There are lots of ways we can make our weekly shop more sustainable. The choices that are right for you are your own, but I’ve compiled some improvements to consider associated with the weekly shop:
- Reducing plastic packaging
- Reducing pesticide use
- Reducing carbon footprint
I am regularly surprised by the amount of plastic that accompanies my weekly visit to the supermarket, or that comes with my grocery delivery. Oh, and I’ve heard it – everyone has likely heard it – the cucumber scenario. Every debate about plastic use in the supermarket inevitably comes back to cucumbers. Yes, I accept that a cucumber can last up to 5 times longer when wrapped in plastic. News headlines have drilled this into my head as the singular example justifying all other plastic packaging.
Ok, keep your cucumber wrapped in plastic. But what about the thousands of other fresh items that I can buy? What about my courgettes and my aubergine? (That’s zucchini and eggplant for you Americans.) Potatoes, carrots, and tomatoes? Do they have to wear plastic, too? Not all grocery delivery services think so. Below we will look at alternatives, primarily fruit and vegetable delivery, that have the potential to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic associated with the weekly shop.
Choosing Organic Produce
I will caveat this section by stating up front that I realize not everyone has the luxury of buying organic. It is so annoying that organic produce costs more and can be harder to find. This post is not meant to make anyone feel guilty for choosing cheaper groceries or shopping at the most competitively priced grocery stores. I completely understand that choice – we all have to feed ourselves and our families, and we do that the best way we can with the constraints we face. Understanding the above, we will still look at why organic produce is more sustainable for those able to make the switch.
First, organic farming relies primarily on natural methods of pest control and does not allow the use of chemical pesticides. On occasion, as a last resort, organic farmers can use a small set of naturally derived pesticides as a (like citronella and clove oil….and if you’ve ever used a citronella candle or arm band to ward off mosquitoes, you’ll appreciate the difference in these methods of pest control versus DEET). Organic farming reduces the amount of chemicals that enter the environment, and therefore does not negatively impact biodiversity in the way that chemical pesticides do.
Organic practices also carry the highest standards of animal welfare: from living conditions and feed, to transportation and slaughter. And, here’s a tip, if that word, slaughter, just made you uncomfortable, it is a sign that you might have a passion for animal welfare. It is all too easy these days, with our meat butchered and packaged up in plastic, to forget that slaughter was ever a factor in its production. But, it is an inevitable part of the carnivore’s food supply chain, so worth consideration.
The carbon footprint associated with our food has many elements. The largest is the production of that food itself. As this article is focused primarily on fruit and veg box delivery, we won’t dive into the various footprints associated with different foods. For the purposes of this article, we are focused on the footprint associated with getting your weekly shop to you, rather than what is in your weekly shop.
It is no surprise that the travel miles associated with your food are a good place to start when thinking about your weekly shop. There are the miles between the food and your local distribution center (as in, how far did your vegetables travel to get to the shop), and the miles between your house and the shop or distribution center.
We can reduce the carbon footprint associated with our weekly shop by choosing produce that was grown closer to home. This is a tough one for me. I grew up in a hot climate with fresh tomatoes and blueberries every summer, and it pains me not to have hot weather veg on my doorstep. So, I won’t say I’m perfect – I do indulge on imported produce. But, I just try to be sensible, and make the bulk of my weekly delivery seasonal and relatively local. For me, that means no asparagus from Peru or Kenya except on special occasions.
Fruit & Vegetable Box Delivery
I have found that relying on a fruit and vegetable delivery service helps me to improve the sustainability of my weekly shop in all three of the above ways. There are lots of options here – from local farms that provide the service to more national and international companies that leverage farm cooperatives. I encourage you to investigate the options local to wherever you are. In the USA, look for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) options by which you can buy a share in a local farm’s production and have that delivered to your door.
I have tried delivery from local farms and multiple food box delivery companies, and my top choice here in the UK is Abel & Cole. I have been a subscriber to Abel & Cole’s weekly veg box delivery for 10 years, now, and I have been regularly impressed with the ethos of the company and benefits of using a fruit and veg box delivery service.
Before I go into some of the benefits of using the service, I will address the obvious question that will inevitably come in a time of high inflation: yes, like for like, the fruit and veg I buy is more expensive than in my local shop. More on that below. To start, let’s have a look at what’s in a typical fruit and veg box delivery:
You’ll notice the lack of packaging in all but a few cases. Paper is used to keep things like potatoes and carrots fresh, and where plastic is necessary, you can return plastic packaging to be used again.
Benefits of a Weekly Fruit and Veg Box
1: A wide organic selection. I love the seasonal fruit and veg that comes pre-selected with my weekly delivery. And, if I ever want to supplement this with other produce, meat, pantry items, or just about anything else, I can easily add to my order from their online shop.
By working with mostly local farmers in the UK, Abel & Cole ensures that animal and land welfare are at the heart of production for the goods they sell. I also like knowing where my food comes from – and it is nice to read up on the farmers that are producing for Abel & Cole which is possible on their website, and also via the inserts they provide in the boxes.
2: Less plastic packaging. Abel & Cole use reusable cardboard and paper packaging wherever possible. Every week they drop off a box and collect the previous week’s box to use again, along with any of the previous week’s packaging that can be used again. Abel & Cole estimate they have prevented the use of 65 million plastic bags since they were founded in 1988.
They have recently rolled out a plastic recycling scheme which has been a game changer for me. They now collect the plastic bags that comes with all your other groceries (you know, the ones you can’t recycle curbside but have to take to the shop….which means, for me, the ones I forget to take to the shop and therefore take up half my garage) and recycle them for you. This means that not only do Abel & Cole help you avoid using plastic bags in the first place, they also make it easy to recycle the ones you can’t avoid.
