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How to Make Eco-Friendly Choices at the Supermarket

You Can Shop Chain Stores and Care About the Environment

You don't have to schlep to a farmer's market on weekends or go to a specialty grocery store in order to be an environmentally conscious grocery shopper. You can be eco-friendly even if you shop at your local supermarket chain store.

Shop the Outer Aisles First

If you select most of your purchases from the outer aisles, you're more likely to be an eco-friendly shopper.

The outer aisles of most supermarkets contain produce (fruits and vegetables), dairy, and meats rather than highly refined, processed items like cookies and chips.

Whole foods don't contain additives. Baked fish, grilled chicken & steaks are whole foods. A frozen fish stick? No.

Examples of Sustainable Foods

Fresh fruit

Fresh vegetables

Unpolished grains

Raw nuts & seeds



Non-homogenized milk

Meat, chicken, & fish*

Buy Whole (Unprocessed) Foods

Buying whole foods that have not gone through a lengthy manufacturing process is an easy way to shop in an environmentally friendly way.

Whole foods are unprocessed, unrefined, and edible in their natural state—ideally without modifications or additives. However, if you buy produce that has been shipped from afar, it may contain synthetic preservatives.

Eating more whole foods than processed foods isn't just good for the earth. It's also good for you!

Buying local produce and opting for organic foods are two easy ways to shop earth-friendly.

Buying local produce and opting for organic foods are two easy ways to shop earth-friendly.

Look for Locally Grown Produce

When they're in season and plentiful, local fruits and vegetables will often be available at local chain stores.

Local produce is usually fresher than produce that's shipped from out of the country or out of state, which means it contains more nutrients, and that's good news for consumers. Also, lots of energy (in the form of fossil fuel) will not have been expended in order to get it to your local store, and that's great news for the planet.

Look for locally grown asparagus at the supermarket in spring. Here in southern Maryland, local corn, cantaloupe, strawberries, and tomatoes are often available in summer, and local mushrooms may be found throughout the year. Usually, the words "Grown Locally" are scrawled on a piece of cardboard and propped up near the display.

Key Terms

Knowing what food labels really mean will help you make eco-friendly choices.

100% Organic: In the U.S., a 100% organic label means that the food is free of hormones, pesticides & additives. Organic fruits, vegetables, and grains are raised without artificial fertilizer.

Whole Foods: Foods that are unrefined and/or unprocessed, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, are considered whole foods. Foods that have undergone very little processing, such as beans and non-homogenized milk, are also usually considered whole foods.

Natural: Some items you may buy at the supermarket, such as cosmetics and hygiene products, may be labeled "natural." Natural products do not contain petrochemicals (chemicals derived from petroleum). The synthetic chemicals they do contain are identical to compounds found in nature.

Select Organic Foods

Reach for products that bear an organic label.

Organic labels usually indicate that the foods have been raised (at least to some degree) without hormones, pesticides, artificial fertilizers, or other synthetic additives.

If you're shopping in the United States, organic foods will either bear the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic logo or the logo of a specific certifying agent.

Currently, the USDA recognizes three "levels" of organic foods:

  1. those that are 100 percent organic,
  2. those that are labelled "organic" and contain 95 percent organic ingredients, and
  3. those that are labeled "made with organic ingredients" and contain 70 percent organic parts.
A box, a plastic carton and a wrapper? That's a lot of packaging for a dozen cookies!

A box, a plastic carton and a wrapper? That's a lot of packaging for a dozen cookies!

Avoid Products With Excessive Packaging

Have you ever noticed how some products are smothered in packaging? Certain brands of bread, for instance, are wrapped in plastic and placed inside plastic sleeves.

Cookies, chips--even sliced apples--are sometimes individually wrapped and sold in packaged sets. Yes, they're handy for lunches, but they produce lots of waste. The same goes for individual bottles of water and soda.

Give them a miss. Instead, opt for products with less wrapping or purchase earth-friendly bulk buys for even less garbage.

Keep Reusable Shopping Bags Handy

Keep reusable shopping bags handy to avoid using plastic.

Store them in the trunk of your car or some other convenient location so that you don't forget to take them with you to the grocery store.

You can purchase reusable bags for general use as well as thermal bags for hot and cold foods, and drawstring mesh bags for produce.

My 2008 Earth Day reusable grocery bag is still going strong!

My 2008 Earth Day reusable grocery bag is still going strong!

Recycle Plastic Bags

Some supermarkets make it easy for you to recycle plastic grocery bags by providing locations, usually at the front of the store, where you can drop the bags off once you're through with them.

You can also send some plastic grocery bags straight to the recycling center along with the rest of your recyclables. If you have single-stream recycling, also known as fully commingled or single-sort, you can toss any plastic grocery bags that you don't repurpose with the rest of your recyclables.

© 2012 Jill Spencer