking much about it— returning to the supermarket or big box store of my choice and buying the same brands and products again and gain, simply because it’s easy and comfortable and too convenient (or expensive) to seek out alternatives.

The Savvy Gen Z Consumer

My 15-year-old daughter refused to use plastic straws right around the time she became a vegetarian last summer. So, I did some research, and to my horror learned that Americans use 500 million plastic straws each day. I immediately ordered some stainless steel straws and my entire family got into the habit of using them as much as possible even though cleaning them is a pain in the neck.

So, it was my Gen Z daughter who really got me thinking about the products I use and dispose of each day, starting with straws, then moving on to laundry detergent. I approached this new phase of conscious consumerism with more than a little guilt.

It’s my daughter’s world that I’ve been neglecting, a world filled with millions of tons of plastic in her oceans and a mountain of single-use plastic bags and Starbucks straws in her landfills. That she would have to be the one to point out my cluelessness is bad enough, but the fact that it took me this long to realize that I’m part of the problem is even more humiliating. I thought I was being environmentally conscious by recycling, using stainless steel water bottles, and reusable shopping bags. But it wasn’t enough--not even close.

It feels good to give a crap

This summer, I ordered my first $48 case of bamboo toilet paper from Who Gives a Crap, a company that gives 50% of their profits to charity. I made this decision after learning that the average American uses three rolls of toilet paper each week and this is having a devastating impact on forests.

Toilet paper is made from wood pulp which comes from Canada’s boreal forests, an unsustainable source. The worst offenders were the most common brands (brands I’d been buying regularly) including Charmin, Scott, Cottonelle and Angel Soft. Since 1996, an area the size of Pennsylvania has been carved out of the Canadian boreal forest and quite literally flushed down America’s toilets.

As a bird lover, I was absolutely horrified to hear these statistics (over 300 species of birds breed, migrate through or rely on North America’s boreal forest region). So I convinced my reluctant husband to try the bamboo toilet paper which is a bit more expensive and not quite as soft as the luxury brands, and you know what? It was fine. We now get it delivered to the door every three months.

I’ve had less luck with paper towels because bamboo or recycled paper towels aren’t as absorbent as I like. So, this month I ordered a 12-pack of highly absorbent cloth towels which are the size and shape of a standard paper towel. The clean towels are stacked in a pretty bowl on our counter and there’s a basket beneath the sink for the dirty towels (which will be cleaned, lovingly, using my Dropps). I’ve already gotten into the habit of reaching for cloth over paper and I love the towels so much that I plan to order another pack of 12.

Now that I’m aware of the amount of waste I’ve been creating, I’m on high alert to discover more disruptors. Opportunities abound. I ordered shampoo bars and natural soaps from a company that uses zero plastic, the goal being to eliminate as many plastic bottles as possible (I love both products).

I purchased those period panties I mentioned earlier, the goal being to reduce (and eventually eliminate) the need for disposable sanitary napkins and tampons. There are food storage containers and silicone wraps that reduce the need for plastic wrap and sandwich bags which I’m planning to try out until I find a brand and style I like. There are sustainable razors that use no plastic, not even for replacement blades (I plan to ask for one for Christmas). Recently, I saw an ad for a reusable Q-tip that I found intriguing (2 billion cotton swabs are thrown away in America every day).

Now that I’m aware of the harm I’ve been doing by purchasing so many disposable products, I’m excited to disrupt my buying behavior. There’s no shortage of new products on the market — products that promise to minimize my use of plastic in the short term, and hopefully reduce it completely in the not-too-distant future.

Occasional poet. Writer of sad essays. Novelist. Birder and amateur photographer. I enjoy trees.

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