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What not to buy-- a conscious consumer’s guide

Source- Wikimedia Commons- Tumi-1983

With all the talk about the Global Goals and changing the world, it can feel overwhelming to figure out how to contribute on an individual level. It’s encouraging to know that world leaders and major CEOs are throwing their weight behind the Global Goals….but what about little ol’, relatively insignificant, supremely average, me? What can I tangibly alter about my daily life to make a difference?

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For me, the small choices we make as a consumer are the most doable and realistic place to start. Global & Smart shared with us ways to shop in support of the Global Goals, but in addition to the things to do there are some products we should try to flat-out avoid. It can be as easy as picking one face wash over the other at the drugstore (the number of options is too overwhelming anyways), or taking a brief skim at the ingredients of your shampoo before taking it to the cash register.

Five products to give the axe:

1. Exfoliators/ facial cleansers/ anything with microbeads
microbeads what not to buy.jpgImage: Flickr- gentlemanrook

You know how those commercials talk about the amazing exfoliating effects of those little beads in their facial cleaners? Well, they may feel cool on your face but they are very uncool for the environment. Microbeads-- found in thousands of products from blackhead eraser scrubs to 3D whitening toothpastes-- are essentially non-biodegradable bits of plastic. When microbeads swirl down our drain they ultimately wind up in our oceans, fully intact, making their way through the marine food chain, until they end up in some salmon deliciously cooked on your plate. Yuck. There is an entire campaign dedicated to “Beat the Microbead” and there is even an app you can download so that the next time you’re doing some toiletry shopping all you have to do is scan the barcode of a product and it will tell you if it contains microbeads or not. It’s a no-microbead-no-brainer. Companies like Unilever have already vowed to go plastic free for their products, and with enough consumer pressure other companies may follow suit.

2. Anything with non-sustainable palm oil

palm oil production what not to buy.jpgImage: Flickr- MONUSCO

Palm oil is the most consumed vegetable oil in the world and is found in tons of products from lipsticks and detergents to packaged breads and chocolate. The problem is that when it’s not produced sustainably, the palm oil industry contributes to major deforestation, the endangering of animals, and the abuse of indigenous communities. The orangutan is close to extinction because of the destruction of its habitat, plus the palm oil industry is linked to harmful child labor practices in Malaysia and Indonesia. The good news is that there are efforts to have palm oil produced sustainably so that it does not endanger the environment or local populations. You can look for products with the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) or Green Palm logo to support sustainable palm oil. Though some environmentalists think these certifications do not go far enough in ending deforestation, it is certainly a step in the right direction. Also keep in mind that palm oil products often aren’t clearly labeled, and ingredients like vegetable oil, glyceryl, and palm kernel are usually palm oil derivatives. (Check out the full list of ingredients on the World Wildlife Fund website.)

3. Shampoos with sulfates

shampoo hair what not to buy.jpgImage: Flickr- Rob Briscoe

That sudsy, foamy lather that happens when you shampoo your hair is due to sodium laureth sulfate (SLS), a common chemical compound that can pollute water sources and can also contain traces of 1,4-dioxane, a hazardous compound that cannot fully biodegrade. There’s already been a major backlash against the use of sulfates in beauty products, so just choose a product with a sulfate-free label next time you shop. It’s not just good for Mother Earth, your hair will thank you too.

4. Aerosol cans

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Spray cans have been getting flak for their negative environmental impact for decades. Fortunately, starting in the 1970s, the US government eliminated the ozone-depleting chemicals that aerosol sprays used to contain. Unfortunately, even if they aren’t specifically depleting the ozone, aerosol cans are bad for the environment in other ways. They still contain hydrocarbons that contribute to global warming. Aerosols also emit something known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are known to contribute to smog (California’s already made moves to limit them).  To decrease your own eco-footprint, opt for solid deodorants over spray, or hair products that come in a spray mist form (the kind that uses a pump) instead of hairsprays that come in aerosol cans.

5. Electronics that rely on conflict minerals

Mining in Kailo Congo what not to buy.jpgImage: Flickr- Julien Harneis

Gold plus the “three T’s” (tin, tantalum, and tungsten) are considered “conflict minerals”-- they are mined in the Congo and contribute to conflict in the region. The illicit mining community is incredibly lucrative (like hundreds of millions of dollars lucrative) so armed groups fight for control of mines, and civilians are caught in the violence and forced into the illicit mining economy. The minerals from these mines wind up in a lot of our electronic products. While current legislation requires companies to ensure the materials they use aren’t tied to conflict in the Congo by tracing their supply chains (and making this info transparent), there are still loopholes and companies need to be monitored more closely, because companies can go through all sorts of intermediaries to evade responsibility. Several initiatives, like the Enough Project, are calling for a certification system that would guarantee a product met a certain standard (something like Fair Trade for Coffee). You can help by supporting companies like Intel and HP that are going “conflict-free” and demanding universities and other businesses to follow suit.


It’s always crucial to remember how we as consumers have the power to hold companies accountable and to foster change. There is already a huge movement towards all-natural products, and companies aren’t going to keep selling a product that no one wants to buy. Taking some products out of our lives, plus incorporating other ethical consumer practices, is an easy way to take the Global Goals to an individual level.


It’s also good to remember just how easy responsible consumption is. Scanning product labels or spending an extra dollar can help to shape a world that treats the environment and every human fairly.