Why you should start a shopping ban when you start zero waste

What is a shopping ban?

If you’ve never heard of a shopping ban, the concept is simple; you do no shopping but continue to pay for utilities like rent, groceries, car insurance or public transit. Shopping for new clothes, one-click buying on Amazon, and the like are off the table. There are various reasons to institute a shopping ban like paying off debt or trying to get a handle on your possessions while minimizing.

It may not seem, on the surface, that going zero waste and shopping bans work together. After all, there are so many things you must buy to go zero waste in the first place. Or maybe there aren’t. There are plenty of ways we can reduce our impact on the planet without buying or repurposing a thing. Driving less, eating less meat and fewer animal products, flying less and using less electricity are all ways to reduce the invisible impact we have.


When it comes to waste, it’s time we expand our understanding from a purely physical idea of plastic packaging and take-away cups. We can waste food by allowing it to spoil. We can waste electricity and water. Anything that we can use is a resource, and any resource can be wasted when it is not used to its full potential. Similarly, money is a resource. Spending a great deal of money at the onset of your zero waste transition is usually an unwise use of resources. Buying zero waste must-haves new can also be a poor use of resources; when you choose to buy new instead of making use of pre-existing resources, you support the creation of new resources. The most sustainable resource is the one that already exists and most of us have plenty. Buying without evaluating if the resources you already have can fulfill a purpose may mean the resources you have go wasted.

Why a shopping ban?

Wherever you are right now, with whatever resources you have, you can become more zero waste and have a lighter impact on the earth. You cannot buy yourself to zero waste. There is no grand shopping list of zero waste switches that can make all of the emissions caused by your life to disappear. There’s a reason most zero wasters refer to a transition period as they learned and adjusted to this lifestyle; it doesn’t happen overnight, no matter what you buy. If you don’t know where to buy package free bread, a cloth bag won’t fix that. If you don’t know how to cook any vegetarian or vegan dishes, a stainless steal tiffin or collapsible straw can’t make an animal product laden diet any kinder to the earth. It takes time to learn what resources you have available for zero waste in the home, and buying anything, especially something new, is a last resort.

Don’t put the cart before the horse, as they say; if you drink tea twice a year and the box was only left in the kitchen when your old roommate moved out, there’s no reason for you to prioritize buying a tea ball for drinking loose tea. For one thing, the resource may go unused or rarely used, and for another, to respect the resources you already have, you must finish the tea you have before deciding to buy a zero waste version. A rule of thumb, especially regarding zero waste and related products, is that you ought to look around at the resources you already have and try to make those thing work before buying something else.

Give a sincere and prolonged try at making what you already have work before you buy something else. These days, replacing is easier and more common than adjusting the things we already have so that they serve our needs. If we buy without giving an alternative, pre-existing resource a chance, we risk creating unnecessary demand for new goods.

Zero waste will often call on you to be resourceful and creative. The world doesn’t operate in a circular economy of materials and resources that stay in a system and are reused/repaired/given new life. Since zero waste attempts to participate in a circular system, the way many things are available will not align with your values. While DIY isn’t the answer to every zero waste problem, it’s not a bad place to start in the meantime. If we try to buy our way out of every zero waste obstacle, we overlook the resources right in front of us. It may require more effort to transform or work with the resources around us, but that is more zero waste.

Don’t buy in

Like I said before, you can’t buy your way into zero waste, just like buying scrubs doesn’t make you a nurse. There is no aesthetic you must have to be zero waste because zero waste looks different for everyone. While zero waste must-haves can give you an idea of what other people need to live a zero waste lifestyle, it should be clear that there is nothing you must have to be zero waste. In zero waste, you will only make a difference by making changes. No product can do that for you.

Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.

