You want to change the current state of the environment, starting with your everyday habits, but maybe you don't know where to begin. Maybe you feel overwhelmed at the enormity of climate change and the ocean plastic crisis and are unsure how you can contribute. Thankfully, there is no act too small to play a part in transforming the world for the better. Even a task as simple as grocery shopping can shift the scales in terms of how the food industry manufactures and sells goods.
If you want to make a change with the resources you have at hand, environmentally friendly grocery shopping is an excellent way to do it. In no particular order, here are 11 tips that can help you buy food sustainably.
1. Shop local
Food from outside of your local area needs to be transported by boat, plane, or truck. That means more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions enter the atmosphere with each shipment, especially if the distance is extensive. The transportation sector as a whole accounted for 29% of GHGs in the United States in 2017. Some of the gases emitted included carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide.
Purchasing local products whenever possible contributes to a decrease in food transportation and supports regional growers. The farmers market is a great place to go for affordable, local goods. You may find that many of the products lack packaging, which makes it easier to buy food sustainably without increasing your plastic consumption.
Some regions have a lot more farmland than others, so it may be easier to find local goods in those areas than other locations. Don't worry if you don't have ready access to regional products. Making an effort to buy healthier, minimally processed foods still counts in the fight against climate change, resource depletion, and plastic pollution.
2. Look for seasonal produce
Seasonal produce offers the same ecological benefits as regional goods. Local foods grown in-season require less transportation to make it to your supermarket. This also means fewer preservatives to keep them fresh on the journey. In contrast, if a store purchases pineapples when they're out of season, they'll likely have to obtain them from a faraway source. Long-distance foods may even lose some nutrients during transit, whereas local foods are usually sold within days of harvest.
Once again, the farmer's market is a great place to go if you're looking for seasonal produce, though your nearby grocery store works just as well. Look up which crops are in season when you head to the store and keep a list of them in hand to assist you as you shop. This practice can make a difference whether you do it with every shopping trip or just once a month.
Here are some crops that start hitting grocery store shelves in the U.S. during each of the four seasons:
- Spring: Celery, cabbage, carrots, limes, lemons, avocados, broccoli
- Summer: Apples, blueberries, plums, okra, garlic, cucumbers, watermelons
- Fall: Ginger, grapes, spinach, mangos, carrots, cauliflower, sweet potatoes
- Winter: Turnips, kale, beets, oranges, grapefruit, pumpkins, pears
3. Bring reusable shopping bags
One way to grocery shop sustainably is to skip the single-use plastic shopping and produce bags while in the store. However, this may not be practical if you have a lot of groceries or simply don't want to carry them in hand. In that case, you can opt for reusable shopping bags and produce carriers to tote your goods. Some stores will even pay you a few cents for every bag you bring, which can add up to valuable savings over time.
Plastic bags are difficult to recycle because they become tangled in the machinery at recycling facilities. They're also flimsy and thin, which isn't the most effective type of plastic to use for manufacturing new items. Colored bags, in particular, may interfere with robotic sensors used to sort recyclables, which slows down the sorting line.
If you can’t avoid using a single-use plastic bags at the grocery store, many retailers have recycling programs for used plastic bags and will take yours back. All you have to do is remember to drop them off the next time you shop. Otherwise, these bags can end up in landfills, sidewalks, or bodies of water, where they affect the environment in detrimental ways.
4. Choose fresh foods
Whole, fresh foods are always a great choice when you’re trying to grocery shop sustainably. Because they don't undergo the same production methods as processed items, they retain more of their nutrients and produce a smaller carbon footprint while also typically using little to no packaging.
One study found that minimally processed plant-based foods had the lowest impacts across five environmental aspects. These include greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water scarcity, acidification, and eutrophication — two forms of nutrient pollution.
Fresh foods are excellent for your health and the planet's well being. Some benefits you can enjoy from consuming them include:
- Heart health: Whole foods contain substances like magnesium, antioxidants, and healthy fats that provide significant advantages for your heart health. Antioxidants fight inflammation within the body, which is a major player in heart disease.
- Balanced blood sugar levels: Unprocessed animal products and fibrous foods may help control blood sugar levels in people with diabetes. Additionally, meal planning lets you schedule your meals, which prevents glucose levels from spiking throughout the day.
- Digestive health: Numerous types of whole foods serve as prebiotics, which are foods that your body converts into short-chain fatty acids. These fatty acids provide nutrition, prevent inflammatory diseases, and enhance your colon health.
5. Know your sources
This tip can foster environmentally friendly grocery shopping habits for those who can't shop locally. Researching where your food comes from and who manufactures it gives you a better idea of what kind of practices they use. Do they use pesticide-free pest management techniques? Was your meat grown on a farm that upholds ethical livestock raising strategies? If you don't know the answers, you can learn with a bit of research.
The ocean comes first when it comes to sourcing and consuming seafood. Look for brands with environmentally friendly certifications, such as the Aquaculture Stewardship Council label or the Best Aquaculture Practices seal. Seafood Watch offers comprehensive guides of sustainable seafood options for every U.S. state. Purchase from seafood sellers who use sustainable fishing methods and do their part to protect vulnerable marine species.
Abandoned fishing gear is a major safety concern for marine animals that can become entangled in it or mistake it for food. Fisheries associated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report instances of unregulated fishing, which can decrease the amount of "ghost gear" occupying marine ecosystems. Explore initiatives in your region to see how fisheries near you are contributing to the preservation of marine life.
