Does Sustainable Supermarket Shopping Actually Make A Difference?

Does Sustainable Supermarket Shopping Actually Make A Difference?

Whenever I need reminding of my good fortune, my parents will tell me of their lives growing up in Poland during the years of communism. Then, the task of shopping for groceries was typically determined by government allocated food stamps.

“My folks, back in the day”

After joining the masses in the biting cold, they would often be met by a store cleared of stock save for lonely bottles of white vinegar and bags of salt. Whatever was left would have to do.

For me, life in inner city Melbourne in 2017 is a little different to Poland in 1986, especially when grocery shopping. Greeted by cosmetically perfect apples, individually wrapped cucumbers and Indonesian durians beaming at me from the shelf, stunningly out of season. I feel like entering my supermarket is a nauseating carousel of choice, cashier robots and distraction. Thanks Coles, how did you know I was desperate to try the new-limited-edition-soft-fajita-flat-based-taco shell?

A simple trip to cook my lazy Wednesday night meal should be a swift operation of gathering three ingredients: pasta, pesto, and tuna. Yet, I find myself bedazzled with choices, confused by labelling and paralysed by compromises. Let’s set the scene.

The great wall of pasta

Despite my conviction for spaghetti, do I actually really want spirals, or shells, macaroni, penne, bow-ties, elbows or pappardelle? Maybe I should buy fettuccine, made with free range quality eggs and only 6 minutes cooking time? Though is it worth the extra $2? No, we’re sticking to spaghetti. Am I sure this is really what I want? Not anymore.

Tuna: industry debacle

When animals enter the supply chain things become quite complicated. I want to buy sustainably sourced because fishing industries have notoriously violated the balance of ecosystems through wasteful overfishing. It’s standard for large fishing operations to use purse-seine nets that circle around schools of fish and often catch turtles, sharks, and other species endangered by these indiscriminate fishing techniques in the process. In an effort to to avoid products linked to overfishing, by-catch, endangering species and slavery, I sit in the aisle flicking through brand websites on my phone. Can’t say I was confident in my final choice.

Pesto: filler no thriller

You’d imagine the tantalising combination of olive oil, basil, cheese, pine nuts and a neatly pinched mound of salt is a nutritionally sound addition to this dinner ensemble. Think again.
When I examine the ingredients list I am hard pressed to find those listed as the top ingredients. More often than not olive oil and pine nuts aren’t even given a casting call. Instead we’re looking at fake fillers and cheap substitutes, great. Which begs the question, how far can you stretch a recipe before it no longer resembles the thing it claims to be? Am I even eating pesto anymore?

what is this comedy GIF by BBC

Are you exhausted? I am.
I certainly don’t want to dismiss the privilege of this situation. To have these choices is a privilege of access, convenience and economy (albeit humble). I have always believed that for every purchase we make, we support that business and how it does its business. When I shop at the supermarket I do so with the belief that I am making a stand for local producers, ethical supply chains, eco-friendly packaging, and my hip-pocket. Then I read an article that changed everything.

A 2012 study compared footprints of “green” or conscious consumers who to try to make eco-friendly choices to the footprints of consumers who don’t make purchase decisions based on ethics. They found no meaningful difference between the two. In this savage piece about consumer non-impact, journalist Alden Wicker makes the point that globally, we’re projected to spend US$9.32 billion in 2017 on green cleaning products. “If we had directed even a third of that pot of money toward lobbying our governments to ban the toxic chemicals we’re so afraid of, we might have made a lot more progress by now.”

Like me, you may feel defeated by this news.  But actually, this changes the game. If this is an issue that you care about too, fighting with the established movements is where our efforts will have most impact. Swap the hours of mid-aisle breakdowns for volunteering with organisations. Donate the cash you would otherwise spend on biodynamic rice to support lobby groups like Animals Australia or WWF (if animal welfare is your thing). Or seek out the policy makers that speak on our behalf, here’s the link to find your representative.

What this has taught me is the dilemma at the supermarket is just the noise. It seems we need to make a stand at the source. The question you need to ask yourself if, what’s your beef? Palm oil linked to deforestation? Plastic pollution? Factory farming? Your energy helps these movements, you can channel it to make an impact.

With all this in mind, I do think it’s interesting how the generational cycle churns. At the end of the day, if I wanted to be clear of any doubts of the quality and sustainability of my humble dinner, I would have grown that basil myself, rolled that pasta, churned my own pesto and left that fish in the ocean.

Is that so radical? It’s what my grandmother would have done. But she didn’t get a choice.