Ruth MacGilp

Ways to reduce your carbon footprint while shopping

8 min Read
Close up of woman leafing through dresses on a clothes rack

The negative environmental impact of the fashion industry is indisputable. From the extraction of raw materials destroying biodiversity, to overproduction creating millions of tonnes of textile waste, to toxic chemicals and microplastics polluting waterways around the world. And yet, it’s not just about what you buy, but how you buy it. Here, explore ten easy ways to reduce your carbon footprint when shopping for clothes.

1. Unsubscribe and unfollow

Did you know that the average person is exposed to around 5,000 advertising messages every single day? While we may not be able to control TV ads, billboards or the Instagram algorithm, we can certainly rein in our exposure by taking steps to minimise brand influence on our screens.

Here’s a challenge for you - take half an hour out of your day to look at your email inbox and see how many brand emails you’re subscribed to that try to sell products you simply don’t need. Unsubscribe from them all. The same goes for Instagram - unfollowing fast fashion brands and product-pedalling influencers not only helps clear your feed for more inspirational, informative and creative content, but also helps make subtle adjustments to your ad targeting. This is all about breaking free from the constant push to buy more, which in turn will shrink your fashion footprint as you build more conscious buying habits.

2. Look for eco evidence

Greenwashing is a big problem in fashion, with brands jumping onto the sustainability bandwagon without evidence to back up their claims. This is why it’s so important to read between the lines of brand marketing messages (particularly vague terms like ‘green’ and ‘eco’) and instead look for solid evidence when browsing in an online shop.

Many sustainable fashion brands create sustainability reports that crunch the numbers on carbon science. For example, Organic Basics lists an ‘impact index’ under each product, such as this t-shirt that saves 0.89 kg of c02 when compared to a conventional cotton alternative. They also measure and share their overall carbon impact for the year, and even offer a low carbon version of their website that significantly minimises energy use from data transfers.

3. Shop local

A dress is designed in the UK. Cotton is grown in Pakistan. Woven in India. Cut and sewn in Bangladesh. Finished in Italy using components made in China. Packaged in Spain and warehoused in Portugal. Shipped globally. Before that dress even reaches you back in the UK from a ‘British’ company, it has travelled thousands of miles on it’s journey and released deadly greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

One of the biggest steps you can take to avoid the colossal carbon emissions from transporting goods all around the world is to shop local. This doesn’t just mean shopping at stores physically near to your home, but also buying products which are made locally, using locally sourced materials. A great way to ensure this is by supporting small independent fashion designers in your area who don’t outsource their manufacturing, as well as connecting with the heritage of your local area. For example, here in Scotland we have a rich history of knitwear production, so if you’re financially able to, supporting Scottish knitwear brands like Hilary Grant, Collingwood Norris, and Green Thomas is a great place to start.

4. Ditch the drive

Shopping online can have significantly less environmental impact than shopping in-store, because of the carbon emissions produced from customers driving to the high street or shopping mall, and the electricity and heating used to power retail outlets (Eco Age ).

However, if you prefer the bricks-and-mortar experience of browsing and buying, you can make a difference by opting for walking, cycling or public transport instead. Don’t forget your reusable bags too! While the 5p charge in the UK helped reduce plastic bag consumption by up to 90%, it’s still too easy to say yes when offered a handy carrier bag, so make sure to keep a stock of organic cotton tote bags for the next time you hit the shops.

5. Be careful with carbon offsets

While carbon offsetting (the act of compensating for the carbon emissions of producing, consuming and distributing products) is a positive step, the fashion industry must address the root cause of the fossil fuel problem rather than simply “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic”. Ultimately, fashion needs to invest in renewable energy and vitally, make less products in the first place.

In addition to looking out for ‘carbon neutral’ fashion brands which also create slower, more sustainable products (such as Ganni and AllBirds) you as an individual can take action too. But be sure to thoroughly research the companies you choose to offset with, and remember that cutting emissions in the first place is as, if not more, powerful than paying to suck them back out. If you haven't already, download Pawprint to learn how to life a low carbon lifestyle.

Want to learn more about carbon offsetting?

Check out this article which looks at the good, the bad and the better when it comes to carbon offsetting.
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6. Practice patience with delivery

Next day delivery or express services are made ever more enticing by free delivery deals from fashion brands. But expediting the speed of distribution simply escalates the carbon impact of your new product, not least because the delivery transport may take place by air, rather than sea or road, and deliveries of multiple products are less likely to be consolidated into one package. Find out more about the impact of rushed delivery for online shopping in this handy video.

Do you really need that dress tomorrow? Why not try skipping the express option (and saving money!) or even shopping with made-to-order fashion brands that have longer lead times by nature, such as:

7. Avoid the returns trap

Returns have a huge impact on carbon emissions due to further complex transport logistics, packaging and textile waste. Again, it’s made all too easy by fashion retailers tempting us with free and easy online returns, which leads to 30-40% of all online orders being returned and 20% of those returns destined for landfill, because they’re not resellable by the retailer (Eco Warrior Princess).

As a shopper, one of the best things you can do to help reduce returns is to avoid buying multiple sizes and colours in order to make your decision at home. Instead, look for detailed information on fit (which may include taking your own measurements) and consider the ecommerce imagery carefully before making a decision. If in doubt, get in touch with the retailer to ask about the product so you can ensure it’s perfect for you and your body.

8. Get thrifty

While you’re browsing from your favourite brands, consider whether you could acquire the same items second-hand. Search for those labels on the likes of Depop and eBay, and you’ll be surprised at the quality of preloved items available.

Engaging with second-hand fashion helps extend the life of a garment, diverting unwanted clothes from landfill and keeping them in the loop. Thrifting can be so much fun too, not to mention a lot more affordable. Check out your local charity shops, vintage boutiques and second-hand markets for fashion that’s as stylish as it is sustainable.

9. Ask questions

You, as a customer, have so much more power than you might think. Brands make changes to their impact based on demand, so it’s time to use your power to demand better.

Fashion Revolution encourages us all to ask brands (either publicly on social media or via email) “Who made my clothes?” and “What’s in my clothes?” to draw attention to the lack of transparency in terms of the fashion keeping its ethical shortcomings secret. You can help reduce your fashion footprint not only through how you consume clothing, but how you use your voice to help drive a more sustainable system.

10. Love it or leave it

Last but certainly not least, the number one thing you can do as a shopper to minimise your environmental impact is to buy less. One of the easiest ways to do this is by asking yourself this one question before tapping your credit card or clicking add-to-cart: “Do I love it?”

If you can’t see where this garment would ‘fit’ into your existing wardrobe (i.e would you need to buy other items to make an outfit), or you can’t imagine complying with the #30Wears rule, it’s not worth the carbon footprint. Remember, fashion should be about beauty and creativity, so if you don’t find joy in what you’re buying, the answer is simple: don’t buy it.

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