Making ethical decisions at the supermarket
08 May 2014
Shopping at the supermarket is one of the contradictions in my life. I know I should plan better and go to my local farmers markets and organic supermarkets but sometimes I run out of time and the convenience of my local is too tempting. But the good news is there are things we can do to make better choices when shopping at the supermarket and influence the products we see on the shelves. It takes a little practice but you too can make a difference and send a message to the retail giants.
What’s the issue?
Supermarkets are, well, super markets. They have the purchasing power to buy goods from all over the world in bulk and at prices that most others can’t beat. They’re not very discriminatory about what they put on the shelves as long as it is what the customer wants and it sells. Big business gets a bad rap but they are only supplying what people in their shops demand. Change the demand and they will change the supply.
Food systems and supply chains are very complex. This is another place you can find yourself making decisions that might be contradictory to what you’re trying to accomplish. Leo Hickman’s entertaining article on A Year of Ethical Living Revisited talks about some of his concerns and contradictions when trying to shop better.
More transparent labelling and trusted certifications would make purchasing decisions a whole lot easier but until then, we have to make decisions based on the knowledge and resources we have. Hopefully you have a little bit more knowledge than before you started reading this.
- Use your reusable bags
- Buy whole foods
- Take notice of the packaging
- Buy local and in season
- Don’t waste
- Green claims
- Make use of apps
- Know how to recycle
- Don’t shop at the supermarket
Do you have any suggestions for other ways to make a difference at the supermarket? Please add your thoughts in the comments at the bottom of the page.
1. Use your reusable bags
Globally it is estimated about 500 billion to one trillion plastic bags are used annually (depending on the source). The main problem is pollution in the form of rubbish (they’re lightweight and move and fly well). Plastic bags make their way into the ocean via watercourses where they can take more than 1,000 years to break down. They can be ingested by marine life. Each year, plastic pollution kills numerous marine creatures including turtles who mistake bags for a food item, jellyfish.
Rubbish in the ocean was cited recently as hampering the search for Malaysian Airlines MH370. The 60 Minutes’ story ‘Seas of Shame’ “explores how the vast oceans of the world are literally choking with the rubbish we throw away, and the havoc our waste causes wildlife”.Planet Ark has been involved in the campaign to introduce reusable plastic bags and this has been credited with reducing Australian’s use of plastic bags. But Australia still uses and enormous number of plastic bags annually with figures cites between 4 and 8 billion. Clearly, more can be done and you are in a great position to help. Read some facts about plastic bags and the environment. Another aspect is that plastic bags are simply unnecessary, a symbol of our excessive consumption and throw away culture, used solely because they are convenient. To me, this is perhaps the most compelling reason to give them away.
Action to ban single use, non-compostable plastic bags has already been taken in South Australia (2009), the ACT (2011) and Tasmania (2013). And Fremantle Council in WA was the first council in Australia to ban plastic bags. Queensland is currently pushing for a ban. And there are moves all over the world to move away from single use plastics bags. Far from being an inconvenience, South Australians embraced the change. It quickly becomes a way of life. It’s just about changing a habit.
- Buy reusable bags and use them. Make sure they’re in the car when you go shopping. I also carry several bags of the cotton variety in my handbag. They fold up really small and weigh nothing. And it’s not just at the supermarket; you can say no to single use bags at any shop.
- When you’re finished with your plastic bags you can recycle them at Coles. Your bags will be reprocessed into seats for kids’ schools and kindergartens.
- Queensland Conservation Society runs the Plastic Bag Free Queensland campaign. Sign the petition and participate in Plastic Bag Free March.
- Clean Up Australia Day is held on the first Sunday in March every year, more than 7,000 groups around Australia get together to pick up rubbish in their local area. Plastics made up 36% of the rubbish collected on Clean Up Australia Day 2013.
- Watch the movie Bag It.
2. Buy whole foods
What are whole foods? These are foods that are sold as close as possible to their original state. That is, they are natural, having been processed or refined as little as possible. You would recognise them on the shelf as coming from a plant or animal so fruit, veges, unprocessed meat, whole grains and so on.
If the thought of going for whole foods feels overwhelming, wean yourself off gradually and consider less processed but preserved goods in the meantime. If you don’t have time at the supermarket, look at the ingredients of your food when you get home and when you find something you’re happy with, stick to it, or try another product next time.
If you would usually use packets or pre-prepared parts of meals for your cooking, it may take some time before you’re comfortable cooking from scratch. It does take a little longer to cook this way initially but, like anything, with practice it becomes second nature and very satisfying, both for your palate and your sense of achievement. For recipe ideas, just Google your ingredients; you will literally find a recipe for any food you can think of.
