Grocery Shopping Guide

Do you ever go to the grocery store and think about how what you buy affects the environment? Do you wonder if there's anything you can buy that cuts down on your personal contribution to greenhouse gases? It turns out that what you buy in the supermarket can account for anywhere from 10% to 30% of your total carbon footprint. But smart choices can reduce this footprint, and it will likely end up saving you some money, too. Here we will break it down aisle by aisle so that as you check items off your list, you can be sure you're making the best choices.

Produce

Produce

When it comes to fruits and vegetables, the more local the product the better. In general, the shorter the distance traveled, the less environmental impact due to transportation. There are some exceptions to this rule, though. For instance, fruit grown 50 miles away will probably get shipped by a truck with very poor fuel efficiency, around 8 miles per gallon. But fruit grown 1000 miles away might be brought in by trains which emit much less per mile and freight. However, when you're in the supermarket, usually your choices come down to "grown in the U.S.A" or not.

Farmers' Markets

The principle of a farmer's market is to cut out the middle-man and buy directly from the producer. In theory, this saves you money and puts more money into the pockets of the men and women that grow our food. Farmers that supply local farmers' markets typically grow organic, or at least with minimal pesticides. Excessive use of pesticides not only causes nitrogen and other greenhouse gases to be released into the atmosphere, it also makes it harder for the plants to grow the next time around, which leads to more fertilizer being used—also releasing more greenhouse gases. Citrus fruit especially require a huge amount of artificial stimulus and preservation in order to be commercially viable; buying organic orange juice, if you can find it, is a particularly big environmental savings.

Advantages to finding a good farmers' market include:

  • Buying directly from your food producer
  • Availability of organic food from Certified Organic farmers
  • Fresh, ripe, in-season fruits and vegetables
  • Supporting your local economy

Unfortunately, the popularization of farmers' markets have driven up market prices, especially in urban areas. Some urban markets actually import food from outside the country. While this still puts money directly into the hands of farmers, it means you're no longer buying local, and those products had to be shipped or flown from their origin.

Luckily there are over 7,000 farmers' markets in the United States to choose from, and more worldwide. Find a farmers' market and start eating local today.

Eat What Is In Season Near You

Food that is in season is more likely to taste better than food that is out of season, and it's going to be easy on the wallet. A tomato bought in the middle of winter is not going to taste nearly as good as one bought in July. The tomatoes you buy in winter were grown somewhere warm, and picked before they should have been harvested. Truck-ripened tomatoes. It's also going to be more expensive because there's a smaller supply of tomatoes in the winter than there is in the summer, and there's the added cost of transporting them from warm place to cold place.

In addition to shopping at farmers' markets, another way to make sure you're eating locally and eating in season is to sign up for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). If this is an option in your area, it's a great way to support your local farmers and ensure the produce you get is always fresh and in season. There are many different ways that CSA work, but typically once you sign up, a box of fresh, ripe, and in-season produce will be available to you every week or two. And CSA isn't just about produce. Many farms will include options to buy eggs, cheese, milk, even whole chickens! And of course, if you're not getting everything you need from your CSA, you can supplement with the grocery.

If you're concerned about all the variety you'll be exposed to if you eat in season (there's only so many things you can make with okra), there are cookbooks and websites devoted to nothing but sharing recipes using the fruits and vegetables that are in season in your area.

Find out what's in season in your state!

Shop Informed

Most fruits and vegetables have stickers on them telling you where they were grown, and most grocers will be happy to tell you where and how they buy their produce. Some quick research can clue you in to what's best for the environment. Most grocery stores sell at least a few locally grown products; finding a grocery store with the largest selection of these may help you avoid using the extra gas needed to go to both the supermarket and the farmers' market.

Meats, fish, and poultry

You do not have to give up meat to be friendly to the environment. Making informed choices can make a huge difference in the carbon footprint of your meals. All meat is not created equal. For example, according to research done by the Environmental Working Group, "if your 4-person family skips steak one day a week over one year, it's like taking your car off the road for almost three months." The benefits don't stop there. Looking at the list of meats below, we could also rank them according to price. Meat that has the most impact on the environment is also going to have the most impact on your wallet. This is because energy costs money, and high-impact meats take more energy to raise.

The following table is an estimate of the impact of various meats. This research looked at standard farming practices, and doesn't consider free-range or grass-fed animal farming. In general, the natural method of raising animals has a lower impact on the environment.

