how to shop for sustainable food: 6 easy-to-do tips

Jan 15, 2020 | food for thought

How to shop for sustainable food is probably one of the last things on most people’s mind. For better or worse, I can’t say the same.


Shopping for fruits and vegetables is one of my favorite pastimes. Each trip to the supermarket is like a profession of my love for sustainable food. I could literally spend hours at a farmers’ market or in a fruit and vegetable shop—getting more excited about unique types of produce than “normal” people get about shoes and jewelry and flat screen TVs. 

I get it, I’m not the typical person. Where I find strolling down grocery store aisles relaxing, most people feel stressed out. I’m not one of the 37% of adults who buy groceries online. I mean, honestly, how does one feel for a ripe avocado or read all the nutritional labels from a computer?!?


Weird personal preferences aside, we all buy food. This means that we can all do better when it comes to shopping for sustainable food. It’s estimated that about a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions are associated with our diets. Luckily, there are a few things we can remember before hitting the checkout lane. 


These tips are for everyone—from food lovers to grocery store avoiders. Even just implementing a few of these changes can have pretty significant impacts.


How to Shop for Sustainable Food

1. Eat before you shop

Ever walked into the brightly lit food mecca that is a supermarket while starving? It’s a shopping spree disaster just waiting to happen. We’ve all been guilty of buying tons of food with very ambitious plans to cook it all—but it just doesn’t happen. In order to keep your refrigerator free of fuzzy produce and uneaten perishables, don’t shop hungry. 40% of produced food ends up wasted. Don’t contribute to that statistic. Shop on a full stomach and you’ll buy less, waste less, and probably eat healthier too. 

2. Say “no” to plastic

Once you start thinking of plastic, it’s hard to get it out of your head. It seems like everything we eat comes double-wrapped in plastic. With some things, it’s impossible to avoid plastic but we can all take steps to avoid the truly pointless plastic. 

When you’re in the produce section, don’t use a produce bag! If you’re worried about germs, trust me, that cucumber has already seen a lot before it made it to the shelves. Just do a thorough wash when you get home. Not only does saving a bag here mean less plastic pollution, but it also helps you buy exactly what you need instead of mindlessly filling a bag with $25 of cherries. 

Another tip? Keep. A. Reusable. Bag. With. You. At. All. Times.

3. Buy in bulk

Almost half of what makes up an American landfill is food and food-related packaging! Many stores have responded to customer demands for less packaging, and now buying in bulk is an option in most cities. Not only does buying groceries in bulk help prevent plastic waste, but it’s also generally cheaper. From snacks to laundry detergent, we can now get most of our sustainable food favorites sans plastic.


4. Eat seasonally

Mmm pumpkin in autumn, juicy peaches in summer, crisp asparagus in spring—there’s nothing more delicious than eating what’s fresh and growing now. Those summer tomatoes are even more tantalizingly tasty when you also realize that: 

seasonal eating is cheaper. 

seasonal eating is better for the environment (less transport and storage emissions). 

seasonal eating is tastier. 

seasonal eating is healthier (more nutrients when produce is picked at its peak ripeness).

Eating seasonally means a more varied diet. It means trying new foods and really learning to appreciate how and when food is grown. Check out resources like this to see what’s in season near you.

5. Support local

Has the existence of grocery stores ever flooded your thoughts? Have you ever considered where you shop for food? How many different grocery stores are in your area? For most of us, we shop at a massive supermarket chain. If you’re in the U.S. you might know Kroger as the world’s largest grocery store chain. If you’re in Australia, the duopoly (monopoly x 2) of Coles and Woolworths has nearly all the power. 

I’ll spare you the details (stay tuned for a future blog) but from a social and environmental standpoint, it’s not great to support the big supermarket chains. By making a conscious effort to shop locally, you not only help out your local economy (yay!), but also eat better too. When food has travelled less miles it’s fresher and healthier. Oh, and all of this is better for the planet and farmers too. 

6. Green your shopping list

Don’t give in to those sneaky candy bars by the check out. Make a list and stick to it. Better yet, add eco-friendly products to your shopping list. 

  • Choose natural products: when looking for household products (laundry, cleaning, paper products, etc.), look for options that are Earth-friendly or biodegradable.
  • Look at labels: buy from brands that are good for the earth—organic, Fair Trade, the cruelty-free leaping bunny, and B Corp are all good places to start. 
  • Prioritize plants: start shifting towards more plant-based proteins—for the most part, they’re healthier for you and the planet.

Vote With Your Dollar

Imagine if we stopped buying packaged almonds and instead bought them in bulk? Seventy two million pounds of waste would be diverted from landfill. This seems like such a small and insignificant change but it can actually have massive impacts. Anything we do as consumers sends signals to producers and grocery stores. Demands for sustainable food have already led to increases in organics, plastic bag bans, and bulk shopping. Equipped with the knowledge of how to shop for sustainable food, we can make a difference! Keep this list in mind next time you shop so that you can take action too.