The power to spend money can be a weapon in the battle for a better planet.

We started this series with what goes out of our homes. The other half of green living is what we bring into our homes. The products we buy and the way we buy them affect our families, neighbourhoods and society at large.

Start with the simplest thing we do when we shop. The plastic carry bag pollutes our streets, rivers, wells and forests. It clogs sewers. It kills cattle and wildlife. Why shoppers insist on it is a mystery. If we all carry cloth bags as we used to, and nag our friends to do the same, we can be free of this menace. In fact, we can even refuse other kinds of excess wrapping, such as the boxes and plastic sleeves that come with saris or shoes.

In earlier times, adulteration of food and other products was a serious issue, and packaging boosted our confidence. But do we really want our books, brooms, steel vessels and toy cars shrink-wrapped? Does the oil for our lamps need to be branded and packaged?

Food and cosmetics are a personal choice of every family. And if we want to be earth-friendly, then we need to go beyond just picking a brand that proclaims itself green. Is the product local or imported? How much of it is grown and how much is synthesised in a lab? Is each biscuit in the package unnecessarily wrapped in a separate sleeve?

We need to look even harder at appliances and electronic gadgets. A manufacturer of television sets or cell phones wants you to replace those things often, and he hires an advertiser to talk you into it. But an expensive appliance that is not bio-degradable and cannot be recycled ought to last a long time. Sometimes, we weigh the cost of replacing a washing machine (Rs. 25,000 at least) against the cost of replacing a belt or agitator (a few thousands?) and somehow figure out that it is easier to buy a new one. Factoring in the environmental cost will make us sharper at arithmetic.

Compulsive shopping seems to be considered a disorder now. Before we go down that road, we can slow down and think before we buy. Do we really need another pair of sandals, or are we actually depressed, bored and lonely?

As for the overall retail picture, we already have large department stores in our cities, and we may soon have enormous ones. Meanwhile, some of us can walk to our neighbourhood provisions shop, tell the man we need tea, and get the exact size and brand we always buy. We ask for a loaf of bread and he says, “Are you sure? Your father just bought one on his way home.”

Nostalgia aside, small businesses are often within walking distance, use less packaging, give you products in appropriate quantities and deliver at home when you need it. Small businesses keep a wide range of producers and farmers in business. If we want to keep things that way, we don’t need to demonstrate in the streets against foreign direct investment. We can just vote with our wallets.

Need-based buying

* If your shopkeeper offers you a plastic bag, refuse it. If there is a ban against carry bags in your city, support the ban. Look hard at all the packaging on your purchase. If you don’t want the shoe box or bubble wrap it comes in, leave it with the shopkeeper, who may reuse it.

* Buy products in appropriate sizes. Sachets of shampoo are good for travel, but if your family uses, say, 250 ml of shampoo in a month, buy a bottle (which can be recycled) rather than 50 sachets.

* If you have a tendency to buy too much, shop with a stern friend or send your youngster to the store with a list. Take your recreational walks on the streets without stores or carry very little money with you.

* Before you buy a new appliance or electronic gadget, ask yourself what you plan to do with the old one.

(This is the eighth article in a 10-part series about how to live sustainably every day. It appears on Mondays. The next article is: Drive to change.)