A word of caution though; be careful of the ‘superfood’ fads. You might think you’re doing amazing things for your health but often the marketing hype overstates the benefit to so you’ll buy into it. Examples of “superfoods” are chia, quinoa and goji berries. Think about where the superfood comes from, maybe central America or the Himalayas, and think about the effect of the western demand in those locations. Demand for fad foods will result in increased supply, benefitting producers but raising prices so the locals can no longer afford the product, or farmland that would otherwise be used for local crops is converted to grow the trending crop for export.When you buy whole foods, you know what you’re putting into your meal and into your body. Food is fresher, has more nutrients, less salt, added sugar, preservatives and additives. It makes sense that whole foods are better for you.
Not only are whole foods better for you, they’re better for the environment. Less processing means less manufacturing required, less chemicals, less water, less energy, less transportation of extra, added ingredients.
- Start buying fresh and whole food. Do it gradually if it seems a bit daunting.
- Macro wholefoods has a good range of whole foods and organic goods in a special section of Woolworths.
- Look for low or no salt versions of products such as butter, cheese, sauce (like soy or fish) then add salt to taste when cooking if needed.
- Check ingredients for added chemicals like preservatives and colouring.
3. Take notice of the packaging
When you’re thinking about the content and ingredients in food, it’s easy to overlook what it comes packaged in. If you stop to think about it, packing ends up as waste, so the more packaging the more waste.
Always look for minimal packaging and packaging that is recyclable. Cardboard is easily recycled but also look for Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification to ensure the pulp for the cardboard hasn’t come from virgin forests. This is an issue for paper products as well. I buy recycled paper towels and toilet paper and refuse to buy paper napkins because my local doesn’t stock any that I know to be rainforest tree free. Plastics will have a recycling symbol and a number inside.
Choice of packaging is actually an area where a lot of contradictions can come in. Different materials have different benefits and disadvantages. For example, weight is an issue in transport with heavier items using more fuel to transport, which equals greater cost and more greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore the choice of plastic (lighter) over glass (heavy) is better for transport. However, glass is indefinitely recyclable and made mainly from sand whereas plastic is made from oil and degrades in the recycling process. My preference would still be to choose glass and encourage transport companies to invest in more efficient transport systems rather than buying fossil fuel based packaging. But this is still debatable.
- Choose items that have less packaging. Products can be double or even triple wrapped. Don’t buy items that have two or more servings individually wrapped inside an outer layer.
- Buy larger sizes of products or buy in bulk if your supermarket has that facility.
- Look for the recyclable packaging symbol and know which numbers can be recycled in your council’s waste
- The Australian Packaging Covenant is a sustainable packaging initiative. You can see signatories to the covenant here. The Shop Ethical app described below includes this in their criteria so you don’t need to memorise the list!
4. Buy local and in season
We’re told that buying locally is the way to go. One of the reasons is to support local producers and keep your local economy healthy. The main environmental reason is to reduce ‘food miles’, which means the good has to travel the less distance and has less emissions associated with it.
I lot of long shelf life products such as canned vegetables come from overseas. For example SPC Ardmona are the only company I have found that sell canned Australian tomatoes (all the others come from Italy). They are an iconic Australian brand. Recently in financial strife, they were considering closing their factory before securing a lucrative $70m deal with Woolworths attributed to the “power of the consumer“!
Most fresh fruit and vegetables can be sourced locally but they are seasonal. Because of the demand from shoppers to have the convenience of produce available whenever they want, the supermarkets respond by supplying produce, usually by air, from the opposite side of the globe when it’s not in season. When you’re picking your produce, have a quick look to see where it is from. In Australia, it is compulsory for the produce to be labelled with the country of origin.
When you buy like this it is such a treat when you’re favourite vegetable or fruit is available again! You really appreciate your food much more.
Like most things though, you can get caught out. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense to buy local food if it needs a large amount of inputs such as water, fertiliser or government subsidies. In Australia I think of rice and whether this is sustainable in an arid country because rice requires so much water to grow. I also don’t buy organic from overseas if there is a local product available. Here’s a link to an excellent article that discusses the contradictions and decisions involved when buying local and in season.
- Support local growers when you can. Local fresh fruit and veg is generally good to support. Think about when it might not make sense to buy something locally.
- Don’t buy produce that’s out of season and been flown halfway around the world
5. Don’t waste
Food waste is a massive worldwide problem with 15-35% of all food produced for human consumption lost or wasted. In the USA and Europe that’s about 190kg per person per year wasted in the production and processing of food, that is, getting it to the shops, and an additional 100kg wasted by consumers.
