We’re increasingly hearing the words “sustainable”, “ethical” and “higher-welfare” being used to talk about the food we buy. We’re also hearing that it’s better to eat local, seasonal food, and that we should watch out for food miles.
But what does all of this actually mean, and how are we supposed to know what’s best to buy? Throw “value for money” into the mix too, and you can end up with a real headache…
What does “smart shopping” mean?
Essentially, it means buying the food that best meets your needs. It sounds obvious, yet smart shopping is a lot harder than many of us realise. This is because we, as humans, are tuned into buying what appeals to us, what is marketed at us and what we are told we need.
Everybody’s priorities are different. For some of us it’s about locality, for others it’s about environmental footprint; for some it’s about what tastes best, and for others it’s purely an issue of price.
The opposite of smart shopping is buying food without really considering any of these factors. Unfortunately, “un-smart shopping” – where consumers visit the same supermarket out of habit, without a list or meal plan and just buy things that look nice or are on offer – is very common.
Is it smarter to shop at an independent store over a supermarket?
Unsurprisingly, the answer to this question isn’t simple. There are pros and cons to each. Again, it’s a matter of your values, your priorities and the access you have.
Unless you live in a very rural area, you’ll most likely have a supermarket within a short drive or walk from your home. Supermarkets get bad press for being “too big”, but most of them offer incredible convenience and a great deal of choice. Yes, they sell a lot of food that can be bad for you in large quantities, such as fizzy drinks, cheap confectionery or mountains of fatty snacks. However, they also sell fresh vegetables, safe and quality proteins, and ingredients that can transform any meal from OK to incredible.
Independent stores can be brilliant, but there is never a guarantee that the food they are selling is “better” than that bought from a supermarket. It all depends on the ethos of the independent and how it’s managed. In most countries, a decent grocer, butcher, fishmonger or farm shop will offer a high-quality product with a local story to tell. These shops or stalls come with the benefit of a more personal service, a passion for what they do and hopefully a connection to where the food has actually come from.
Since the 1980s, around three quarters of all butcher shops in the UK have been forced to close. Those that remain are the ones that either have a loyal following of regular customers, or they offer a product and a service that the supermarkets can’t match. Whether it’s a quality butcher or an artisanal deli, they have the opportunity to really excel at what they do and become experts in their area – a service most supermarkets will fail at if they offer low salaries and little stimulation for their staff.
Do food miles matter?
Food miles generally refer to the distance a food product has travelled, from where it was produced, to the shelf in the shop. Whether or not they matter, depends on your priorities. If you like buying things produced locally to you, to support your local industries, then yes they matter. If it’s about the environment, then they may be totally irrelevant.
From an environmental point of view, it could be more environmentally friendly to ship fruit or veg from a hot country than to heat greenhouses in a cooler one closer to home. But what about products such as coffee beans or cocoa that only grow in hot and tropical countries? This doesn’t deter most people from enjoying coffee or chocolate.
Generally speaking, if your own country can produce great quality, affordable products of its own, it makes little sense to import those same products from abroad.
Seasonality and food miles are linked. For example, the UK can produce amazing quality strawberries in the summer. Therefore, eating them in the summer means they are fresh, local, sustainable, delicious and you’re supporting local producers. If you live in the UK and want to eat strawberries in the winter, you’ll be forced to import them. They’ll most likely loose quality and flavour, and will have a higher environmental footprint.
Eating local food that’s in season is something we should all do where and when we can. It’s more ethical and can also taste so much better!
By taking these factors into consideration, we can all learn how to shop a bit smarter. Being mindful of what we’re consuming and why will help towards a more sustainable and environmentally friendly food industry that nurtures both small and large businesses and champions good quality, better tasting food.
In part two, I’ll be comparing the animal welfare practices of some of the bigger supermarkets and outlining some pointers to show you how to embrace a more ethical weekly shop.