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The Guide to Sustainable Grocery Shopping

Simple changes to our everyday habits will help transform the state of the environment, and they are especially easy if you don’t know where to begin with sustainable living. Thankfully, there is no act too small to play a part in changing the world for the better. By implementing sustainable and eco-friendly actions in your shopping habits, you can shift how the food industry manufactures and sells goods, support local producers, reduce your waste, and much more! This article will incorporate tips for before, during, and after your shopping trip – so that you are sustainable in all areas of your shopping habits. Grocery shopping is something we all do, so why not make it sustainable?

Before your shopping trip. 

An important sustainable shopping strategy comes before you even step foot in the grocery store. Completing a waste audit, will get you familiar with products you and your family or roommates are often discarding. A waste audit should inform you on which food products to limit your purchase on – if it is going to end up in your compost pile anyways, why not save the money and not buy it at all, or buy less of it. For example, if you notice your tomatoes are often going rotten before you even touch them – skip buying tomatoes at the grocery store! 

Next, you will want to complete a food inventory. This doesn’t have to be anything overly complex in which you create a spreadsheet of your kitchen food items (although it can be). You can simply take a mental note of food items you have multiples of – this will remind you not to purchase more of these items at the store, thus limiting the possibility of food waste. 

If you have the ability to do so, consider growing your own food. This could be a giant garden with a variety of vegetables, or a few herbs growing in a pot on your windowsill. This will definitely cut back on the emissions that go into your food; instead of your food and you travelling to the store via fossil fuel run vehicles, you can simply head to your backyard and grab a few veggies. Vegetables from your garden also don’t require packaging, so this is a great way to limit unnecessary plastic (or other) food packaging. Not to mention the mental health benefits that come along with gardening!

Before you leave your house, don’t forget your reusable grocery and produce bags! We’ve all heard of the classic mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle” – well now is your chance to reduce and reuse. To be extra green, before buying brand new produce and grocery bags, head to a local thrift store to see if there are any available. This will definitely be cheaper and this will also limit the resources needed to produce new reusable bags.

Before you head out shopping, consider how you will be travelling to the store. If it’s possible, walk or bike to the store – this is great for your body and the environment! If you have a large haul, consider bussing or carpooling instead. If you must bus or carpool, account for how you can reduce your emissions from travel. Can you bus or carpool to the store on your way home from work? Can you stop at one store instead of multiple stores? 

During your shopping trip

Based on your waste audit and food inventory, you have hopefully drafted a shopping list – now stick to it! Use will power and opt out of impulse buys that can end up in needless food waste. 

Shop the perimeter of the grocery store. The perimeter often has items with less packaging (produce, breads, etc) versus overly processed and packaged junk foods in the middle aisles.

Shop for more plant-based items over meat and dairy items. Animal products have much larger carbon emissions than plant-based products in terms of land and water usage. If you are buying meat, buy local, which accounts for less emissions from shipping. If you are buying seafood, make responsible choices. Because of overfishing in our oceans, it is important to note how and where your seafood was caught. Seafood Watch is a great resource to help you determine which seafood items are most sustainable.

When out shopping choose food items that come in no or minimal packaging – often the most packaged foods are also the most processed, so this will also end up being healthier for you and your family. Skip out on those super unnecessary overly packaged food items, like peeled oranges in plastic containers (the peel is already a natural packaging)! The Farmers’ Market is a great place to head for unpackaged produce. When possible choose items that come in biodegradable or compostable packaging (and put these in your compost pile instead of your garbage bin). Use judgment when choosing which items to buy – for example, the spices that come in the plastic baggie is probably a less sustainable option than a bulk jar of spices. 

Choose local and in-season produce. Once again, the local Farmers’ Market is a great place to shop for these types of products. Local and in-season produce is much better for the environment as it does not have to travel as far to arrive on your plate, supports the local economy, is more likely to taste fresher, and in-season produce takes less resources and intensive farm practices to grow. 

When buying produce, choose “imperfect” food items that might end up in the landfill. This can be unbunched bananas, an apple with a bruise, a funny looking carrot, or anything else that may make a food item “unique” and less likely to be bought by someone else. Also, if you know you are going to eat something relatively soon, buy the item while the sooner expiration date to prevent it from heading to the landfill. 

If it makes sense for you and your family, buy in bulk. This will limit packaging from multiple smaller units of the same product. If you are a single person, consider buying items you use often in bulk like pastas, beans, rice, oats, sugar, flour, and grains. When buying in bulk, it is easier to place bulk items in reusable produce bags instead of carrying many heavy and breakable jars around the store! 