This means precious resources such as water, soil, and energy are also wasted. And we still have 842 million people around the world who still don’t have enough to eat. It just doesn’t seem right.
You can do your bit in reducing food waste and saving money by thinking about your meals in advance and planning your purchase of perishable goods so you don’t end up buying extra ‘just in case’. Try thinking about the money you’re effectively throwing away when you bin rotten or expired food. When you look in your fridge or pantry, see what you have left that needs to be eaten and plan a meal around that. Google the main food item(s) you have and you’ll have a recipe in less than a second.
“Consumers in the developed world could reduce waste by taking such simple steps as serving smaller portions, eating leftovers, and encouraging cafeterias, restaurants, and supermarkets to develop waste-reducing measures” National Geographic, Step Five from A Five-Step Plan to Feed the World
What organic waste you do have, you can compost and use in your pots or gardens as a soil conditioner. It’s very easy and there are lots of composting systems around for different situations from a small city apartment to large house.
- By following guidelines for buying fresher, local and in season produce you are eliminating many of the wasteful manufacturing and storage processes in what you buy.
- Shrink that Footprint has an article on five simple ways to save food.
- Check out some of the new food sharing sites and apps that give away excess food.
6. Green claims
You may have heard of greenwashing. This is when businesses advertise something as ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘safe for the planet’ without any evidence to back them up, or deliberately overstate or make misleading statements about the environmental credentials of their product. It’s a result of the increasing demand for more ethical products that unscrupulous business is taking advantage of.
On some level I think this is great because it shows how much of a demand is around for more environmentally friendly, socially responsible goods. Businesses are deliberately trying to capture that market by labelling not so ‘eco-friendly’ goods. Don’t worry too much if you get duped into buying something that isn’t as green as it claims. We all live and learn. That’s part of living a life of contradictions!
However it is better to know what you’re buying and learn about what are genuine green claims. There are some reputable labels but be aware that none are perfect (Fair Trade hazelnut spread contains uncertified palm oil, for example) so always have a healthy scepticism and keep yourself informed.
Similarly, marketing of products as ‘fat-free’ or ‘100% natural’ can be misleading. Companies take note of health related trends in purchasing and, even if their products are not healthy, they may label them to target that consumer group. Be suspicious of ‘too good to be true’ claims on products, you know would normally be bad for you… you can avoid a lot of this by buying whole foods [see above].
People can be cynical about organic products and it is true that the term ‘organic’ can be overused as part of greenwashing. Certified organic products however have been tested according to internationally agreed standards. You can trust the accredited labels in your country to certify produce that is ethically produced and better for the environment and you. The FAO has good information about organics.
One ingredient that is a must to avoid is Palm Oil, which is a versatile vegetable oil that is in almost everything from cosmetics to ice cream. Palm oil itself is not bad, it’s how it’s produced. It is a tropical plant and the production of it takes up hundreds of thousands of hectares of land in tropical regions destroying biodiverse forests and the habitat of species such as the orang-utan and tigers. Avoiding it is difficult as there are so many names for the various forms of it. Palm Oil Investigations is doing great things and WWF have a scorecard assessing more than 130 companies. Auckland Zoo has a New Zealand specific list of products.
Some examples of well established brands:
- Australian organic labels
- Overseas organic labels (International Organic Accreditation Service)
- Fair Trade
- Rainforest Alliance Certified (logos)
- Marine Stewardship Council
- Forest Stewardship Council (for wood based products such as paper towels, napkins, toilet paper)
- Know your green labels and support them when you can.
- Buy certified organic products when it makes sense [see local and in season section] and you can afford it.
- Support legislation for better and more transparent labelling of food.
- Avoid Palm Oil. Palm Oil Investigations is doing great things and WWF have a scorecard assessing more than 130 companies. Auckland Zoo has a New Zealand specific list
7. Make use of apps
You may have heard the catchcry “there’s an app for that!” And it’s true, there are apps for you to use at the supermarket.
The major supermarkets (Woolworths, Coles and Aldi) have apps that enable you to scan in products from home, so once you find a good product you are happy with, simply scan it or type it in and you don’t need to remember or take a paper list. They also organise your shopping by aisle and that saves you a lot of time, meaning you have more time to scrutinise what you’re buying.
There are apps specifically for buying better products. I often look them up for more information when I’m undecided on products or don’t know enough about them.
- Shop Ethical has researched companies based on their commitment to certain principles. They have used sources independent to the companies and have listed these sources within the app. They haven’t got all information on all products and there are many other considerations that could be included but it is a good rough guide to companies that might be doing a bit more than others.
