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What is 'Sustainable' In The Supermarkets?

Updated: Feb 4, 2021

By Katie Traill

I don’t like supermarkets, period. In fact I hardly go there these days except to get items I know aren’t readily available elsewhere or if I'm disorganised(!). There are crap products, OK products and good products – this depends a lot on what you value and what ‘sustainable’ means to you. For example, plastic-free packaged food can have less impact on the environment, but what if it’s sourced all the way from China? Organic food can reduce chemical pollution in waterways, but what if it comes in polystyrene and cling wrap? These little battles drive me crazy at times, which is one reason why I prefer local greengrocers, markets and wholefoods stores. But for those who find supermarkets more practical, or don't have the luxury of having great alternatives nearby, how can you try and buy better?

The biggest tip I have is to READ FOOD LABELS. I can’t stress this enough. In Australia, we are lucky to have quite strict legislation regarding food labelling in that it must state whether or not food is sourced locally, the nutrient contents and all ingredients. There are many newer classifications becoming more common, like ‘Fair Trade’, ‘Australian Certified Organic’ and ‘Palm Oil Free’ for which most companies pay extra to put on their products. Both Woolworths and Coles now have their own generic range of organics which makes buying organic more affordable for most (Macro and Coles Organics).

Fair trade products are often hard to come by but can be found where products are generally imported, like tea and coffee. Fair trade recognises workers rights, including fair ethical labour and pay, ensuring workers and their families are not used and abused for the sake of profit.

Palm Oil is an awful product that is grown mostly in Asia and is responsible for the extensive deforestation of rainforests and local wildlife habitat. Orang-utans, human’s closest genetic relative, are now listed as critically endangered with Palm Oil plantations being the biggest contributor to this tragedy. P.O.I is a smartphone app you can use to scan supermarket items to see a) if they contain palm oil and b) if it is sustainably sourced or not.

GMOs are a foreign concept to some, a necessity to others, and frightening to many more. America is currently experiencing huge pressure from the community to include GMO products on food labels – something that is not compulsory in Australia either. So many plants and plant products are genetically modified and in many cases this has had devastating effects to environmental use of pesticides and herbicides, while very little improvement in harvest has been seen. We still don’t know much about GMOs and because of this, I make an effort to buy non-GMO where I have the choice but do not actively seek them out. Watch this space as more research comes available and companies start to alter their labelling to trick us..

The second tip I have is to BUY AUSTRALIAN PRODUCE. If a product is grown and/or made in our country it is likely to have travelled less to get to your store, has been approved by our own production and safety standards, and is more likely to support Aussie businesses. You may argue that buying internationally grown food from developing countries is supporting the poor and improving their economic growth – this might be true in some cases. I personally feel that this is not sustainable, involves extensive money and resources to transport, and can come with hidden problems, such as when Quinoa made it onto the scene as a ‘superfood’ in the Western world. When this happened, high global demand increased product cost meaning that most South-American growers, who lived on the grain as a staple, can now no longer afford to eat it.

The third and most basic tip I have is to AVOID PACKAGING AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE. For goodness sake, if you are buying a bunch of bananas, which come in their own protective packaging and are no more difficult to carry as a bunch on their own, please don't put them in a plastic bag! I have withheld many a swear word wandering through the fresh produce isle at this insane phenomenon. If you’re buying vegetables with edible skin, don’t bag them up to ‘keep them clean’ - give them a wash at home before you eat them, which I recommend you do anyway to remove pesticide residue. Buy things you eat all the time in bulk – cereals, baking items, yoghurt and rice are just some things that are available in bigger volumes. If you have to get packaged food, look for recyclable materials like aluminium cans and cardboard boxes. You can now also RedCycle your soft plastics at all Coles supermarkets - go to more information on this great service.

As a guide, ask yourself the following questions for each item you buy in this order: - do I need this, or just want this? - can I make it myself for less money/packaging? - is it locally sourced? - are there ingredients that are harmful to the environment? - can I get it packaging-free here or elsewhere? - if packaged, can I buy in bulk? - if not in bulk, is the packaging recyclable?

So this week, I recommend you choose a night to have a really good wander around the isles, take time to read labels (and not just for calorie content) and see what you find! We vote with our wallet – support brands and items that are good for us, and supermarkets will continue to stock them. For more tips and inspiration, as well as event info, make sure you're following @seedblog on Instagram and Facebook. I love messages, comments and questions, as well as shares of anything you find helpful! Thanks for taking time from your day to read this, legend.

- Katie

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