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How to shop in a Sustainable Manner.


Every dollar spent shopping casts a ballot for or against a sustainable future. While many goods are produced in ways that deplete natural resources and destroy ecosystems, others are made in more socially and environmentally responsible ways. Learning about sustainable shopping practices means that individuals can work to ensure that their buying choices do not support the exploitation of people or the planet.


Human activity has already begun to strip the earth of resources, resulting in deforestation, water and soil contamination, overfishing, and climate change. For these reasons, the planet needs people to adopt eco-friendly purchasing habits, which can help in the following ways.


What is sustainable grocery shopping?

To understand what sustainable grocery shopping means, you can just as easily look to the definition of a sustainable diet. A 2012 report from the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) says a “sustainable diet” does the following:

  1. Exerts low environmental impact

  2. Contributes to food and nutrition security

  3. Promotes healthy life for current and future generations

Achieving these three pillars of sustainable eating starts with more sustainable grocery shopping—and requires a full rethink of how we select our food. For the aspiring climatarian, gone are the days of walking into a grocery store, picking the tastiest-looking stuff, and walking away. At its core, sustainable grocery shopping means paying attention to where our food comes from, and how it impacts the world during its journey from soil to dinner plate.


One of the most important things you can do for the environment is change your diet, and the food you pick at the grocery store can have a massive impact on both a global and local level.

For starters: reducing or cutting beef, lamb, and cheese massively decreases your diet’s GHG emissions. Or saving water-guzzling foods like almonds for a special treat (or cutting them out completely, if you’re able) can help areas like California and the Mediterranean combat climate-change-exacerbated droughts. And by eating locally and seasonally, we can limit transportation emissions, like those caused by flying January’s strawberries from Peru to New York.

You can also support small farms who practice sustainable values, like fair employment practices and agricultural practices that maintain local ecosystems. Similarly, buying certified fair trade, free range, organic and/or Rainforest Alliance foods supports the just treatment of humans, animals, and ecosystems. And when navigated wisely, choices good for the planet can also be good for our wallets.

While a “sustainable” diet is not automatically a healthy, inexpensive, or community-supportive one, choices that support one priority often support the others. Buying locally, for example, can lower food transportation emissions and support your local economy. And pulses like lentils, chickpeas, and black-eyed peas are sustainable, healthy, and affordable. Plus, reducing food waste and packaging saves money, because we aren’t paying for food we don’t eat or fancy labeling we don’t need.

Furthermore, eating green is increasingly a necessity. A 2014 University of Cambridge paper found that changes in demand as well as supply will be necessary to bring the food system in line with emissions targets—meaning we consumers need to change our habits as much as food producers must change theirs. And those changes to our demands start with eating less meat, especially beef and lamb.


Reduce Your Food Waste

Both Egan and Bratskeir write about the importance of reducing food waste, which starts with grocery shopping. The first step is creating a proper shopping plan and buying only what you need. When you get those groceries home, make sure to store foods properly to reduce spoilage. And finally, reframe how you think about waste. Instead of throwing out odds and ends you’d normally toss, turn bits of leftovers into a new meal. Use waste-free cooking techniques like saving onion and garlic peels to make stock; using the stems of hearty greens for smoothies; and preserving extra vegetables with freezing or dehydrating techniques. Simply cooking your own meals helps make a dent in your waste. When you cook at home, there won’t be any take-out containers, and you’re less likely to waste ingredients you have picked out by hand.


Eat Less Meat, But Better Meat

Although home food waste is often focused on fruits and vegetables, Egan reminds readers that because of the huge inputs required and intensive impact of meat production, red meat (beef, pork, lamb) is the most important food to not waste. More than any other food, she writes, make sure to use leftovers including red meat.

For the same reasons, cutting back on meat consumption in general is one of the best ways you can reduce your foodprint. Industrial meat production is inhumane for animals, pollutes waterways and soil and is a major contributor to global greenhouse emissions. It’s also simply not efficient. “Animal-based foods are less efficient uses of natural resources because you’re growing animal feed and relying on these creatures to convert that into food that humans eat, rather than just growing food for humans to eat directly,” explains Egan. “By just about every metric used to evaluate the environmental impact of making food, the plant kingdom beats the animal kingdom by a long shot.”

