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As much as many of us would prefer to shop exclusively in independent stores and support small businesses, there are times when only a supermarket will cut it. For families with children, these times can be maddeningly frequent! It is possible, however, to shop ethically and environmentally responsibly at Coles, Woolies and the other chains, you just need a bit of awareness and to know your options.
As consumers, Australians are keen to green our groceries: a study commissioned by the Australian Food and Grocery Council found that 84 per cent of the 1000 Woolworths shoppers surveyed were concerned about the effects their shopping decisions had on the environment and that eight out of ten said they were thinking about the environment while shopping. But – and it’s a big but – only 13 per cent had actually bought a green product on that particular shopping trip.
So what’ stopping us? Is it the cost? Although 78 per cent of shoppers were concerned about the added cost of green products, a third said they were prepared to pay more for a greener alternative. Instead, the Green Shopper survey found the greatest concern was greenwash – suggesting a distrust of major brands and a certain level of cynicism. We’re also used to convenience; while a high proportion of shoppers were comfortable with a lower-quality product if it had less impact, only six per cent would compromise on convenience.
Here are some tips that may make it easier for you to make green choices in the supermarket – even when you have two screaming kids and only ten minute to do the weekly shop.
Look for green options
It seems obvious, but how easy is it to reach for the nearest familiar brand when you’re in a hurry? Whenever you can, scan an eye over the full range of products in a category and if there’s a green option, try it out. If you like it, let people know. I’ve recently noticed cleaning sponges made from recycled materials in my local store, and recycled-paper tissues.
The most commonly purchased green alternatives are toilet paper, dishwashing liquid, free-range eggs and laundry soaps and powders. Moderately popular are tinned tuna and salmon, milk, paper towels, chicken, light bulbs and surface spray. In most of these categories, there is more than one green option – why? It’s a simple matter of supply and demand; and we have the power to influence what’s found in-store. Kane Hardingham, environmental manager for Woolworths, says, “Consumers can impact the availability of green products by buying those that are already available. A much greater selection of free-range products is now available in response to customers buying more and more of these products. However, if a product is not selling, it will lose shelf space.”
If you’re concerned about greenwash, look for certification from a reputable organisation such as WWF, RSPCA or MSC (Marine Stewardship Council). Coles, Woolies, Aldi and IGA are all working with these organisations and others.
Think about the packaging
Before you chuck it in your trolley, think about the end life of the packaging surrounding your chips or spaghetti. Paper products, such as milk cartons and tetra packs are best, but most plastic bottles, cans and glass can all be recycled. Many products are packaged in flexible plastic bags, which are lightweight and convenient, but often go straight into the bin. Be sure to check first for a recycling symbol, as an increasing number of companies have made the switch to reusable plastic.
Choose products that minimise packaging, and consider buying bulk versions of snack foods rather than individually-wrapped portions. Chips and biscuits will stay fresh in the fridge once opened and can be taken to work or school in a reusable container.
Choose ethical, local ingredients
When it comes to the issues of sustainable palm oil and seafood, animal welfare and human rights, the supermarkets have committed to improving what’s sold in their stores. Familiarise yourself with their initiatives and show your support by buying the RSPCA-approved free-range pork or MSC-certified tuna. Once again, consumers have the power to change what’s sold in supermarkets.
Wherever possible, choose an Australian-made brand to cut down on food miles and to support Australia’s food growers. With the rise and rise of private-label products in supermarkets, it can take discipline (and a bigger budget) to choose local, Australian brands every time. When you do go for a home-brand product, check for local ingredients rather than imported.
Say no to plastic bags
Australians still use almost four million single-use plastic bags, and that doesn’t include the ones you see wrapped around a broccoli head or holding two measly tomatoes. Forgo the thin, non-reusable plastic bag in the produce section with as much enthusiasm as you have embraced the green shopping bag. Either go without or get hold of reusable produce bags, such as Onya Weigh bags.
When it comes to the millions of green shopping bags you’ve accumulated, plus the single-use plastic bags that have snuck into your home, these can be recycled at your supermarket.
Spoil your pets
The supermarkets are on a mission to achieve zero food waste. This is great news for Australian pets, as many stores now sell chicken necks and carcasses, meat off-cuts, bones and offal. Consider switching Rover to a more natural diet, or one that combines fresh foods with processed. This way, you’re preventing the off-cuts from going to landfill and doing without the packaging and processing costs of dog-food.
It’s unlikely anyone would want to spend more time at the supermarket than is absolutely necessary and making mindful choices takes time. Fortunately, there are plenty of resources available, and with a little homework and maybe a smart phone, you can green your shopping trolley without spending hours reading labels in-store.
Greenpeace issues a tinned tuna ranking and also the True Food Guide, which traffic-lights brands for their use of genetically modified (GM) ingredients. WWF produces a Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard, which now includes a comprehensive listing of Australian companies. A very handy app is Shop Ethical! 2012, produced by the Ethical Consumers Guide, also available in a print version. With the app, you can mark your favourites to add to your shopping list.
To find out what the supermarkets are doing to help you make green choices, see the current June/July '12 issue of G magazine, out now.