3 Tips for Shopping Sustainably

Make these swaps at the grocery store for a more sustainable shopping trip.

Ice glaciers melting, rising temperatures, declining biodiversity: these are the visible marks climate change and environmental neglect are leaving on our planet. Despite the unequivocal evidence about the serious predicament we’re in, we continue to operate in ways that are unsustainable. While we’re past the point of completely halting the worst damage, we still have the power to act.

Pope Francis wrote a global letter in 2015 with an urgent call to protect our common home from further environmental degradation. He emphasized that the “dominion” over the earth we read about in the Bible should really be looked at more as a form of stewardship. This means tending to the planet we call our home to protect it for ourselves and for future generations.

So how do we incorporate the practice of environmental stewardship into our daily lives? There are a number of ways to help, one of which is shopping more sustainably. This means thinking about where our food comes from, what goes into it, and how we package and transport it. 

Here are three tips to practice more conscious and environmentally friendly shopping. Following these by no means will eradicate all the damage we’ve wrought, but they are small, tangible steps we can take to protect our planet.

Read the label

My roommates and I always have peanut butter in our pantry. I eat it every day, usually with my breakfast. So I was concerned to learn recently that the brand I was buying contained something harmful to the environment: an ingredient called palm oil. Palm oil is commonly used in a range of food products such as ice cream, pizza dough, chocolate, packaged bread, and more. According to the World Wildlife Fund, around half of all packaged products in U.S. supermarkets contain palm oil.  

Driven by an increase in demand, palm oil tree plantations have proliferated across the globe in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Clearing land to make room for palm oil trees is a huge driver of deforestation and harms the wildlife who reside in tropical forests. 

So what can you do? Take a quick peek at the label when you’re in the grocery store to see if the product you want to buy contains any ingredients that might be problematic. It’s important to know what goes into your food and the negative consequences it might have. (Side note: If you’re in the market for new peanut butter brands, I would highly recommend Smucker’s Organic Natural Peanut Butter or Trader Joe’s natural creamy peanut butter; they’re both delicious and palm oil-free.)

Shop locally

You’ve most likely heard the expression before, but what does it mean in practice? One easy way to live out this maxim is by going to your local farmer’s market. Everything you’ll find there is endemic to the area, unlike the grocery store where produce is often shipped in from locations outside the U.S. The produce there is also in season, so you’ll find products at their freshest.

A farmer’s market is a great option if you have one nearby. But if the only place to shop in your nearby vicinity is a supermarket, you can still practice shopping locally by buying products that were made in nearby states,  or in the United States at the very least. 

You may wonder why consuming products from far away locations is such a big deal. Consider the long winding path that your food took to get to the shelf at the supermarket. Maybe it’s an avocado from Mexico or a box of blueberries from Chile. It was likely transported thousands of miles by a truck or an airplane, both of which require fuel. Burning that fuel releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, a major source of global warming. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, greenhouse gas emissions that stem from transportation make up approximately 28 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. This makes transportation the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Granted, this extends beyond the transportation of food, but it’s still important to consider the implications of the system as a whole and think through ways we can reduce our individual carbon footprint.

Reduce plastic use

Many of us have gotten accustomed to bringing our own bags to the supermarket. In fact, several states have banned the use of single-use plastic bags to encourage people to cut down on plastic waste.

One common place where plastic bags still reign is in the produce section. Next time you’re shopping for fruits and vegetables, consider opting for a reusable produce bag instead of a plastic one, like these washable bags from Amazon

Beyond bringing your own bags to the supermarket, you can also be mindful about buying products that contain less packaging. Even if you’re a diligent recycler, cutting down on products that contain plastic of any sort is beneficial when you consider that a lot of the plastic we throw into the recycling bin doesn’t actually get recycled — often due to contamination when an item is placed in the wrong bin or traces of food are left on the packaging.

Another way to reduce plastic is by replacing your plastic sandwich bags with reusable ones. I just bought my sister reusable food wraps for her birthday, in fact — they mold to your food and can be easily washed and air dried after you use them. All of these are small changes you can implement today to cut down on plastic waste.

It’s important to remember that our individual choices don’t just affect us; they affect all people with whom we share this home. As Pope Francis wrote: “The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone. If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all.”

As environmental stewards, we are called to take care of our common home. Whether that’s by practicing sustainable shopping, switching to a plant-based diet, or choosing smarter means of transportation, we all bear the responsibility of what happens to our planet.

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