When my husband and I started working at an independently owned natural foods store in 2012, we never imagined that we would soon be running the show. Last year, the owner decided to sell the store and chose Ryan (my husband) to take over her role, with me managing in the office. We learned an incredible amount about running a grocery store efficiently in our three years working under the former owner, and have grown exponentially since taking the reins. Today, I’d love to share some of my favorite tips for green grocery shopping to support the environment, including some behind-the-scenes insights you can ask about at your local shop.
Go Green Grocery
Here are some steps to lower your environmental impact while grocery shopping:
1. Find the Right Place To Shop
- Shop close to home. Carbon emissions are a major offender when it comes to environmental concerns, so finding a market you can walk or bike to is one of the best ways to support the environment while you shop. If you have to drive, find a local retail environment as close to home as possible. Similarly, try not to make special trips to the grocery store. Instead, plan to swing by on your way to or from work. Combining multiple errands in one trip will improve your fuel (and time!) efficiency.
- Choose a store that cares. Just as you’re trying to green your lifestyle, the most eco-friendly store/farm will also be paying attention to theirs.
- To reduce waste at our store, we compost all of the eggs and produce that go bad before selling.
- Since shelf-stable foods are technically still good to eat after the sell-by date, we donate our just-expired food to a local soup kitchen/food pantry.
- We also partner with a local woman who takes many of our packaging materials to reuse for her business and we recycle the rest.
- A distributor we work with delivers items in reusable totes that we return with the next delivery. This negates the need for cardboard boxes and thus decreases waste!
- We limit what gets printed in our office, use recycled copy paper, and turn old documents into scrap paper (that later gets recycled) when we’re done with them.
- A business that cares about the environment will offer initiatives to its employees (and customers) that reward walking, biking, or carpooling.
Check into how your local grocer handles all of these aspects of retail so you can support the store that best supports the Earth.
- Go straight to the source, if necessary. If you can’t find a shop that offers what you’re looking for, maybe it’s time to go straight to the source! Find a local farm whose principles align with your own to help the environment. You might want to consider signing up for a community-supported agriculture farm share.
2. Green Your Shopping List
- Choose eco-friendly products. What ingredients are in the things you buy? Are they biodegradable? Earth-friendly in other ways? Looking into your shopping cart to find the most environmentally conscious products possible will truly make a difference.
- Products with labels like B Corp, the cruelty-free leaping bunny, and USDA Organic are great places to start because there’s accountability for how those products are produced.
- For packaged products, reduce waste by making sure the packaging is recyclable — or, better yet, compostable!
- Finding the right retailer gives you a head start in this department, too, as natural retailers will have their own process for sourcing quality, natural products.
- Replant what you can. Some food scraps can actually be replanted at home to grow anew! Scallions, potatoes, and, if you’re in the right climate, avocado are all foods that will grow from scraps. They’ll be great in compost, but you can also turn this food waste into food in your own garden.
- Think before you buy. Thirty to 40 percent of the food supply is wasted annually in the United States, so before you make a purchase in the grocery store, ask yourself if you’re sure you’ll use it before it goes bad. Back at home, keep an eye on your food and be honest with yourself. If something is starting to go bad, find someone else who will eat it or freeze it for later use.
- Buy organic. Organic food isn’t just better for you, it’s better for the Earth, too! Certified organic items are produced without the usage of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, and other harmful substances. Organic farms also use natural methods to renew the health of the soil (like composting, companion planting, and crop rotation) instead of allowing soil health to diminish with each harvest.
One thing to keep in mind: Obtaining organic certification is an expensive endeavor that some small farms have trouble with. Ask questions and visit farms to see firsthand how they grow their crops. They may be entirely organic, but just haven’t gone through the rigorous process of seeking the seal yet!
3. Green Your Shopping Practices
- Buy in bulk. One of the biggest ways to reduce waste in shopping is to buy in bulk. Food and packaging together accounts for almost 45 percent of American landfills and even if you’re recycling your weekly cereal box, that cardboard really adds up! Many stores allow customers to bring their own containers to reuse for bulk items. Others may offer particular containers that you are allowed to bring back. Cutting out packaging by purchasing larger quantities of food at once in reusable containers makes a huge difference.
