Shop for the environment

By Karen McGhee 3 August 2009
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A few smart and simple choices in the supermarket can help ensure that your shopping habits don’t cost the earth.

Yuri Hulak is spruiking his sustainably produced fruit and veg in one of Australia’s most densely populated urban areas – inner western Sydney. But, in his floppy hat, baggy pants and ageing leather apron, he looks as if he’s stepped straight from his central NSW market garden.

Shopper Tom Tutton wanders past with two-year-old son Blake and happily hands over $5 for six corn cobs in a brown paper bag. They’ve been grown using drip irrigation, cow manure, hard work and little else. “So fresh they hardly need cooking,” proclaims Yuri, who’s here, at Sydney’s newest farmers’ market, Eveleigh, because he won’t sell to the big retailers and watch his profit reduced at every link in the farm-gate-to-supermarket-check-out supply chain.

Nearby, Wendy Guy helps her son-in-law Phillip Nelson-Marshall wrap certified organic beef and lamb in butcher’s paper for customers. Phillip has a 4500 ha pastoral property – Marion Plains, at Mendooran, some 400 km to the northwest – and chooses to sell like this for the same reasons Yuri does, as do most of the 60-odd stallholders who have been at Eveleigh every Saturday since late February. “If farmers want to keep their land healthy and be able to hand it on in good condition to their kids, we’ve got to get better returns,” Phillip says, explaining this way of selling requires more work but provides better profit margins, which in turn supports more sustainable agriculture.

Welcome to the latest in 21st-century shopfronts, where (almost) everything old is new again. Most signs are handwritten on cardboard. There’s no commercial advertising. No handy ATMs. And patrons arrive mainly on foot, bicycle or a free community shuttle bus that continually loops through nearby suburbs when the market’s open. Producers earn the right to be here and sell direct to consumers by committing to a range of core values, including environmental sustainability.

The rise of farmers’ markets in Australia has been steady during the past decade, since Jane Adams, interim chair of the Australian Farmers’ Markets Association, first brought the concept back from the USA, where she’d gone as a research fellow to study markets in the late 1990s. There are now more than 120 in capital cities and regional centres across the country with a combined annual turnover in excess of $40 million. Each functions a little differently from the next, but all have environmental sustainability as a fundamental principle. They support agricultural production, transportation, handling and selling that endeavours to reduce greenhouse-gas production, limit toxic chemical run-off, maintain soil health and support biodiversity. In doing so, they take the hard work out of eco-friendly shopping for consumers. 

But the reality is that most of us shop in large supermarkets, says Damien Sweeney, Community and Business Sustainability Project Manager at the National Centre for Sustainability, at Swinburne University, Melbourne. Farmers’ markets, he says, are an excellent guide to the sort of shopping principles and behaviours consumers can apply anywhere, anytime in the interests of a healthier planet.

One of the fundamental issues is how to get to where you shop. If it’s too far to walk, or the shopping is too heavy to get home on public transport, consider car-pooling with friends or forming a shopping cooperative. The latter also saves time for busy people because members take turns doing the shopping and it provides the opportunity for bulk buying, which can have cost benefits. Internet buying also helps to limit shopping-created carbon emissions by consolidating the amount of traffic carting around produce.

More critical, however, are the emissions created by the transport and storage of the produce they buy. A 2007 report by the Centre for Education and Research in Environmental Strategies, titled Food Miles in Australia: A Preliminary study of Melbourne, Victoria, found that the total distance travelled by 29 common food items was more than 70,000 km. That equates to a huge greenhouse-gas output. And the simplest way to reduce that, says Damien, is to buy locally. Where fresh produce is concerned, that means it’s also best to buy seasonally. For processed food, the general rule is: if you can’t buy regionally, be sure to buy Australian.

Packaging is another critical consideration for the eco-minded shopper. The first step is to take your own reusable bags shopping. About 4 billion plastic bags are used in Australia every year, with only a small proportion of them recycled. In particular, avoid the rolls of plastic bags routinely provided in the fruit and vegetable sections of supermarkets. “Just because they’re offered doesn’t mean you have to use them,” Damien says. “They might make things easier for the checkout operator but they’re not necessary.”

There are a few other simple rules to follow surrounding the packaging of processed food and manufactured products, explains Jacqui Hillen, an EcoCoach with Visy Industries, the largest packaging manufacturer and packaging recycler in Australia. “Always opt for minimal packaging,” Jacqui says. “And in particular, avoid layers. You don’t want something, for example, that’s wrapped in plastic, then cardboard and then a box.”

