The United Nations recently released a report outlining food’s outsized impact on creating global warming. Unlike many climate reports, this one had an upside: food production has the potential to be one of the greatest solutions to the climate crisis, and the methods already exist. For anyone who eats, this is excellent news about your ability to make a positive impact through your food purchasing habits. What we choose to buy, or avoid, is a vote for the kind of future we’d like to see. And we know today that is especially true when it comes to food.
Here are several ways to flex your consumer power to create a more positive world, from the grocery store.
Do you need it? Not buying something new is always the most sustainable option. After all, reduce comes before reuse and recycle for a reason. But assuming you can’t subsist on air alone, grocery shopping is in your future. Whenever possible, make a shopping list ahead of time and do your best to stick to it. Or, at the very least, shop mindfully to avoid picking up extras that are destined to become waste.
Bulk. Ever needed a teaspoon of turmeric, and found the remaining 95% of the container still in your cupboard 11 years later? Me too. Shopping the bulk aisle is a triple win. When you’re able to purchase the exact amount you need, you spend less and waste less product. And, some stores will allow you to bring a reusable container to fill. Grocery store bulk aisles can contain everything from granola, beans, chocolates and snacks, pastas, nuts, baking ingredients like flour and oats and so much more. Look for freshly ground bulk peanut butter, bulk coffee beans, bulk olive oils and vinegars and even liquid soaps. Even fresh produce aisles can feature bulk greens, carrots, mushrooms and more.
BYOB. Whenever possible, bring your own reusable shopping bag, produce bags and refillable containers for the bulk aisle (if your store of choice allows it). While you’re at it, bring your reusable mug, stainless steel straw and water bottle for the necessary caffeine and hydration for your errands.
Hug a farmer. When you choose to buy items that are produced locally, you’re supporting your neighbors and a strong local economy. Plus, since locally-grown food hasn’t traveled far, it is likely to be fresh, nutritious and have a lower carbon footprint than its well-traveled counterpart. It is common for grocery stores to label items made locally, so take an extra look and choose the option from nearby. It will make all the difference to your local farmer.
Reduced packaging. What is recyclable can change from community to community, so become familiar with what is acceptable to recycle in your area. Then, choose to purchase products in reusable, compostable or recyclable materials, if they need to be packaged at all. And though it may seem counterintuitive, never toss an item in the recycling unless you’re certain it belongs there; when in doubt, throw it out.
Organic or regeneratively grown. The largest part of food’s impact happens before it reaches the grocery store, when the food is being grown or produced. Certifications like organic, or growing methods like regenerative agriculture, can indicate a more positive impact overall, including benefits to water quality, soil carbon sequestration, increased biodiversity and reduced use of synthetic chemicals.
Understanding food’s carbon footprint. Food isn’t all created equal when it comes to carbon-intensity. The Nature Conservancy has a wonderful and easy-to-use carbon footprint calculator that allows customization of your average weekly diet. With this you can see how your impact changes with your dietary choices.
Use it up. We’ve all felt the pull of an impulse buy (10 avocados for $10? Yes, please!) but without a clear plan for how and when you’ll use something, it becomes likelier to spoil or spend an eternity in the dark corners of your pantry. If food waste were a country it would have the third largest carbon footprint in the world, after China and the U.S., so the potential for impact is huge. Plus, you paid for that food–enjoy it!
Some of these tips are a breeze and others can require some time for habit-forming. Stick with it, and be kind to yourself when you forget to bring reusable bags, or find a moldy surprise in the fridge. It will get easier over time, especially if your sustainability quest is a fun challenge rather than a source of stress.
The bottom line: If you’re interested in reducing your ecological impact, start with what you’re consuming, and look no further than your local grocery store.