All that glitters is not green: My experience with sustainable grocery shopping

Illustration of person shopping for groceries.
Olivia Staser/File

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When I first ventured out to college, I was faced with a new, unfamiliar world of cooking and grocery shopping. But for the first time, I was also in control of what I bought and where I bought it. I resolved to adopt a more sustainable diet to reduce my carbon footprint. However, I’ve found it much harder than anticipated to stick to ethically sourced, sustainable and zero waste ingredients and products. I’m sure I’m not alone. Let’s examine these obstacles and find alternatives to reduce the average carbon footprint of the modern-day consumer. 

Access to fresh produce and meats is a privilege that I took for granted, and I’m grateful for Berkeley’s easily accessible food options, from chain stores to local grocers and markets. The variety allows for greater accessibility to both nutritious and ethical produce. However, sustainable food products come at a greater cost for the supplier and producer, making it more difficult for lower-income consumers to practice sustainable living. As a student living off of my minimum-wage paycheck, I found myself gravitating toward value items rather than organic alternatives or cage-free eggs in order to stay within budget. A small solution I implement is to plan my meals ahead of time so that I buy just enough food to finish while it’s good, thus reducing food waste. 

Stepping into a grocery store, the sparkling terms, “organic,” “non-GMO,” “fair,” “free of harm” and other glamorous words promise a clean process from sowing to harvesting to packaging for our optimal health. However, due to loose regulations and several misconceptions of the term “organic,” companies have utilized “green washing,” a marketing strategy adopted by businesses that deceptively try to convince consumers their products are environmentally friendly. Brands can also label themselves as organic or non-GMO without the certification in an attempt to lure us toward their products. That can be through unauthenticated U.S. Department of Agriculture labels or by simply adding comfort-sounding terms as earlier mentioned. Unfortunately, there’s no way to completely avoid this as it happens in both imported and local goods, and it’s near unlikely that any of us would research each item we buy while at the grocery aisles. The most convenient method to spot green washing attempts is through strictly examining product labels and origin locations, ingredients and nutrition facts. While budgeting, I usually allocate funds on products that I prefer to be grown through organic means, such as fruits with soft or commonly eaten skin, protein and meats. Supporting local farmers at farmers markets is also another way, though not completely foolproof, to buy locally-sourced, ethical and sustainably grown and raised products. 

Single-use packaging is probably the one obstacle that’s inescapable in modern consumerism. Whether it be plastic, foil or plastic foam, we’re surrounded by items made from materials that last a single use before ending up in the landfill. Even if I try buying specifically ethical and sustainable groceries, I’m bound to wind up with single-use waste due to packaging regulations. Proteins are always wrapped in plastics that aren’t recyclable, and I’ve never had a snack packaging that didn’t end up in the landfill. To minimize single-use plastics, instead of purchasing dried fruit in a single-use plastic bag, I opt for the fresh ones and try to create new snacks with it, such as freezing berries to emulate the crunch of fruit chips or pureeing it as a complement to breads and drinks. 

Consumerism still has a long way to go before we can achieve complete sustainability, but each of us has the potential to change that by rethinking and revising how we purchase and consume our foods. I don’t hope for this to discourage anyone venturing into cleaner consumerism but rather to serve as support for anyone stumped at how to approach sustainable shopping. As I developed my understanding of how my greatest enjoyments, cooking and eating, contribute a significant portion to the planet’s carbon footprint — even down to the soil farmers use — I’ve learned it’s not our fault for the current state of consumerism. Rather, our experiences, vigilance and planning are our greatest assets to a better understanding of how to care for our needs and our planet. 

Contact Emily Lui at [email protected].