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This week I want to talk about grocery shopping because it’s something that we all have to do regularly - unless you’re only eating out, in which case we should talk because there are so many reasons, sustainability and otherwise, to cook at home! However, grocery shopping is loaded with sustainability problems and I want to introduce you to them here as well as present some solutions (because I’m all about optimism). I also want to emphasize that I’m not making any judgments of how you choose to shop - I understand sustainability isn’t the only consideration in your life and that it falls in a different place on the list of priorities for everyone. That said, there are easy things to think about in where you choose to shop and how you get your food that make a big difference for the planet. Next issue, I’ll address what you’re eating because, as you probably suspect, what you eat matters just as much as how or where you buy it.
Grocery stores are vastly different from one another sustainability-wise. Think about the last time you shopped - Did you go to the bodega on your street corner? Trader Joes? Whatever grocery store is closest to your house (Kroger, Safeway, Shaw’s, etc. etc.)? Did you go to Whole Foods? The farmers’ market? Costco? Order your groceries online? I’m going to talk about all these options then give some insight into my own life and share some ways I pursue sustainability whenever I’m shopping for food.
To give you a sense of how I’m evaluating all the options, here are some of the questions I’ve been thinking about and that I challenge you to consider when shopping:
How far did food travel to get to the store? How far did you have to travel to get to the store and how did you get there?
What kinds of farms or producers are they working with? Small or large? Organic or conventional? Local or abroad?
How much packaging do stores use? What kind of bags do they stock?
Do they have standards for the food they’re sourcing and do they take action to implement those measures?
Do they have a policy to prevent food waste?
Is the store using clean energy? Or using appliances (like refrigerators and freezers) that are designed to save energy?
Are there things I’m not even thinking about that could have hidden implications in the sustainability of how we shop for food?
Let’s start by talking about my favorite way to shop: farmer's markets! I love it because I feel integrated with my community and like I’m getting the freshest possible food, but there are lots of environmental reasons why it’s a great practice to get into as well.
Very little to no plastic packaging used, especially if you bring your own bags.
You can only get what’s available seasonally. It requires a lot of human intervention (normally loads of pesticides and energy-consuming activities) to grow out of season.
Everything comes from within a certain radius of your house - in NYC that radius is around 250 miles, but in other areas of the country/world that radius is much smaller. I spend time in Michigan where everything is from within one or two miles. It’s all about your particular location, but in any case it’s better than the average 1500 miles that food travels to the regular grocery store.
Small producers often use more sustainable practices, including supporting biodiversity by planting more uncommon plant varietals, protecting soil to prevent erosion, conserving water, rotating crops, allowing flora and fauna to intersect, natural pollination (with bees!), and using fewer or no pesticides. Read more here if you’re interested.
Eating locally only reduces your greenhouse gas emissions by 4-5% at the maximum (and that’s if you eat all your food locally) because the transportation of food is responsible for only 15% of your food’s overall impact. So closer is not categorically better.
Local farmers can still use pesticides and mass farming techniques - not everyone has organic or sustainable farming habits, so it’s important to ask questions and be mindful.
Now we’ll move on to the closest name brand store. This is how I grew up shopping, and how I imagine many of you still may shop, whether it’s Kroger, Safeway, Harris Teeter, or whatever chain is closest to your home.
Typically whichever chain you shop at is on your route home, which means you’re not using fuel to go out of your way to visit the store.
Most supermarkets, though they provide plastic bags to customers, also accept plastic bags for recycling. You can’t recycle any kind of thin plastic bag in your regular bin (and even when the stores do participate in recycling, plastic film is one of the hardest things to recycle) - see here for where to drop off near you.
Some have food donation centers for food that’s unsellable but not bad in order to prevent waste - Trader Joe’s was able to save 70 million pounds of food from the landfill in 2015 through their food donation policy.
Supermarkets are the most electricity-intensive type of commercial building because the food has to be constantly kept chilled. There is a lot of wasted energy because sometimes refrigerators are kept open (think about where the dairy and eggs are normally stored), or even if they’ve installed newer and more efficient refrigerators, the doors are being opened all day long as customers reach in for food. To boot, refrigerators rely on gases with a much higher global warming potential than greenhouse gases - the typical supermarket’s greenhouse gas emissions double when the leaks of these gases are added to energy consumption. See here for an interesting case study on this.
At least in my experience, the focus is more on keeping costs down than on sourcing high quality food. Why this matters for sustainability is that in order for producers to keep their costs low so that they can achieve the volumes that supermarkets require, they cut a lot of corners. This is a huge topic that probably deserves its own newsletter - but you can read a little here, too.
Plastic bags are much more common in regular supermarkets - but increasingly there are fees being charged around the country for plastic bags which has helped curb usage a surprising amount.
Food has to travel a lot to get to the store - let’s say we start with a banana that grows in Panama. First it has to go from the farm to the distribution center, then on a truck to the port where it’ll get on a boat to America, then on another truck to the grocery store’s distribution center, then on a truck to the grocery store…. no wonder food travels an average of 1500 miles before it gets to your shopping cart.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Whole Foods as its own category. I have a love-hate relationship with Whole Foods. My life would not be complete without their frozen mango (which honestly is probably one of my least sustainable habits), but I have been scrutinizing them a lot more recently and feel like there are a lot more sustainable options out there in the grocery shopping world.
