The Impact of Your Grocery Choices: Nitty-gritty (2023)

Q: Can the choices you make in the grocery store really impact the environment?

Asked by Monica Jain, '85, Carmel, California.

A casual stroll down the aisle of a grocery store shows that determining the environmental impact of a particular food item is not easy. The food industry plays an important role in environmental issues such as deforestation, land use change, water wastage and excess fertilizer runoff. Not to mention the greenhouse gas emissions associated with agriculture, shipping, and food processing and storage. Carbon emissions are a good indicator of many of these environmental issues, so here we focus specifically on the climate impact of food.

An increasingly popular method of assessing the environmental performance of an item is to conduct a Life Cycle Analysis, also known as a Cradle to Grave Analysis. The idea is to look at the CO2 emissions or other environmental impacts at every step of the production of a given food, from planting the first seed to the final product that ends up in your shopping cart – or even better, to the empty container, if you have one is recycled into a new product.

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Take a bottle of ketchup, for example. First you have the raw production of all the ingredients, mainly sugar and tomatoes. A lot of pesticides, fertilizers and water go into this production. A lot of fossil fuel energy is used to plant, spray and harvest the crops. The harvested raw products are transported - more CO2 emissions - to factories where they are processed into secondary products such as tomato paste and sugar solution; the by-products meet at the ketchup factory; and the final product is packed in bottles that have gone through their own production process. The finished product is delivered to the stores and eventually reaches your home; When the ketchup container is empty, it goes to the landfill or, one hopes, to the recycling center.

Sounds like a lot of steps to consider? This is just the simplified version! As you can imagine, doing this for every food item on the market is a lot of work, but it also helps consumers make informed choices. Several certification organizations have come together to perform this type of analysis on food and other products, and “carbon footprint” or “environmental impact” labels could one day be as common on food as nutritional labeling is today.

Climate impact testing and certification is just beginning and perhaps soon everything we buy in stores will have a carbon footprint label. But in the meantime, here are a few things to think about to help you make a rough LCA while you're in business:

The closer the better.The farther away a product was made, the more carbon was used to ship it to you. In the United States, products travel an average of 1,500 miles from where they are manufactured to their final destination, burning fossil fuels the entire way. If you shop locally, you're not only likely to get food with a lower carbon footprint, you're also likely to get fresher food that wasn't harvested while it was severely underripe. Try to buy seasonal fruits and vegetables; They're the ones that weren't raised in South America or in energy-guzzling greenhouses.

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The Impact of Your Grocery Choices: Nitty-gritty (1)

CO2 emissions of different food groups based on household, price, energy content and mass. (Source: "Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States", Environmental Science & Technology)

Less processing means less carbon.Many environmentalists claim that the largest CO2 emissions in a food product come from its production, not its transport. For example, frozen carrots have a three times larger carbon footprint than fresh carrots due to additional processing and freezing. Cooking your own lasagna from fresh ingredients is tastier, greener, and more rewarding than any pre-made, microwavable kind, even if it's organic.

packaging = waste.When we buy groceries, we often think about the quality of the groceries themselves, not the packaging. However, packaging requires a lot of finishing from plastics and other materials that usually end up in landfill. It's also a huge source of carbon emissions. A simple example: making plastic yoghurt containers uses twice as much energy as any other part of the production process – including making the yoghurt. Whenever possible, buy products in bulk to minimize packaging, or at least opt ​​for products with recyclable or reusable packaging. The packaging also comes into play at the checkout: paper or plastic? You might be surprised to learn that plastic bags have themlower associated CO2 emissions, they are also reusable as garbage bags. Of course, it is best to bring your own bag.

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Eat less red meat.Livestock farming alone is responsible for 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Buying more sustainable meat products can help reduce local pollution, and even switching to a different type of meat can have an impact on your carbon footprint: dieCO2 emissions from beefare eight times the size of chickens.

Know the labels.The popularity of eco-friendly food has led to numerous misleading claims from the food industry. Before you buy a product with a green claim, check what the label really says. For example, all "organic" certifying agencies must follow USDA guidelines, but the "free range" label is only required for poultry, and the "freedom" of "range" might be a lot less than you think. When choosing products to buy, look for specific certification body logos, such as: Importantly, going organic makes a bigger difference with some foods than others – pay particular attention to produce that is typically grown with heavy use of pesticides.

