From buying 'green' cleaning products at the grocery store to organic butter at the farmers market, every purchase large and small has an impact on the environment. But this doesn't mean you have to beat yourself up over buying a bag of chips. Having a greener shopping list simply means being conscious of how things are grown and produced. You wouldn't buy a computer without doing research, and the same holds true when it comes to shopping for food and other household items. To be a green-savvy shopper you need to be informed. Here are 10 suggestions to help you navigate the aisles of your local grocery store and stalls at the farmer's market.
Buy What You Need
Quantity versus price is always a real consideration. What you need to keep in mind as you shop is simple: Buy what you need based on your consumption habits. This brings up the question of buying in bulk. Is it more efficient or does it generate more waste? The answer depends on who you are.
Purchasing items in bulk -- especially dry goods like sugar, flour, oatmeal and granola -- helps combat the problem of packaging. It's becoming more and more common for grocery stores to offer dry goods in bins. You know how much you cook at home and how much food you regularly consume. Buying in bulk makes it easier to purchase amounts you need and can reasonably store. And bulk purchases of such items as dish detergent and canned goods can reduce the number of trips you make to the store. If you rely on a car to go shopping, this is an important step in environmental conservation. If you order online, this cuts down on deliveries made to your home.
Whether driving to the store or shopping online, going in on a bulk purchase with a neighbor is a great way to shop with a conscience. You get the cost benefits of buying in bulk without worrying you are purchasing quantities you won't be able to use.
Don't forget that how you travel to the store is just as important as what you buy.
Rethink Your Transportation
Each year, the average car produces 11,450 pounds (5,194 kilograms) of carbon dioxide, a leading cause of greenhouse gases [source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency]. You can reduce your trips to the store by planning ahead. Before you leave home, make a list of everything you need to purchase. If you need to make multiple stops, map out your route before you pull out of your driveway. This will save you time and gasoline. Carpooling to the store is another easy way to reduce your consumption of fossil fuels. And if you have access to reliable public transportation, use it to run your errands.
If possible, skip traveling by car altogether. If you're in walking distance to the grocery store, get a folding shopping cart to carry your bounty; to make the trip go by a little faster, strap on a pair of in-line skates. Bikes are one of the most energy efficient modes of transportation and groceries can easily be tucked into baskets or saddlebags. You can also hitch a trailer to your bicycle for carrying larger loads.
Reuse and Re-purpose
Excess packaging is an inevitable outcome of shopping. Figuring out ways to reuse packaging can range from the mundane to the uniquely fantastic. Creative re-purposing keeps cardboard and plastic out of the garbage or recycling bin and saves you money to boot. Here's a list of suggestions to get you started:
- Plastic trays that held cookies or crackers are great to use for organizing drawers.
- Larger containers and aluminum cans that didn't originally contain anything with harsh chemicals can be re-purposed as planters. You can also use them in building models or crafting projects.
- Need to wrap a present? Make a gift box out of an empty cereal or cracker box.
- Plastic containers from the deli counter are food grade and ideal for storing leftovers.
- Forget the brown bag and make your own bento box for carrying your lunch.
- Spray bottles that haven't held bleach or other toxic chemicals can be reused to hold homemade household cleaners or as spray bottles for plants.
BYOB (Bring Your Own Bag)
Every year, millions of plastic bags are dumped in landfills or our oceans. Paper bags brought home from the store often end up being crumpled and tossed into the recycling bin. It's practically a cultural mandate that you carry a shopping bag wherever you go, and many stores will reward you for BYOB with a credit toward your overall purchase.
Keep in mind that the manufacturing of cotton and hemp totes has a fairly significant impact. Cotton cultivation uses a tremendous amount of water, and unless the crop is organic, farmers employ toxic herbicides. The production of polyester or polypropylene bags is only marginally better than that of plastic bags in terms of natural resources used [source: Treehugger]. However, there is one huge advantage when choosing to BYOB: Tote bags are reusable and with a little care will last for years.
Less is More
Much of the food we eat, especially processed items, comes sealed. Even if the packaging is recyclable or made from recycled materials, waste is still being generated. When it comes to packaging, less is always more, so keep these things in mind while shopping:
- Avoid buying anything shrink-wrapped.
- Bring a small mesh bag to hold produce.
- Reuse plastic bags for buying bulk dry goods like oatmeal and granola, which are kept in bins.
- Buy larger containers of yogurt rather than individual cups. You can always divide it into portions when you get home.
- Buy a tub of butter rather than individually wrapped sticks.
- Recycle deli containers for salads and olives.
- Look for recycled packaging made with natural dyes and produced using renewable energy (wind, water and solar).
Next up: What does the organic label really mean?
Products carrying the words 'free-range' or 'organic' imply sustainable or humane practices. But the cold truth is these labels have little regulation. 'Greenwashing' has become a powerful marketing tool. The old adage 'buyer beware' rings true when you go shopping with good intentions. Green products are often a little more expensive, so it's worth understanding what the labels mean before you spend your money.
The USDA 'organic' label certifies that 100 percent of the ingredients, with the exception of salt and water, have been produced without the use of synthetic hormones or pesticides. Any business that exceeds $5,000.00 a year in sales must be certified to use the USDA organic label [source: U.S. Department of Agriculture]. However, the process of overseeing a booming industry is not straightforward. Changing government regulations allow a variety of ingredients -- including synthetic ones -- to carry the 'organic' label [source: Kindy and Layton]. In addition, something labeled organic does not necessarily have sustainably harvested ingredients.
Green Seal, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting consumer awareness, has become a trusted name in organic certification. It offers a database of companies that comply with strict certification requirements that 'evaluate a product or service beginning with material extraction, continuing with manufacturing and use, and ending with recycling and disposal.' Be an informed shopper. A little research into organic branding goes a long way.