Avoid palm oil! Palm oil harvesting continues to be a major cause of deforestation of some of the world’s most biodiverse forests, destroying the habitat of already endangered species like the orangutan, pygmy elephant, and sumatran rhino. Many everyday products contain palm oil like margarine, cookies, chocolate, and more. Palm oil is often disguised under many names such as palm fruit oil, palmate, palmitate, and many other names. When out shopping, choose products made from more sustainable oils like coconut oil, canola oil, and sunflower seed oil. 

Look for sustainability-related symbols on the back of packaging to inform your purchases. These labels could include vegetarian, vegan, cruelty-free, fairtrade, carbon neutral products, locally grown, Canadian made, Rainforest Alliance certified, woman owned, BIPOC owned, donate to charity, or any other symbol that you find important! 

The most difficult, but one of the most important things to consider about any product is its life cycle. This includes every stage of a product from resource extraction, manufacturing, packaging, shipping/distribution, to consumption and use, collection, disposal, and proliferation. Try to choose the most sustainable option in all levels of the product life cycle. For example, almond milk has a much more sustainable life cycle than cow’s milk in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and land use. However, almond milk uses much more water than a more sustainable alternative like oat milk. So, whenever possible, create a sort of “sustainability hierarchy” within your head of products and always choose the most sustainable option when it’s available to you. 

After your shopping trip

Store your food properly so that it lasts longer. Most vegetables like carrots, broccoli, cabbage, and celery should be stored in a container in the crisper of your fridge. Vegetables and fruits should be kept apart to prevent your fruit from ripening too fast. Keep ethylene producing fruits (ethylene is a gas that some fruits produce that will cause other produce items to spoil faster) away from non-ethylene producing fruits. Ethylene producing fruits include bananas, apples, apricots, avocados, cantaloupe, honeydew, and other fruits. If you are unsure on how to store a certain food item, a quick Google search should do the trick! 

Meal plan in order to make sure all your ingredients are used before their expiration date. You can choose to make a strict meal plan with recipes for every meal of every day, or have a loose idea of which ingredients to eat when. 

Organize your fridge and cupboards in a way that makes sense and that will prevent food waste. A simple setup is to place your older food items in the front of your fridge or cupboard (so that you remember to eat them) and place newer items in the back of your fridge or cupboard (so that you are less tempted to eat them first). Know where you put all your food items, so that you remember to eat them! Another option to reduce your food waste is to create “eat me first” bins or sections of your fridge – this will encourage you to eat those food items before they go bad!

Learn how to reduce waste in your kitchen. This can include regrowing food scraps to be harvestable once again or learning how to cook root-to-stem style to reduce scraps that end up in your compost bin. You can also take a crack at different preservation and dehydration techniques. Also, don’t forget that your freezer exists! One simple way to reduce food waste is to cut up and freeze fruits that are going bad in your kitchen for future smoothie purposes! Here is some more information on freezing produce

Try your hand at raw eating. Raw eating does not have to be a strict diet, but instead, where possible, choose to eat raw. Uncooked fruits and vegetables not only retain more nutrients, but limiting your need for stoves, ovens, microwaves, BBQs, and other cooking appliances will also decrease your carbon emissions and energy usage. 

Don’t forget about your leftovers – some of us have a bad habit of forgetting to give love to our leftovers! Simply take them for lunches to work the next day or revamp your leftovers into new dishes!

Now that you’re done with all your food packaging, it’s important to reuse what you can. Reuse jars for bulk item storage or crafting, reuse plastic bread bags as produce bags or to store your own homemade bread, reuse candy tin cans to store small items like toothpicks and bobby pins, or any other creative ideas you have! If your packaging cannot be reused, recycle it. Check out the curbside recycling Ins and Outs if you are unsure if something can be recycled. And be sure to thoroughly wash plastic containers and bottles before placing them in your blue bin! 

If you have created any food waste (or any other organic waste), be sure to compost it. Unfortunately, even if your organics go to the landfill, they are unlikely to break down, due to the structure of landfills. 

Finally, if you want to go above and beyond, write to brands you like or want to see better from. Suggest more sustainable farming practices, better treatment of employees or animals, more sustainable packaging or shipping methods, or anything else that you value. Companies listen to their consumers! 

Shopping sustainably will not only save the planet but save you money by limiting your waste! Some of these tips can be applied to any type of shopping trip, not just grocery shopping. And most importantly, don’t feel guilty – our economy limits us in our sustainable choices – so just do your best and encourage others to do their best as well!