6. Opt for the "ugly" produce
Retailers and consumers want their food products to look a certain way, but this desire for aesthetically pleasing food has led to a lot of food waste. More specifically, two separate phenomenons — food loss and food waste — occur regularly within the food industry. Food loss happens from post-harvest up until the retail level as farmers discard goods along the supply chain. According to the Food Loss Index (FLI), 14% of food is lost globally during harvesting and processing.
Consumers, restaurants, and retailers contribute to food waste, which happens due to various reasons. Rejecting "ugly" produce — fruits and vegetables with scarring or bruising — is one of these. However, these marks won't make much of an impact on the food's taste or nutritional value as long as they aren't signs of disease.
Choosing these foods instead of the near-perfect ones will prevent good produce from going to waste. Plus, outside appearance doesn't matter as much after the food is cut up and prepared. If you're buying fruit you plan to eat the same day, try the ones that are already showing signs of ripeness so they don't end up discarded.
7. Try plant-based eating
You don't need to give up meat to eat sustainably, however, it's a good idea to incorporate fruits and vegetables into your current diet where possible. Though all mass-produced food products require some level of processing, meat consumes more resources than fruits or vegetables do.
One study found that, from 2001 to 2010, beef alone used 28 times more farmland, 11 times more water, five times more greenhouse gases, and six times more reactive nitrogen than the average use for dairy, poultry, pork, and eggs combined.
In comparison, crops like potatoes, rice, and wheat required two to six times fewer resources than beef did. However, when you buy plant-based foods, it's also crucial to consider the farming techniques that growers use. Rice is often grown with monocropping, which depletes soil fertility and can lead to a lower nutritional value in the resulting crop. Wheat, rice, soybeans, and corn make up almost 50% of the world's farmlands.
Start small with your plan to grocery shop sustainability by substituting a couple of meals a week for vegetable-based recipes or adding more plants as side dishes. Fruits and vegetables can easily blend into nutritious and tasty smoothies, while avocados, seeds, and olives provide healthy fats for cooking or eating.
8. Check your plastics
Plastic items are everywhere when you shop for your favorite eats, but that doesn't mean you have to give up the cause. Being more conscious of what kinds of plastics you consume helps you ensure they make it to the recycling plant instead of the landfill.
If you buy an item with plastic packaging, check its resin identification code — a small number inside of a triangle. This symbol tells you which of these seven types of plastic it’s made from:
- Polystyrene (PS)
- Polypropylene (PP)
- Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
- High-density polyethylene (HDPE)
- Low-density polyethylene (LDPE)
- Polyethylene terephthalate (PETE)
- All other plastics, including acrylic and nylon
HDPE and PETE products have much better chances of seeing the recycling plant than others on this list. Their physical characteristics and widespread applications make them easier to recycle and reuse for subsequent items. By choosing HDPE and PETE goods whenever possible, you'll have an easier time recycling your single-use plastics.
9. Buy in bulk
Bulk goods are excellent alternatives to individualized packaging, which uses more plastic to produce. According to the EPA, over 23% of the material in landfills consists of containers and packaging, whether food-related or not.
You can buy in bulk from name-brand stores. Many smaller shops practice zero-waste selling. Products like lotion, shampoo, dry beans, nuts, and much more are stored in large containers that you can select portions from. You'll find that nothing has packaging on it in a zero-waste store, meaning you'll have a large selection of fresh foods — like meats and vegetables.
You may prefer stores that forgo packaging if you have the time to prepare meals with fresh ingredients. Otherwise, it's fine to stick to pre-packaged bulk items — you're still making a difference by shrinking your resource consumption. Lifestyle changes take time and everyone moves at their own pace.
10. Create a meal plan
You've probably found yourself in this dilemma more than once or twice before — buying a bunch of food that you intend to eat or make meals with, only for half of it to go to waste. Sometimes you forget you had something in the fridge, and on other occasions, you just don't have time to get around to it before it spoils.
Fortunately, creating a meal plan is a convenient way to practice sustainable grocery shopping. It gives you a clearer picture of what you actually need to buy so you can avoid food waste. If you know what'll you cook that week — and how many people you'll feed — you can estimate how much food to purchase. Of course, you don't need to keep a strict structure when outlining meals. Things pop up all the time and it's helpful to accommodate flexibility in your plan — maybe you'll eat out on Friday instead of cooking.
You can also search for recipes that will help you use up any leftovers. Designating one or two nights a week to cooking and revamping leftovers will move those meals out of the fridge before they expire.
11. Practice clever storage techniques
Make your food last longer by storing perishable goods front and center after a shopping trip. It's easier to forget about them if they're in the back of the fridge or the freezer. Glass and recycled plastic containers give you visibility into which foods you have, so you can plan meals around what you already have and know exactly what to buy on subsequent grocery store runs.
If you want to purchase bulk items but aren't sure you'll finish them before they expire, put a portion of them in your freezer or preserve them. Many food preservation methods are available for you to use:
Protect natural resources through sustainable grocery shopping
Now that you know how to grocery shop sustainably, you can put some of these tips into action on your next outing. Remember that you don't have to do all or even half of them on the first try. Small acts add up and using even one new shopping method contributes to global efforts to protect the environment. At 4ocean, we do our part to fight the ocean plastic crisis by pulling one pound of trash from the ocean and coastlines for every product purchased.
When we all work together, even little actions like these have the power to protect the environment and reduce our global plastic consumption. Join our Clean Ocean Club bracelet subscription to pull a pound of trash every month and fund all aspects of the clean ocean movement, from our daily ocean and coastline cleanups to investments in new clean ocean technology that has the potential to stop plastic pollution at the source.