Shopping sustainably in your supermarket
Are you finding that more and more conversations are focused on or turn to how we can live more locally and more sustainably? And particularly around our shopping and consumption. Some friends and I were discussing the impact of large national and multinational shops – the way that big chain supermarkets operate just isn’t sustainable: their profits go to head offices and shareholders, pulling money out of the local economies therefore weakening towns and making them less resilient; selling local produce is near impossible for them, as they operate as a chain; they promote eating out of season, stocking the fruit and veg aisles with variety and abundance which just isn’t in line with what’s locally available; profit margins are often a priority over producer and planet welfare. But as we were talking, we realised that it would be nearly impossible to avoid the large supermarkets for at least part of your shop. I want to only shop locally, I’m trying, but I’m just not doing it at the moment. There are dedicated few who do manage to completely circumvent the big-named stores, but many of us are not there yet. So we started thinking of ways in which we all can shop more sustainably whilst frequenting the local supermarket.
Know where you’re shopping
We indirectly support the companies where we spend our money, so it’s important to know that their beliefs and priorities align with our own. That requires quite a lot of research, ploughing through marketing and mixed messages. Thankfully Ethical Consumer have done this for us, and meticulously, meaning that we can look at how organisations have been rated under six categories – environment, people, animals and politics, company ethos, and product sustainability – and decide whether their scores are good enough to earn our hard-earned money. The highest-scoring supermarkets on their list in our local area are the Co-op and Marks & Spencer. The Co-op has always been a pioneer in consumer activism (they were the first to introduce ethically-traded coffee, Fairtrade bananas and Fairtrade sugar, to name just a few of their ethical firsts). And of course, they are a consumer co-operative. These supermarkets each score a total of six out of a possible twenty – hardly a top mark, but unfortunately they are the best of a bad bunch! There are higher scorers on the list but they are out of the area, online, wholesalers and box schemes.
Keep an eye on packaging
Once you’ve decided where you’re shopping, be selective about what you buy. As someone who’s choosing to shop sustainably we probably don’t need to talk about packaging, but let’s just give it a quick mention: if there’s an option to buy something loose rather than pre-packaged, go for that; buy individual tins rather than a multipack covered in plastic wrap; choose tins over plastic bottles or pots; get to grips with what can be recycled locally (see Recycle for Buckinghamshire); if you use a lot of it, buy the bigger option – we get through a lot of yoghurt in our house, so we buy big pots and can decant them into small tubs for lunchboxes, rather than getting the individual pots. Look around at all of the options and don’t just go for your usual brand – there are always new products being released, some of which may provide a more eco-friendly way to consume.
We’re too used to eating whatever we want, whenever we want it, which means that a lot of produce has to be imported into the UK. Most of us aren’t even acquainted with seasonal eating, or terms like the “hungry gap” (the time in Britain after the winter crops have ended, but before farmers can harvest the plantings of the new season – usually over a few weeks in April, May and early June), so we don’t know that our eating habits are meaning food is being transported long distances or via airfreight, meaning a higher carbon footprint for our dinner plate. This calendar of seasonal UK produce from the Vegetarian Society is a helpful reference for getting used to the seasonality of our fruit and vegetables. In addition, seasonal, local fruits and vegetables contain the vitamins and minerals our bodies need at different times of the year. Just a note of caution: it would be near impossible to subsist on British fruit and veg alone. Guy Watson, founder of Riverford Organics, advises that a realistic aim would be to eat 90% UK-grown veg, and 50% UK-grown fruit, and to completely avoid the “two insanities” that are airfreight and heated glass.
Use apps to help you shop
There are some amazing apps which help you to understand what’s in your purchases, and how to buy better. Here are a few we use which have changed the way we shop:
- Giki Badges About a year ago Bruce was complaining to me about the minefield that ethical shopping can be. Are the veggie sausages packaged in plastic and made with additives really that great for the planet? How about the organic avocados, with their huge carbon footprint – shouldn’t we just be cutting them out altogether? It’s impossible to know, just by sight, which products to choose from the bulging supermarket shelves. He needed something which could tell him which are the most sustainable products on offer in the supermarket, like the nutritional content traffic light coding. Not long after I found Giki Badges, which pretty much answered his wishes. It’s an app which allows you to scan supermarket products and find out the true impact of your products. Products are awarded badges in up to fourteen categories – lower carbon footprint, sustainable palm oil, responsibly sourced, no chemicals, no animals testing, greener cosmetics, kinder cleaning, plant based, organic, healthier option, animal welfare, better packaging, UK made, free from additives – and the highest scoring are rated as ‘Hero Products’. We’ve switched up quite a few of our staples thanks to this informative app. As with any tool, do use your common sense with Giki. For example, I found a plastic bottle of still water which was given 5 out of 5 badges available – clearly, there is a much more sustainable way of consuming water! Also, they don’t look at the parent company’s ethics – one example is that many of the Pukka teas are classed as ‘Hero Products’, but due to the unethical practices of Unilever, the owner of Pukka Herbs, Pukka Teas are given an Ethical Consumer ethiscore of just 2 out of 20!