The most troubling thing I see when people try to reduce their waste and buy tons of helpful whosits and whatsits, is that they replace one kind of consumption for another. The point is not to replace consumption of irresponsibly and unethically produced goods with more green products; you cannot be zero waste and consume the same amount of “eco” products as you do or did of typical products. If you shop for new clothes every few weekends, can’t get enough of imported home décor and drop hundreds whenever a new sneaker comes out, you can’t simply swap that for constant “green” shopping. The more, more, more model is inherently not zero waste because it tells you that you must keep buying and that the things you buy are disposable. Zero waste isn’t your same old habits and consumption with some green paint slapped on top. Buying anything is not a first response; as they say, use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.

A shopping ban helps you avoid all of this. You won’t make a habit of consuming “green” products like irresponsibly made goods. You won’t purchase products you don’t actually need during this period. Importantly, zero waste is as expensive as you make it. Buying a ton of zero waste products isn’t the secret to living lighter on the planet. In short, a shopping ban can help you transition to a more zero waste lifestyle with the things you have.

So when can I buy stuff?

The point of the shopping ban is that you have enough time to learn if the perceived “problem” you need to solve with a purchase is actually worth “fixing”.

The burning question on the mind of anyone considering a shopping ban is when they can resume buying. That’s up to you of course, but it depends on how you transition to zero waste. If you’ve already been dabbling for a few months and really want to begin making big changes in your life, I would suggest starting a shopping ban now. I try to hold out as long as possible before buying anything, but if you’re trying to make changes quickly, I suggest 6-8 weeks would be an appropriate shopping ban. That amount of time is enough to genuinely use and work with the resources you have, exhaustively, before buying anything and probably allow enough time to pass for you to have need arise for something. During this period you might be working on other changes in the home like food shopping with little plastic packaging or learning to cook vegan and vegetarian recipes.You may find upside down plates cover food just as well as plastic wrap or bees wax wraps or that you really do miss drinking iced coffee through a straw and it’s worth purchasing a set of reusable straws. The point of the shopping ban is that you have enough time to learn if the perceived “problem” you need to solve with a purchase is actually worth “fixing”.

Zero waste groceries purchased in reused plastic containers and found/homemade bags

Zero waste groceries purchased in reused plastic containers and found/homemade bags

If you’re very new to zero waste, I would suggest a longer shopping ban that is more flexible. A longer ban because you will be making changes over time and if the ban is the only thing keeping you off Amazon, it may help keep your eyes on the prize: a life where the resources we have are used fully and things are not wasted. The longest shopping ban I’ve done was 4 months, so I suppose it’s unfair to expect anyone else to do longer. That being said, four months is plenty of time to begin trying to purchase goods package free and learn what works for you, be it old reused Tupperware or cloth bags, and to begin experimenting with things like zero waste hair washing. Importantly, four months is enough time to run out of many packaged products like cleaning products, makeup and the like. This time period is also enough time to make lasting changes in your habits like carpooling, eating more vegan and vegetarian foods, and using less electricity. My experience when going zero waste was that I had plenty of resources in my home to keep me going, from extra bottles of shampoo and soap, to varieties of tea I forgot I owned, to old clothes and rags to use for cleaning or repurpose.

As for exceptions, if a shopping ban goes on long enough you will have one. If you’re a student and your computer charger breaks or is lost, it makes sense to replace it. If your child needs new shoes, they must be acquired. Unless being without something will prevent me from performing my responsibilities, I try to go at least a few days without it just to see if it was serving me as much as I thought it was; sometimes I’ve found I needed it and other times I did not.

Whether you’re a zero waste pro or just getting interested in the ideas, a shopping ban is worth trying. Zero waste is not conducive with the throw-away linear economy; while no one is perfect, continually buying fast fashion or purchasing every eco-product you come across calls for more creation of new goods and more resources that we can usually avoid.

If you’re interested in my experience with shopping bans, check out this post. After the holiday buying frenzy, consider joining me for a shopping ban the first few months of 2019! Each week will feature and area of our lives that we can make more zero waste by making the most of the resources we already have.