This practice can be applied to perishables, too. Stocking up on produce when it’s in season and canning, drying, or freezing it allows you to source fruits and veggies closer to home, thus reducing the carbon footprint of your food. Plus, buying produce when it’s fresh again means less packaging! Skip the plastic bag and pop it in your upcycled T-shirt bag instead (keep scrolling for the DIY tutorial!).
- Return applicable packaging for reuse. Many of our customers return their milk bottles so we can give them back to our dairy farmer for reuse. Certain farmers will also accept used egg cartons. There’s even a kombucha company near our store that will reuse their bottles! It never hurts to ask if this is a possibility where you shop. If it isn’t a practice already in place, maybe you’ll inspire that type of reuse!
- Refuse receipts (politely). Some newer POS (point of sale, aka cash registers) systems allow customers to choose whether they would like a physical receipt printed or a digital receipt emailed or texted to them. This option is a fantastic way to cut down on paper usage and waste.
- Ask about special orders. Just because you don’t see a certain item on the shelf at the store that’s closest to you, doesn’t mean they can’t get it for you. Independent retail stores are usually more than happy to accommodate customer requests. We even offer a discount to anyone who places a by-the-case or bulk-sized special order. Inquiring about this possibility might help you do all of your shopping in one place so you can prevent driving elsewhere and, if buying in bulk, will again cut down on packaging waste.
- Shop small. Independent stores tend to source as locally as possible to reduce shipping costs (and therefore emissions!) as opposed to chains that ship from centrally located warehouses. We work with more than a dozen small, local farms to source our produce (when seasonally available), eggs, milk, cheese, and meats. In contrast, most chain grocery stores get products from large-scale industrial farms, which don’t tend to support biodiversity and increase emissions due to long-distance shipping.
- Finally, bring your own bags. How many bags of groceries do you take home in a week? Now, multiply that by 52 to find out how many bags you’re tossing in the trash every year. Swapping out those one-time-use bags for reusable ones will make a huge difference in limiting your family’s trash output. Chances are, you already have reusable bags tucked away in a cabinet or closet, but if you don’t, there’s no need to buy them. Reduce fabric waste in your home by turning old T-shirts into produce bags in just a matter of minutes! Here’s how …
DIY: T-Shirt Turned Produce Bag
Finding ways to repurpose clothing to reduce fabric waste in your home requires a little creativity. With this upcycled T-shirt produce bag, you’ll never need to throw away a worn T-shirt again.
What you’ll need:
- Needle or sewing machine
- Iron-on patches to cover holes or stains (optional)
Step 1: Place your clean T-shirt on a flat surface. With scissors, cut the neck wider, cut off the sleeves, and trim off the bottom of the shirt. Depending on the size of shirt you’re working with and the size of bag you want, your measurements will be different, so envision several options to see what you’d like best before you make any cuts. We’re going to make this a flat-bottomed bag, so leave a little extra room under the image/text of the shirt for the seam allowance and the flat bottom.
Step 2: Turn the T-shirt inside-out, then pin and sew the bottom shut with a straight stitch leaving about a half inch seam allowance.
Step 3: Flatten the bottom of the bag so each corner becomes a triangle. Stitch a new seam about an inch or an inch and a half in from the corner so it now looks like this…
Step 4: Trim off this corner and turn the bag right side out again. If you don’t care about covering stains or holes, you’re done!
Step 5 (optional): To cover a stain or hole in your shirt, try adding a patch. Since I’m going with a produce theme here, I decided to make a pineapple from yellow and green iron-on patches. Simply cut out the shape you want (make sure it is bigger than the spot you’re covering) and follow the patch’s instructions to adhere. I added some lines to my pineapple with a fine-tipped permanent marker after my ironing was complete.
Sourcing your grocery store necessities and acquiring them in a low-impact way can be a challenge, but once you find the best place to get everything on your list, you’ll feel great about your eco-routine. Since every dollar you spend is a vote for that establishment, the key is to make sure the stores you support care as much as you do about reducing waste and helping the environment. You can do it!
Imagery credit: Julia Marchand
Editor’s note: Originally published on May 12, 2016, this article was updated in September 2018.