3: Lower food miles. A lot of the items I buy from Abel & Cole are produced in the UK. For ones that aren’t, like bananas, they maintain a zero air freight promise. All goods delivered to your door get there without the jet plane.
Smart delivery planning is also a key element of Abel & Cole delivery – the delivery days are coordinated to serve different areas on different days, reducing the miles their drivers have to cover, and therefore reducing their carbon footprint.
At first I was a little surprised I had to get my delivery on a Thursday, and that I couldn’t adjust the time of day (post COVID we are used to getting what we want delivered in the 59 minute time slot we want it), but once I understood this was because they plan out the delivery routes around clusters of customers in different neighborhoods, I quickly got over it.
4: Certified B Corp. If you aren’t familiar with B Corp certification, it is worth reading up. With arguably the toughest ESG certification system in place, B Lab ensures that B Corps are thoroughly evaluated and assured to be not only environmentally and socially responsible, but forces for good in the community.
Why my veg costs more, and why I accept it
No, I don’t like that my veg costs more. I am frugal nearly to a detriment most of the time. That being said, I accept it, maybe in part because I think about it from an economic perspective. The number one reason my groceries are more expensive is because I buy organic produce whenever possible. Sadly, organic produce is more expensive almost all of the time for a number of reasons.
Reason 1: Supply and Demand
Organic produce was traditionally more expensive, in part, because the market for it was smaller. There are fewer producers of organic produce operating in the global food market than farms and producers using pesticides. Organic harvests typically have lower yields than non organic, because pesticides reduce crop loss. All of these factors mean that the supply of organic produce is smaller than the supply of general produce – and smaller supply means higher prices.
That being said, one of the things that will help organic produce to get cheaper over time will be increasing demand for it. It works like this:
Step 1 – more people want organic produce (demand increases)
Step 2 – companies recognize there is a market need not being met, so they produce and sell more organic produce (supply increases)
Step 3 – increasing supply brings the price down because more competitors in a market means price competition.
So, my rationale is that if those of us who are able to buy organic do so, we are doing our part to increase the demand for organic produce, and contributing to Step 1 in the above. And, boy is it is working. The global organic food market more than doubled from 2010 to 2020 (growing from $59.1bn US to $120.6bn US), according to Statista. Research Dive states “the Europe organic food market is expected to hold the largest share and generate a revenue of $183.9 billion over the estimated period. This is mainly because of the rising demand for organic food among people of this region to adopt healthy lifestyles.”
Before we get all rose-tinted-glasses on the issue, though, let me be clear: the steps above will not likely mean that organic produce will cost the same as general produce in future. We are nowhere near to that reality in markets today.
What we are aiming for is more competitiveness between the two, so that the premium associated with organic produce comes down. Coupled with subsidies aimed at capturing externalities in food markets, this could mean that in some nations you get close to parity in future. [for more on externalities and government policy, see Why does sustainability cost more?]
Reason 2: Farming practice
Let’s face it, pesticides were introduced for a reason. They are extremely effective at increasing crop yields. It is not a coincidence that during the time that the use of pesticides has increased (between the 1960s and today), the average crop yield has also doubled for key crops, like maize and wheat. Removing pesticide use from all farming would cause prices to skyrocket and people to go hungry in the short term.
In tandem with increasing use of pesticides and machinery, we have also seen the rise of industrial farms, and monoculture. Agricultural monoculture describes farming in which a single crop dominates a large tract of land. Think of it as the difference between your garden at home, where you might have tomatoes growing next to beans, versus cornfields in Iowa where you might drive for 10 miles and see nothing but corn.
But, now we know pesticides are harmful to the people who work with and consume them, and to the environment. We are also learning that years of pesticide use is having unintended consequences – like reducing biodiversity – that are negatively impacting yields. There is emerging evidence suggesting that we won’t be able to rely on pesticides to keep yields high forever – or, at a minimum, the pesticides we use will have to continue evolving in order to maintain current productivity levels.
There is now a focus amongst scientific researchers in the field to try and work out the best way to reduce pesticide use while preserving yields. We are learning that monoculture also has detrimental impacts on the land and surrounding ecosystems. But, this will not happen overnight. The market will need to transition from today’s production methods, which have been successful in feeding a much larger global population than previously possible, and the production methods of tomorrow that can hopefully keep up with population growth, reduce hunger, but without compromising the earth.
Reason 3: Market Segmentation
I spent many years pricing products for corporates, and I can tell you from experience, price setters are no dummies. The good ones can sniff out rising demand before it even hits a market, and will increase the prices they charge for products accordingly. One of the reasons that organic produce costs more is because the word ‘organic’ commands a price premium. It segments the market because many consumers are willing to pay more for organic products based on reasons #1 and #2.
Unfortunately, this can create a bit of a flywheel effect – reinforcing the organic premium, and meaning in some cases that organic products are not actually more expensive because the inputs cost more to produce, but because the clever product marketeers know they can charge more for it.
The risk with market segmentation is that it may allow the organic premium to hang around longer than it naturally would. If, in the future, it is not significantly more expensive to produce organic goods, due to increasing supplies, improved technologies, and policy support, you may still find that the price tags of these goods remain high compared to their non-organic counterparts.
Lucky for us, this should be a temporary problem, at least theoretically. Over time, additional players will enter the market (that just means more companies will get into the organic product game), and that competition will drive prices down to where they should be.