Skip the Factory-farmed Animal Products
It's no secret that large-scale farming uses a tremendous amount of fossil fuel and water, and leaves pollutants like animal runoff in its wake. Animals raised in factory farms suffer from inhumane treatment including light deprivation, poor ventilation and lack of space. Most are inoculated with a variety of antibiotics and given feed that is not part of a natural diet. All of these practices take an alarming toll on the environment, not to mention the animals involved. What can you do to offset this? Buy your meat, eggs and dairy products from a trusted farm that uses sustainable and humane farming practices. Many smaller farms also sell at local markets and co-ops.
Follow the Seasons
Every season brings an abundance of fruits and vegetables. In most of the United States, June means tasty blueberries and strawberries. September and October feature crisp apples and acorn squash. In most cases, buying what's in season in your growing zone means you have the best tasting and freshest produce. Much of the produce sold in stores has a long shelf life because it has been grown from seeds selectively bred for that very characteristic. Unfortunately, this practice sacrifices taste. Buying fruits and vegetables in season most likely means you are purchasing them locally, negating the need for produce that can withstand being trucked across the country.
But don't beat yourself up if you live in Maine and want an avocado in January. It's a fact of life that some of the produce you love doesn't follow your region's growing cycle. Buying most of what you eat in season helps to offset the impact of transporting food long distances, so enjoy.
Going hand-in-hand with buying seasonally is buying locally. Visiting your local farmers market is beneficial on several levels. It ensures you are getting the freshest possible fruits, vegetables and animal products while supporting area businesses. Participating in a local CSA (community supported agriculture) is another way to get fresh produce. The way a CSA works is pretty simple: You buy shares in the farm and receive part of its weekly harvests in return, and many offer you the chance to pick your own fruits, such as strawberries or blueberries. Yet if you participate in a CSA, be aware that farming involves risks. What you get is dependent upon the success of a particular growing season. And if you're afraid you won't be able to eat all the delicious rewards, split the cost of a CSA share with a neighbor. You won't be disappointed.
Supporting your locally owned co-op is another way to participate in the locavore movement. Many co-ops clearly label what is locally produced, but also carry items that come from all over the country and around the world. If you want more information about where something is from or how it was produced, don't hesitate to ask the people behind the counter.
By giving small farms your business, you are supporting your community and local economy.
Want to boost your own budget while going green? Keep reading to learn how.
Start Your Own Victory Garden
What's the best green shopping tip? Don't shop -- at least not for everything. Why buy what you can grow?
You don't need a huge backyard to produce a significant amount of food. You can easily grow your own produce in containers on front porches, balconies and windowsills. Raising your own food isn't just good for the environment, it's good for you and your wallet.
Square foot gardening gained popularity with the home farming movement of the 1970s and has recently undergone a huge resurgence. It is easy and yields beautiful results. Gardens are built in a raised bed or box divided into a grid. Because plants are grown so close together, these gardens maximize production while using a minimal amount of space. In theory, each square should contain a different type of plant. Be creative and feel free to plant whatever you like. Grow in season, show a little love and your garden will thrive.
Container gardening is another option for growing plants and is a fabulous way to use containers left over from food purchases. You can grow just about anywhere as long as you have light (or grow lights). And as long as it never contained toxic material, pretty much anything that can hold water can be recycled as a planter.
The choices you make in what you consume and how you consume it do matter. You don't have to obsess over every purchase -- just to be aware of the difference your shopping power can make.
Many people think mushrooms have the potential to be environmental game-changers by replacing some plastics, meats and even eating through landfill waste.
More Great Links
- Bulk is Green Council. 'Bulk Food Facts.' 2010. (accessed August 20, 2010). http://www.bulkisgreen.org/
- Clean Air Council. 'Waste Facts and Figures.' 2006. (accessed August 20, 2010). http://www.cleanair.org/Waste/wasteFacts.html
- Marsh, Kenneth. Bugusu, Betty. 'Food packaging and Its Environmental Impact.' Food Technology Magazine. April 2007. (accessed August 20, 2010). http://www.ift.org/knowledge-center/read-ift-publications/science-reports/scientific-status-summaries/editorial/~/media/Knowledge%20Center/Science%20Reports/Scientific%20Status%20Summaries/Editorial/editorial_0407_foodpackaging.pdf
- Humane Society of America. 'Egg Carton Labels: A Brief Guide to Labels and Animal Welfare.' November 9, 2009. (accessed August 20, 2010). http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/confinement_farm/facts/guide_egg_labels.html
- Kindy, Kimberly. Layton, Lindsey. 'Purity of Federal Organic Label Questioned.' The Washington Post. July 3, 2009. (accessed August 20, 2010). http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/02/AR2009070203365.html
- Organic Trade Association.' Organic Sales Grow By A Whopping 17.1 Percent in 2008.' 2009 Press Release. (accessed August 20, 2010). http://www.organicnewsroom.com/2009/05/us_organic_sales_grow_by_a_who.html
- Resource Conservation Alliance. 'Focus on Paper Consumption.' (accessed August 20, 2010). http://www.woodconsumption.org/products/paper.pdf
- United States Department of Agriculture. 'National Organic Program.' April 2008. (accessed August 20, 2010). http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELDEV3004446
- United States Department of Agriculture. 'Community Supported Agriculture.' April 28, 2010. (accessed August 20, 2010). http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/csa/csa.shtml
- United States Environmental Protection Agency. 'Emission Facts: Average Annual Emissions and Fuel Consumption for Passenger Cars and Light Trucks.' http://www.epa.gov/oms/consumer/f00013.htm