- Australia’s Sustainable Seafood Guide engaged an independent academic and fisheries expert to undertake the assessments in the guide. Before publication there was an external review by a panel of experts. Source material is listed. I like this app and I think seafood is a tricky food to assess.
- Palm Oil Investigations will be bringing out a product scanning app soon. In the meantime, they have listed brands using sustainable palm oil on their site.
- Download an app or two to make your supermarket shopping organised and decision making quicker and easier.
- Share apps in your area through the comments below and help raise awareness.
Most of us don’t think about how our meat gets to the supermarket and there are a whole range of issues around the resources used to produce the meat, the waste products from production, and the ethics of the way in which the animal has been raised and killed.
Most of the world, that is, the parts that are still considered developing, don’t have a large amount of meat in their diet. Meat is expensive and relatively resource intensive to produce. A large amount of feed (36% of the world’s crops) and water is required and the greenhouse gas emissions are high. However, over the next 35 years global demand is expected to increase by 70% due to a rising population and increased wealth in developing countries.
In Australia and New Zealand, low populations and appropriate rainfall and soils mean that most meat can be raised as ‘free range’ (be careful of ‘free range’ claims as they are often not regulated). Still, some is finished in feed lots and marketed as grain fed. Read this page from Meat and Livestock Australia to make up your own mind about feedlots and “intensive finishing”.
Chicken and pork production, even in Australasia, is most often intensively farmed. This is inhumane. Animals are raised in extremely crowded and enclosed spaces and diseases spread rapidly, controlled by large doses of antibiotics. Try to always buy free range chicken, pork, and eggs; certified organic [see above] is even better because it is subject to strict requirements including space, food, and use of interventions such as antibiotics.
Abattoirs can be an awful place for animals. Inhumane transport and killing of animals should not happen and there are rules about how animals should be transported and dispatched humanely. But often these rules are not followed as we saw with cattle shipped to be killed in Indonesia and also in Sydney (warning: both videos contain disturbing vision). If you are concerned about killing practices but still want to eat meat then your best option is organic, where the abattoirs are certified for the ethics of organic practices.
A final note, I am not a vegetarian but I have over the years cut down on my intake of meat and have a lot of vegetarian meals. I find the variety refreshing and have discovered some excellent meat-free recipes. Eating less meat is an excellent option to cut your environmental footprint.
- Only buy free range or, even better, certified organic meat and eggs. This guide from Make it Possible may help.
- Cut down on your meat intake. Vegetarian meals can be a delicious and refreshing change.
- Support Make it Possible, an organisation promoting factory free farming.
- Participate in Meat Free Week or Meat Free Month to raise awareness of the issues around meat production and funds for charity.
9. Know how to recycle
Firstly I should say, recycling is probably not as green as you think. It’s much better to reduce your waste in the first place. Think about whether you really need the product before you buy it. However, there will always be some waste so make sure you recycle your packaging properly. Contamination of recyclables can ruin a whole truckload of waste.
There are a myriad of recycling guides available: Google your area by state, capital city or regional city or check out the Recycling Near You website by Sensis and Planet Ark. Earth 911 has an excellent recycling resource for the USA.
Batteries are full of hazardous elements like cadmium, mercury and lead that can leach into soil and groundwater. Purchase reusable batteries; they’re expensive initially but you won’t have to buy batteries for years. When your batteries are ready to be disposed, take them to a battery recycling facility. Aldi supermarkets have a free battery recycling service or you can search for a battery recycling service near you.
- Take note of the recycling labels on packaging and recycle properly.
- Take a moment to read up on proper recycling or look on your rubbish bin for a sticker. Know what numbers can be recycled.
- Recycle batteries at your local Aldi.
10. Don’t shop at the supermarket!
I’m as guilty as anyone of going to the supermarket because of the convenience but whenever I can, I go to one of my local farmers markets. The atmosphere is great, the food is fresher and not that expensive, and there are often lots of free tasters given away – bonus!
There are also lots of home delivery options for fresh produce if you find it hard to get to your local farmers markets.
I have not yet shopped for food at an organic supermarket, I’ve always thought them too expensive but prices are coming down as demand and supply increase. Wray Organic and Mrs Flannery’s (South East Queensland only) have some really great specials. Sign up to their newsletters to get the specials direct to your inbox. For other areas simply Google local organic supermarkets; Yelp seems to have a good list for the capital cities of Australia and they are a multinational so may be useful in other countries. The Whole Foods Market is a large supermarket chain with stores in the USA, UK and Europe.
- Take some time out to try one of your local farmers markets. It’s a much better experience than the supermarket and you will be more in touch with where your food has come from.
- Try ordering online from a local organisation if you can’t get to a farmers market
- See if there is an organic supermarket near you