4 ounces of: Pounds of CO2 equivalent: Like driving your car:
Canned Tuna 3.4 5 miles
Chicken 3.8 6 miles
Turkey 6.0 9 miles
Farmed Salmon 6.6 10 miles
Pork 6.7 10 miles
Beef 14.9 23 miles
Lamb 21.6 33 miles
Note: Food CO2 equivalent from the Environmental Working Group. Miles driven calculated using an average fuel economy of 30mpg.

Lamb

Lamb is a high-impact meat mainly because very little meat is produces relative to the weight of the animal, so it takes more energy per pound of meat to raise and farm the animal. In general, lamb has a similar production to that of beef, but in the U.S., 50% of lamb is imported, which adds the impact of shipping to it's CO2 equivalent. Domestic transportation only accounts for 1% of lamb's impact.

Beef

When considering both the amount of CO2 equivalent and the amount of beef we consume, beef is truly the most high-impact meat. Most of the impact of beef production comes from methane emission and producing the feed. Free-range, grass-fed beef will cut back on the impact from things like feed production, but will probably not affect methane emission. Domestic transportation only accounts for 1% of beef's impact.

Meats, fish, and poultry

Pork

Pork is significantly better for the environment than beef. Most of the CO2 equivalent for pork is created by manure management, the burning of fossil fuels, and post-farm processing. Transportation only accounts for 3% of pork's impact.

Poultry

Of the most common land animals eaten in the United States, poultry is the best for the environment. Poultry takes up very little space and almost entirely sold as food. Even their waste is used as fertilizer and as feed for other animals. The majority of poultry's impact on the environment comes from making the feed and transporting supplies to the poultry farms. 4% of poultry's impact is from transportation.

Farmed Salmon

Farmed salmon is probably the worst fish in terms of environmental impact, though still much better than beef or lamb. Most of the emissions from farming salmon comes from producing its feed, generating electricity for the farm (maintaining water temperature), and general fossil fuel burning on the farm. Transportation of farmed salmon accounts for 5% of its impact.

Canned Tuna

Most of the emissions from producing canned tuna comes from boats—burning diesel fuel—followed by the processing and canning. Transportation (not including on the fishing boat) accounts for 5% of canned tuna's impact.

The best way to know if the fish you're looking for is over-fished or in abundance is to download a pocket guide like these from the Monterey Aquarium, or a seafood guide app for your iPhone or Android.

Dry Goods

Dry Goods

There are plenty of things to buy in the grocery store that aren't food. Many people buy their paper products and their cleaning supplies at the supermarket. Thankfully, there are plenty of new products that make it easier than ever to go green.

There are many all-natural cleansers and soaps that are much less harmful to the water system than traditional ones. As far as laundry detergent goes, you can be green by buying the all-natural stuff. In addition to looking for the natural products, those that are low-impact will use very little plastic in their packaging.

The best way to go green in the paper aisle is not to be in the paper aisle in the first place. The greenest way to eat dinner every day is off of real plates, using real silverware, and cloth napkins. It's true that you do use a fair amount of detergent and water to care for those products, but it uses much more energy to produce paper-ware and plastic-ware. If you must use disposable dinnerware, opt for plates made of recycled paper, which is easiest to recycle again. Nowadays, you can even find disposable flatware made from naturally biodegradable corn. Waste is waste, however; you will tax the system much less by using real.

Bringing It All Home

Paper or plastic? The best answer is neither! Even if they're made of recycled materials, disposable bags still tax the system when they are either recycled themselves or thrown out.

Of course, there is such a thing as "the best" reusable bag to choose. Cotton canvas is natural, but the pesticides used on cotton plants are extremely harmful for the environment. Nylon bags are durable, but they use more material than polypropylene bags, which are much lighter. The folks at Treehugger.com have actually looked into this, and it turns out, it doesn't really matter which bag you use as long as you're not throwing it out. The best possible shopping bag should be indestructible (those cheap grocery-sold bags whose handles constantly rip off are no good), and made as close to home as possible. The Market Tote, by Red Oxx (the famed Montana purveyor of indestructible travel bags), seems to blow away the competition. It is a little on the pricey side, but it will last forever (they guarantee it) and it holds a lot more than most other bags--as much as a fully stuffed extra large paper bag!

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