Look for recycled packaging – known as ‘post consumer product’ in industry jargon. By buying products made from recycled material you’re helping close the recycling loop. But note there are strict health regulations in Australia surrounding the use of recycled packaging that comes in contact with food, so don’t expect to see it with edible products. That said, even if a product isn’t 100 per cent recycled content, any amount’s preferable to 100 per cent virgin material. If packaging isn’t already made from recycled material, make sure it can be recycled itself, says Jacqui. All paper products and many plastics are recyclable. The simple guide with plastic containers is that if you can crush them in your hand they’re not recyclable. If they’re made of rigid plastic, such as that used for fruit juice and milk, they probably are. “But steer clear of polystyrene in its expanded form, like you sometimes see in coffee cups,” Jacqui says. “Currently this isn’t accepted through the kerbside recycling stream.”

The other major tip for shoppers wishing to support environmental sustainability is to buy organic. Research shows that most people first buy organic produce for personal health reasons. But there’s also a lot of evidence that organic production methods are very good for the
environment. Apart from the benefits of avoiding synthetic pesticides and fertilisers, organic-farming practices – such as mulching and using plant crops to fix nitrogen – keep soil in good health. They also lock carbon away and reduce agricultural greenhouse-gas emissions.

In Australia, however, organic produce accounts for only 1–2 per cent of fresh food, the range can be limited and it’s not always readily available or easy to find. Damien suggests that if organic isn’t an option or is too expensive for your weekly budget, opt for products you know can be traced back to sustainable or ethical farming or manufacturing methods.

One example is free-range eggs, which might not be produced according to certified organic methods but may nevertheless be raised according to sustainable practices. Another is bananas tipped with red wax. Although not certified organic, these are grown in north Queensland by a family-owned company in a way that reduces harmful agricultural run-off to the Great Barrier Reef.

Be careful not to be deceived by “greenwash”, where empty environmental claims are made to sell products, warns Nick Ray, from the Melbourne-based Ethical Consumer Group. The term organic, for example, means very little when used in a shampoo without any qualification. Look for the words “certified organic” if you want a product that comes with genuine environmental credentials. Similarly, the terms “plant-based” or “natural” are meaningless from an environmental perspective unless they’re qualified.

Nick agrees it’s easy to become disheartened when trying to make ethical purchases in the supermarkets where most of us shop. “So we encourage people to think about what they value most and then, based on that, make a ‘best buy’ according to the information they have available,” he says.

For example, if climate change is your primary concern, choose produce that hasn’t travelled long distances. If animal welfare is your key motivator, look for “cruelty free” labelling and avoid the products of factory farming. If you want to help save native forests look for recycled paper products. Armed with a little knowledge, certain products will stand out as best buys.

“But, of course, the reality is that we will often be making trade-offs and there’s no point being paralysed by that,” Nick says. “Take this process one small step at a time and add a new [appropriate] product to your shopping each week.”

The weekly purchases of one individual might not initially seem to make much difference, he acknowledges, but the combined consumer power of 6.5 billion people could ultimately save the planet.

What’s your concern?

Smart shopping is easier if you choose one environmental issue you feel passionate about and purchase accordingly.
Climate change: Help to reduce atmospheric carbon produced by transport by choosing in-season, locally grown primary produce. If not available, opt for regionally or Australian-grown. Seek out products with less packaging and that have had minimal processing. Look for the words “certified organic” and an associated ID number for an assurance of farming practices that support lower greenhouse-gas production than mainstream methods.

Animal welfare: The products of factory farming can be avoided by opting for small-goods and meats labelled “bred free range” and eggs labelled “free range” or “barn laid”. The cruelty-free bunny logo (above) is a reliable indicator of cleaning, personal hygiene and beauty products that have not been tested on animals.

Native forests: Any product reducing paper production will help alleviate pressure on native forests. Where possible opt for paper – for any use, from the toilet to the printer – with the highest post-consumer recycled fibre content. Logos of the Rainforest Alliance and Forest Stewardship Council (above) indicate wood-based products that comply with strict environmental guidelines and support sustainable forest management.

Pesticides/chemicals: Where food is concerned, look for sustainable production methods, such as “certified organic”, which avoid synthetic fertilisers and biocides.Reduce your own household chemical pollution: choose plant-based cleaning products in concentrated form and indentified as biodegradable in compliance with the Australian Standard AS4351 or international equivalents OECD 301A-301E or ISO 7827.

Human rights: The main foods available in Australia where production may involve human-rights concerns include chocolate, tea and coffee. Companies that follow ethical principles ensure producers in underdeveloped nations are paid fairly, work under safe conditions and are not exploited. This also encourages sustainable agricultural practices.

Local business: Shop at your nearest farmers’ market. Check for the origin of supermarket products – fresh and processed – and if it’s not clearly displayed, ask. Australia’s environmental and sustainability requirements are often stricter than elsewhere; another reason to choose domestic produce.