Shopping, shopping, shopping. Something we spend a lot of time doing in modern life!
Yet, the place where retailers meet customers can be a place of havoc and chaos, especially when it comes to sustainability.
With so much produce and variety on the shelves of supermarkets, how on earth can we know if our choices are the most sustainable? Where do we even begin when deciding if this banana is better than that banana? Is this product’s claim actually desirable?
Fortunately, a little bit of knowledge and thought go a long way. Here are some things to look out for the next time you go food shopping, so that you can use your choices to make a positive contribution to sustainability.
A simple thing you can do is to look out for Eco-labels on the items you buy. Eco-labels are symbols or certifications which help customers know that a certain product meets certain environmental standards. For example, the EU Ecolabel (Figure 1) exists on products which have relatively high environmental standards, promote the circular economy and generate less waste and CO2 than alternatives.
Figure 1, Spot the EU Ecolabel on products you buy!
In Lithuania, eco-signs are recognised by only 2% of the population and so once you are familiar with what these labels mean, be sure to tell your friends, family, colleagues and subscribers all about them!
Be sure to do your research though, as different labels mean different things. For example, both the Rainforest Alliance (Figure 2) and Fairtrade (Figure 3) seals can be found on bananas. There are many overlaps between these initiatives, however, the former focuses on reducing deforestation whilst guarantees farmers with a minimum price and therefore focuses on social sustainability. If you’re faced with both options, do your research. Which organisation do you align with more? Either way, bananas with these labels are certainly better than their non-labelled cousins.
Figure 2, The Rainforest Alliance’s certification seal
Figure 3, The Fairtrade Foundation’s logo
For any products containing wood, paper or other forest products, including milk cartons or takeaway foods, be sure to look out for the Forest Stewardship Council’s (FSC’s) certification logo (Figure 4). This helps to ensure that our forests are well-managed forests for future generations.
Figure 4, The FSC’s logo
Products containing vegetable oils, from bread to snacks to soaps, are a particular concern since their unsustainable production is a leading cause of tropical rainforest deforestation. When buying these goods, be sure to seek out palm oil over the likes of rapeseed or other oils, since this crop requires the least amount of land to grow. However, you must make sure that you buy sustainable palm oil. This can be identified in the ingredients list of items, or by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’s (RSPO’s) certification seal (Figure 5). Currently, only 19% of global palm oil production is certified by the RSPO, demonstrating a major need for us citizens to start using our power to demand more sustainable practices.
Figure 5, RSPO’s certification seal
Be on the lookout for products in excess packaging. Do those apples really need to be wrapped in plastic? Do you even need that paper bag? If you bring your own bags re-use, why not choose the unpackaged item!
Although it may be more expensive, free range and organic meat typically has a lower environmental impact and is more ethical than the intensely reared alternative.
For fish, it is a little more complicated since the sustainability of fish stocks varies in the following three ways;
- Species of fish
- Location of origin (where the fish came from, not where it was processed)
- Method of fishing used
In general, seek out fish with certifications from either the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) or the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). It is also better to eat smaller fish, like herring and anchovies, than larger species, such as salmon, since they use less resources when they grow. If you are in the shops and just aren’t sure which fish is best, the power of technology is on your side! Just follow this link to see what species are the most sustainable to eat.
A Plant-based diet
Despite there being ways to eat meat and fish more sustainably, the best way to reduce your carbon footprint comes from embracing a plant-based diet. This doesn’t mean you have to become vegan straight away, but taking gradual steps to substitute your meat and dairy products with sustainably produced plant-based meats alternatives have a massive impact.
Air Miles – Think Globally, Act Locally
Even though plant-based products can be advertised as the most sustainable option, it is important to consider where each product, or part of the product if you’re buying something like bread or a ready meal, came from. No matter what the item is, it has had to be shipped to you and the longer the distance, the more carbon emissions the product is likely to have given off. Did your lamb come from Lithuania or New Zealand? How much has this product already contributed to climate change? The best way to minimise your air miles is to buy local produce where possible. In other words, Think Globally, Act Locally.
Not only are processed foods less healthy than home-cooked meals, their production typically generates 30-50% more emissions. This is because there tends to be more energy required in the storage of processed foods, as well as more food wastage before consumption. So, taking the time to cook for you and your loved ones can be good for you and the planet!
Controversial Area: Pesticides and Herbicides
Pesticides and herbicide can help crops grow faster and cheaper. However, their use can have negative consequences on earth’s natural ecology and human health. Over time, pesticide and herbicide use has become increasingly regulated and sustainable and could provide a way to feed a growing population in the midst of climate change. Yet, scientific debate continues over whether organic produce is better. Here, I suggest you use reliable sources to come up with your own evaluation.
Controversial Area: GMOs
The use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) has the potential to reduce the need for pesticides and herbicides. This means that using GMOs could prevent their harmful effects whilst ensuring that food stocks adapt to growing pressures like climate change. However, the consequences of using GMOs on both planetary and human health are uncertain; even though no negative effects have yet been detected, this does not eliminate the possibility of GMOs posing long-term or undocumented health risks. Beyond this, the use of GMOs raises ethical questions as to whether humans should be allowed to modify organisms for their own benefit. Again, this is something for you to research and conclude about yourself.
Clearly, there is so much to think about when we go shopping, but don’t let this put you off! With just a little bit of care and consideration, you too can help promote sustainability. And before you know it, you’ll be doing it automatically!