- Think Dirty helps you to know which of your personal care, beauty and cleaning products contain potentially toxic ingredients, providing you with cleaner options for your body and your home. When I first discovered this a few years ago I went on a scanning spree through my bathroom and was pretty surprised at what I found. The labels, jargon and liberal usage of words like ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ can cover up just how many not-so-nice ingredients are in the products.
The power of boycott
Boycotting brands isn’t something which might immediately spring to mind when doing your weekly shop. But some of the products and brands with which we’re so familiar have a darker journey than we might imagine. The most well-known consumer boycott is of Nestlé, started in the 1970s in the US, and in Europe in the 1980s. It was led by the International Baby Food Action Network (now Baby Milk Action), as a result of their aggressive, dangerous and deliberately deceitful marketing of breast milk substitutes, especially in the global south. This led to some changes in how their formula milk was advertised, but unfortunately Nestlé continues to market in ways which breach international marketing standards, and that, together with other practices, means it’s been sitting on many ethical consumers’ boycott lists for many years.
Reasons for boycotts vary, including animal rights, tax avoidance, politics, deforestation and spreading of hate speech and fake news. The Ethical Consumer Boycotts List gives an overview of some organised and ongoing boycotts, but there are also dynamic and small-scale boycotts which happen locally or through social media. The power of boycott is real and has brought about true change – don’t underestimate its efficacy.
Consider the ethics
Think about how each product has made it into your basket, who and what have been involved in getting it there. Look for the following labels:
- Soil Association – they set even higher standards that the EU organic requirements
- Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) fish
- Red Tractor Certified
- Raisetrade – a new label which aims to promote more processing of products in the country of origin, instead of the traditional system which exports raw products to wealthier countries, where the majority of profits are then realised.
Use everything you buy
If you buy it, make sure you use it. It sounds simple, but with WRAP research showing that 4.5 million tonnes of usable food is thrown away by UK households each year, we know that many of us aren’t eating everything we buy. I know we still throw food away ourselves. Some ways to avoid waste include:
- Meal planning: Planning ahead is pretty essential for avoiding food waste, so you don’t overbuy or end up constantly in the shops. If you’re terrible at meal planning – like me – put together a rough weekly plan which can be altered depending on the season and your available ingredients. One night could be risotto night, just altering your ingredients (mushrooms, butternut squash, beetroot, broccoli, etc.) based on what’s in the fridge. This works well for a tray bake, stir fry, soup, omelette, fried rice, and pasta. If you make sure you have your cupboard well-stocked with tinned and dried foods like pasta, noodles, pulses, grains, you should be able to make plenty of meals without too much stress.
- Share food locally: If you know you won’t be able to eat something in your fridge or cupboard, why not see if anyone else wants it? You may have your own network locally, or if not try Olio. They’re still building users in Aylesbury, but there are a few people who are offering their surplus food for free so it’s worth joining and checking out.
- Avoid multibuy offers: If you have the option buy loose, individual items and select the number you plan to use, avoiding multibuy offers which leave you with excess, unwanted food. If you do end up with more than you need, donate it to a a food bank or share it locally where you can.
Avoid processed foods
The more processing and packaging involved in a food supply chain, the greater impact it will have on the environment. Ultra-processed foods have a higher carbon footprint than unprocessed and minimally processed foods, and in some cases it’s easy to make a switch. Instead of buying a sweetened, flavoured yoghurt, buy a plain one; buy porridge oats instead of sweetened cereals; buy unflavoured nuts instead of flavoured ones; buy popping corn and pop your own popcorn instead of buying bags of popcorn (this is way cheaper too!).
Write shopping lists, and don’t be sucked into things which are off-list. Moving towards low-waste, sustainable shopping does require getting a bit more organised in general. You have to know which products can be bought from local or zero-waste shops, and which items can be recycled and where. For me this means lists and labels – everything has a place, and when a food is getting low we can refer to the list and know where to top it up. It’s a bit more complicated than getting everything from one shop, but as time goes on we’re getting used to and even enjoying our new way of shopping!
Do you have any ideas on how to shop sustainably in the big supermarkets? What have you done that’s changed how you shop to lower your environmental impact? We’d love you to share your tips and advice as we’re all still learning!
It is easy to feel powerless over the climate crisis, but the greatest power we each hold is in how we spend our money, and to whom we choose to give it, or from whom we decide to withhold it. Momentous social change has been brought about by people actively choosing how to use their money to support their beliefs.