By cutting back on meat consumption just one day a week, you can reduce your personal impact by 15 percent. Some people cut back by skipping meat on Mondays; others skip meat for breakfast and lunch, eating it only at dinner. Another approach is to combine vegetables and meat — such as blended burgers — to reduce the overall quality of meat you are eating in typical meat dishes. And when do you purchase meat, look for pasture-fed, responsibly produced meat, ideally from farmers practicing regenerative farming techniques, which improve the quality of the land being used to farm, rather than diminish it.


Shop Local and Organic

Probably the most widely available certified label out there is USDA Certified Organic. When you can find and afford it, Egan suggests choosing organic. “Conventional industrial agriculture is characterized by maximizing the yield of crops above all else,” she writes, “doing so through energy-intensive farming practices and synthetic chemicals such as fertilizers, at the expense of the surrounding environment.” The USDA Organic certification, which is “arguably the most rigorously backed certification on the market,” she explains, guarantees farmers use pest and weed mitigation techniques that are less harmful to the environment, the surrounding communities and our health.

In order to be strategic about your organic purchasing, the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen is a good way to hone in on foods that are most or least likely to have heavy pesticide loads. “[It’s] unrealistic for most of us to have the budget to buy organic everything” as Egan says. Beyond labels, when possible, shop from local farmers and producers. While producers at farmers’ markets or farm stands are less likely to have certifications, you can ask questions about production methods and issues that are important to you.


Understand Food Labels

When you are shopping consciously, certain words on packaging might seem more wholesome than they actually are. “Don’t just close your eyes and swallow,” writes Bratskeir. “Instead look out for words and phrasing that hint at shadiness, and start following certifications that you trust.” Labels such as healthy, natural, superfruit/food, plant-based and sustainable have vague — or no —food industry guidelines, often leaving a lot up to interpretation.

Instead, it’s recommended shoppers seek out trusted certifications that guarantee foods have been produced in a way that is fair to the planet, animals and workers. So if you’re interested in animal welfare, don’t just look for the words “pasture-raised,” look for a label that is third party verified, like Animal Welfare Approved, or Humane Certified. If you’re interested in worker welfare, look for Food Justice Certified or the Fair Food Program. There are also a number of niche labels that support various conservation efforts, such as an Audubon Certification for meat that guarantees producers meet standards that overlap with USDA Organic and also requires ranchers to protect the bird-friendly, native plants on their grazing land.


Avoid Packaging and BYO Bags

Here at FoodPrint, we are passionate about helping you understand that food packaging — in addition to the food itself — has a foodprint. Although there are many reasons to cut way back on single-use plastic, Eagan gives a great one: “Plastic pollution is one of the most serious threats to the health of our ocean,” she writes, citing an estimate that suggests by 2050 the ocean will house proportionally more plastic than fish. Reducing the amount of plastic you bring into your home by choosing to grocery shop sustainably is a great way to keep it out of your house, and eventually the trash.

When you look at your shopping list, think about items that come in single-use plastic. Can you buy a larger size to reduce the packaging waste? Or, look for another brand using more sustainable packaging. When possible, choose cans over glass over plastic. Bratskeir also challenges you to ask yourself, “Do I really need this today?”, especially when it comes to produce that is unnecessarily wrapped in plastic wrap or stored in plastic containers. Can you forgo that ingredient this time?

And don’t forget to bring your own reusable grocery bags, as well as produce bags. While some cities and states have banned them, plastic bags are still used in the majority of stores nationwide. They aren’t recyclable, and clog machinery when people put them in recycling bins anyway. This is an easy win for when you grocery shop sustainably — bring a tote!


Learn how to Cook!

  • It's easy to outsource our cooking to professionals, but in so doing, we lose a fundamental skill, control over our nutrition, and an exercise that promotes out physical and mental health.

  • Even if you've never cooked anything beyond grilled cheese, improving your cooking skills can seriously improve your quality of life.

  • Learn about the benefits of learning to cook as well as some resources to help you along the way.

Cheers and have a great week!

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