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Sustainable Home Goods: a Shopping Guide

Home is where the heart is; and the items we use to beautify and enrich our everyday lives should reflect our values. Thoughtful product research and small changes in our habits add up to a net positive change. Our choices impact the planet we leave to our children, so let’s choose to live more sustainably. 

This is a change we can all agree on. Data collected by Southern Cross University in 2019 indicated that 93% of survey participants (Australian and American) were generally concerned about the environment. 40% were concerned about plastic pollution, 38% were concerned about climate change, and 39% were concerned over biodiversity loss. 

Research published in September 2021 by Pew Research reported the following:

  • 72% of people are concerned that global climate change will harm them personally, at some point in their lifetime.
  • Only 56% of people feel that society is doing a very good or somewhat good job of dealing with global climate change, and 44% feel it is doing a very bad or somewhat bad job of it.
  • In some sectors, as many as 94% of adults in the U.S. are willing to take personal steps to reduce the effects of climate change, including modifying how they live and work.

As a buyer of home goods, one of the best ways to support the good of the planet is by making thoughtful choices. Cleaning products alone are a major source of urban air pollution, and there are now many alternatives to conventional products. Additionally, millions of tons of durable goods are landfilled every year. This includes items like household appliances, furnishings, carpets and rugs, batteries, and other miscellaneous items. If you want to level up your consumer-consciousness, here is a shopping guide for making sustainable home goods purchases.

Cleaning Products

Few of us would yank out of a bottle of ammonia or bleach these days, but greenwashing in cleaning product labeling is a contributing issue to buyer missteps. You may think you are purchasing an eco-friendly product, only to learn that it is not only bad for the environment, but also emitting volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into your home’s air.

What to Avoid

For a green cleaner, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) explicitly recommends staying away from phosphates, ammonia, and nitrogen. 

Here is a list of other things to avoid:

  • Single-use plastic containers (many brands will now sell glass, or at the very least you can use reusable containers)
  • Aerosol cans
  • Wet wipes/any disposable wipes
  • Chlorine and bleach
  • Microbeads, which are often touted as “scrubbers” but don’t biodegrade

What to Choose Instead

Many cleaning brands are improving ingredients, and you can usually scan the label and discern whether it is a good choice. You also want to think about packaging: Is the packaging all recyclable? Spray bottles and jugs often have rubber rims, coiled springs, and other elements that may not be recyclable. You may have to live with a “best choice” here, but it’s worth making it consciously.

Also, think about the overall impact of the purchase. Do some research to learn if the company has a commitment about lowering emissions. Many do and are making those efforts in response to consumer demand. Keep that demand going by voting with your wallet for companies that are doing the right thing.

Some recommendations of products we like:

Brands like ECOS are affordable green options and readily available at many convenience stores. Our household favorite is Blueland, which sells glass bottles and tablet refills. Online shops like Thrive Market offer sustainably produced products, and you can compare brands to find cleaning products based on your budget and purity standards. 

Sheets, Curtains, Rugs, Towels

Everyone wants soft blankets and chic accent pieces, but textiles are a big culprit for shedding microplastics and causing harm to the environment. Textile production is one of the top five most environmentally damaging industries. Carbon emissions and toxic waste are unfortunate byproducts of manufacturing processes.

What to Avoid

If you’re starting as a novice, you will learn best by simply reading tags. Most home fabrics are made with cotton or synthetic materials. Some fabrics, even if they are technically biodegradable, harm the environment because they require demanding crop conditions, involving pesticides and water waste. Conscientious companies may describe sourcing, and you may settle on diverse material choices in your home goods. 

Synthetic fibers, like nylon and polyester, are made from fossil fuels and are not biodegradable. During washing and wearing, synthetics also contribute to microfiber waste, which builds up, destroying local marine ecosystems.

What to Choose Instead

Don’t despair. It may appear that most options are ruled out, but there are plenty of companies making luxurious and sustainable products to live a comfy and responsible/guilt-free life.

Start your search for quality items by looking at responsibly sourced cloth, such as:

Do some reading to learn if textile brands practice what they preach. Better bedding and bathroom linens might cost a little more upfront, but they last longer and are produced according to ethical practices in sourcing and processing. Utilize apps and websites like Done Good Co. to find responsible brands that are actively improving the industry and sell the goods you’re looking for.

Home Decor and Furniture Purchases

Furniture isn’t something you replace as often as towels or cleaning products, and of course it represents a bigger financial investment. That said, most of us do buy new mattresses, furniture pieces, and big home items at least once a decade. Whatever your time frame is for making these types of purchases, you can do your due diligence now to make the best choice for the environment.

What to Avoid

The good news is that there is very little compromise to make when it comes to buying both high-quality and environmentally friendly furniture. Materials that emit chemicals are typically used to build the cheapest, lowest-quality items. PVC vinyl off-gasses vinyl chloride, which can cause slow, subtle harm to the environment. Other chemicals on chairs or couches, like flame retardant, have been known to contain endocrine disruptors.

Our best advice is to take the time to research a company and avoid cheap, mega-manufacturer sets that will break or wear down quickly, only to end up in the landfill. 

What to Choose Instead

This is a good chance to use one of those “R”s: reduce, reuse, recycle. “Reuse” furniture by buying used. Antiquing or visiting estate sales is a good way to save money while still getting high-quality pieces that may predate the “innovative materials” that make things so cheap, and also so harmful to the environment.

If you want to buy something new, you can discover a lot online. Many brands are being transparent about their products, like the Avocado bed

What Makes a Home Goods Brand Ethical?

It should be clear that, to maximize this approach, you need to not only research individual products, but companies as a whole. Each purchase is a grain of sand: it may seem small, but it will eventually tip the scale.

So, as you modify your practices and become more thoughtful in your purchases, how do you measure whether a home goods brand is truly ethical? 

Here are some metrics we suggest:

  • Responsible sourcing of materials — Sustainability directly relates to where, how, and in which ways materials are obtained. A responsible brand supplies its products ethically and uses renewable resources as often as possible. 
  • Careful use of energy and resources — How much energy and carbon go into making home goods? This may seem impossible to nail down, but many companies are growing more and more conscious about efficiency. Resources like water, electricity, and chemicals all go into making a final product. With better practices, these resources can be used within a company’s means, instead of beyond them.
  • Proper waste management — Home goods production results in waste, such as scraps, liquid dyes, or broken glass. This waste has to be disposed of properly. Brands that aim for sustainability will follow local waste rules and deliver unusable materials where they belong, sometimes recycling items that can be used again for other purposes. 

Related reading: European producers are already subject to something called Extended Producer Responsibilities. Read more on what could be coming in the U.S. 

Leveraging Consumer Power to Make Sustainable Home Goods Choices

We’re all in this together. Every time we wash our hands and dry them on a towel. Every time we tuck our kids in at night. Every time we enjoy a book in a hammock: home goods are a joy, and we are privileged to live surrounded by comfort and convenience. With that privilege comes a responsibility. The lives we so deeply enjoy should promote good for each other, and good for the earth. Simple as that.

At FiveADRIFT, we are on a mission. From maximizing the sustainability of our production and final product to removing plastic from the oceans, we believe that this important work contributes to the good of humanity. In your own life: take stock. Sustainable shopping is buying  things you love from companies you believe in. We wish you well on the journey.

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