How to buy groceries sustainably

The food we buy determines a big fraction of our footprint. By being mindful of your basket, the grocery store offers countless ways to reduce your climate impact.

A decade ago, one big British supermarket shrank the diameter of their toilet roll tubes by 11mm, while keeping the same number of sheets. The result? 500 less trucks on the road, wiping out 140 tons of CO2 annually. 

This example shows the sensitivity of retail dynamics. One tweak on the consumer end can have a profound effect on emissions. It also nudges you to look beyond the product. This mental shift is essential to a sustainable life: Understanding that every consumer item lies at the bottom of a tall and complex supply chain.

Green Groceries Facts

Five ways to shop more sustainably

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Reduce or eliminate meat. Starting with red. It’s not that red meat is poor nutrition (although the science here is conflicting), but cattle farming wrecks the environment. Millions of extra cows need lots of water and food, which itself must be sourced and transported. And cows, being large animals with many active stomachs, burp and poop industrial levels of methane — a potent greenhouse gas. At the same time, creating space for cattle farms often drives deforestation, devouring an essential carbon sink. And while chicken is touted as a climate-friendly alternative, it’s only slightly better. Sorry carnivores. Instead, dance past the meat aisle and scoop up some delicious veggie proteins; like lentils, chickpeas, or beans!

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Milk choice matters. No, it really does: Milk is a macro factor in our footprints. Different milks have different nutrition, and different carbon paths into that supermarket fridge. Dairy milk, joined at the hip with the beef industry, is by far the most harmful. Rice, soy, oat, or almond milks are dramatically lighter in carbon. But carbon isn’t the only climate metric: Almond has the smallest footprint, but uses over 100x more water than soy. If you do switch to non-dairy, be careful that you’re getting enough calcium. (Sidetip: dark, leafy greens are twinkling with calcium, and hella tasty too!)

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Plastic-free stores are a thing. Bit of a concept, yes, but they exist. These places are proud to avoid any plastic packaging, or products containing plastics; like cosmetics, toothpaste, or weirdly enough, wet wipes. But just as you don’t need an organic store to buy organic, you can sidestep plastic at a regular supermarket too: from plastic bags to plastic wraps. This is dual purpose. Not only will you cut your own footprint, but also signal to the store that plastic products are less popular — meaning they’ll order less, and eventually, their suppliers will make less!

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Skip the packaging. Ever take out your trash after a week or two? Yeah, it’s heavy. Packaging is a big contributor to waste. Reducing it will, in turn, reduce your footprint. One way to do this is bulk buying: A 1kg box of cereal will use much less packaging than two 500g boxes (thank you square-cube law!) Some stores are ahead of the game here, letting customers avoid packaging altogether with reusable containers.

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Beware greenwashing. Terms like ‘farm fresh’ or ‘natural’ are nice and fluffy, but carry no legal definition. As such, brands can’t get sued if they (mis)use these words in appealing to eco-conscious customers. This is where certification steps in. Labels like USDA Organic, Fair Trade, and Rainforest Alliance prove the product meets hard criteria. Even despite the controversy on how effective these truly are, they still give better product assurance than weightless marketing phrases.

The big picture

With our dollars, we vote for the world we want to see. So shopping green means putting your money behind truly sustainable choices and brands. Please note that these tips are not equal: While we support all climate action, big or small, any grocery wins will wash away if you maintain a diet rich in red meat or dairy. The science on this is conclusive. Like the cow on the pasture, we hope you have something to thoughtfully chew on. Happy shopping!

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