The OG natural and organic grocer in the country - it’s expanded the popularity of organic food in the world of industrial agriculture, which helps encourage people to think twice about what their purchasing, BUT the organic certification doesn’t have standards for water, energy, farmworker welfare, or waste, all of which are important to sustainability. Whole Foods therefore made their own certification that attempts to encompass more than simply “organic” called the Responsible Grower program. There are mixed feelings about it, with some organic farmers upset that it’s possible for conventional farmers to get a higher ranking, but it is taking a more holistic view of farming practices which is inspiring.
They don’t use plastic bags at all and their paper bags are FSC-Certified, which means they’re sourced sustainably from forests with very high standards. However, we can’t forget that paper bags have other sustainability implications (they’re much heavier to ship than plastic ones).
Literally everything is in plastic - the bulk section is great (though they only supply plastic bags for filling) but so many other things, like the prepackaged nuts, are encased in layers and layers of it.
Received an F on Mighty Earth’s meat scorecard - worse than Walmart and McDonalds! They’re buying from “some of the most polluting agribusinesses in the country, including Tyson and Cargill.”
I haven’t been able to find any statistics about the decrease of organic/USA-grown food at Whole Foods, but over the past few years (and particularly since Amazon purchased the company) I’ve noticed it - anyone else?
The Responsible Grower program undermines organic food production because if a conventional producer can get a better score than an organic one, it doesn’t encourage the conventional farmer to change their practices to more natural ways.
MAYBE A PRO, MAYBE A CON:
Whole Foods under Amazon is changing its supplier relationships to the detriment of small brands. I’m still doing research on if small food brands are categorically more or less sustainable than mass food brands — sometimes they are because they are able to pivot operations more easily and tend to work with sustainably-oriented producers more, but sometimes big brands have amassed databases that enable them to figure out the best path forward for sustainability, plus often they have the resources to pursue these initiatives.
Costco is often seen as the epitome of mass consumption and all that is bad about American consumerism, but I think Costco is actually an amazing organization that is doing a lot in the world of sustainability.
Costco is the largest organic retailer in the country - they sell $4 billion worth of organic food every year, beating even Whole Foods. If they can’t find a farm that meets their standards and can provide them with enough supply, they buy plots of land to convert into organic farms and, for farms that don’t have the resources to pay for the certification themselves, they’ll pay the fees to get the official USDA organic seal.
They are working all the time to innovate in their operations, and because they’re such a large organization, they have a big impact when they make small changes. For example, they changed the shape of their milk jugs from round to square, which means more milk containers can be packed per pallet which is much more efficient in transit. It also meant they could get rid of the cardboard box that held the milk in place, so fewer materials were used. See more of their efforts here.
Buying in bulk often means less packaging per unit of food, though there are also some cons to bulk that I’ll address below.
Because you’re buying in bulk, there’s a much bigger risk of food waste, which is responsible for 8% of all greenhouse gas emissions world wide.
Like Whole Foods, it also received an F on Mighty Earth’s meat scorecard, which assesses the environmental impacts of different aspects of the meat supply chain.
Lastly, online shopping is also interesting to think about, and though it only accounts for about 2% of the market, it’s growing faster and faster every year. There are all kinds of services that do this with a lot of diverse focuses, so I’m trying to be as general as I can here.
There is a lot of room for innovation here, which is exciting. For example, Walmart just launched a delivery service in Vancouver that uses only compostable and biodegradable packaging, in addition to maximizing efficiency in the warehouses and delivery trucks.
With food going directly from a distribution center to the customer, it cuts out the middleman, meaning less total transit and fresher food (and potentially less spoilage because things are moving more quickly!).
I read this study that concluded that 88% of people use their car to buy groceries, driving on average 4 miles to the store - this adds up to a HUGE amount of greenhouse gas emissions every year. If people order online and let their groceries “ride” with other people’s groceries, greenhouse gas emissions can be cut by half, but only if the store can deliver with the most efficient route and has a fuel-efficient vehicle. If people specify their delivery times, which could make the route less efficient, then more greenhouse gas emissions will result than if people drove to the store themselves. So what can you do about it? Be flexible about when your food arrives.
There is a lot of packaging involved, more than with regular grocery shopping because additional packaging is necessary to protect the food.
Things I did this week to reduce my impact:
Shopped at the farmers’ market for apples, bread, and eggs, and shopped at a grocery store that only stocks local food (shout out to Greene Grape - my heaven - in Fort Greene in Brooklyn) for the rest
Took public transportation and walked to grocery store/farmers market - this is of course easy for me because I live in a city
Cooked up a bunch of vegetables that were about to go bad to prevent food waste
Ways I hurt the planet that I want to change next week:
Forgot to bring my bags at the grocery store (used paper bags but that’s still worse than bringing my own)
Bought spinach in a plastic container
Let leftovers go bad in the fridge (but I did protect my leftovers using this reusable alternative to plastic wrap that I’m obsessed with)
I actually would be interested in knowing your habits, so respond here if you’d like to tell me more!
LAST THING! I’m in the process of setting up a Keep Cup giveaway encourage people to refer my newsletter to their friends, so stay tuned about that. And if you don’t know what a Keep Cup is, it is a revolutionary coffee thermos that is actually compatible with the machines baristas use at coffee shops and it never leaks! It’s made of tempered glass and cork, so it’s pretty much indestructible, plus it’s sustainably produced with clean energy. It’s changed the way I consume beverages on the go, and I highly recommend them. Many coffee shops carry them now, but you can also buy them here.
I also included a little glossary on my site in case you’re confused about what greenhouse gases even are or what certain terms mean - I want to make sure we’re all on the same page, so check it out at here if there’s anything you’re feeling uncertain about.