Visit the farmers market.If you haven't already shopped at the local farmers market, you should definitely try it. Warmer climes may have an advantage, but farmers markets can be foundpractically everywhere. Food purchased from these locations meets almost every one of the recommendations listed above: it's local, fresh, seasonal, unpackaged, and often organic. Farmers' markets also avoid other food-related sources of carbon, like super-bright supermarket lamps and open-top refrigerators, which can account for up to 30 percent of carbon emissions for products like beer, according to Climate Conservancy's analysis. And because farmers' markets eliminate some resource consumption and retail markups, produce is often cheaper.

So how much difference can each of these changes make? A recent report quantifies the carbon savings related to something we know and love: mileage. Switching from the average American diet to an all-local ingredient equates to driving 1,000 fewer miles a year. Giving up red meat can result in even bigger carbon savings: 750 miles by simply switching to chicken once a week, and 1,000 miles by switching from red meat to a vegetarian meal just once a week. So what are you waiting for? It's time to cook up a delicious meal while also enjoying all the energy you're saving - the way I see it, that balances out my dessert, doesn't it?

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More information about your supermarket selection:

1. “The Long Shadow of Raising Livestock: Environmental Issues and Options', Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

2. Foster, C., Green, K., Bleda, M., Dewick, P., Evans, B., Flynn A., Mylan, J. (2006).Environmental Impacts of Food Production and Consumption: A Report to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.Manchester Business School. Défra, London.

Heide Benz plans to receive her bachelor's degree in Earth Systems in 2010.

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What environmental impact does groceries have? ›

Each year the average grocery business emits 1,900 tons of carbon dioxide from the electricity and natural gas needed for operations — that's equal to the emissions of 360 cars.

How do our food choices affect the environment answers? ›

What we eat matters. The food choices we make every day have a big effect on the environment. The good news is that even small changes in what we buy and eat can add up to real environmental benefits, including fewer toxic chemicals, reduced global warming emissions, and preservation of our ocean resources.

What negative impacts do our food & shopping choices have on our environment? ›

These gases, including methane and carbon dioxide, trap heat in the atmosphere and are a significant cause of climate change. Food also takes water to produce, and when we waste food, we're wasting all the water, energy, and other resources that went into it. There's packaging to consider as well—oh, so much packaging.

How does food and eating habits impact the environment? ›

Food needs to be grown and processed, transported, distributed, prepared, consumed, and sometimes disposed of. Each of these steps creates greenhouse gases that trap the sun's heat and contribute to climate change. About a third of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions is linked to food.

What are three environmental factors that influence your food choices? ›

This article reviews research that examines factors having an influence on food choices in: 1) social environments, such as family, peers, and social networks; 2) physical environments, including schools, child care, worksites, retail food stores, and restaurants; and 3) macro-environments, such as socioeconomic status ...

What are the 5 environmental factors that influence food choices? ›

Environmental factors can also have an influence on our food choices. These are aspects of a setting, atmosphere, or location that influence an individual's choices. Layout, marketing, climate, weather, price, and availability are examples of environmental factors.

What are the impacts of food choices? ›

If we get too much food, or food that gives our bodies the wrong instructions, we can become overweight, undernourished, and at risk for the development of diseases and conditions, such as arthritis, diabetes, and heart disease. In short, what we eat is central to our health.

What has the greatest impact on food choices? ›

'Taste' is consistently reported as a major influence on food behaviour. In reality 'taste' is the sum of all sensory stimulation that is produced by the ingestion of a food.

What impact do you think your food choices have on your body? ›

Adults who eat a healthy diet live longer and have a lower risk of obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers. Healthy eating can help people with chronic diseases manage these conditions and avoid complications.

What is social impact of food? ›

Food touches on every aspect of human life: the environment, agriculture, our economy, health, even our social lives. Social gastronomy “uses food to turn social inequalities — such as hunger, poor nutrition, unemployment, inequality — into dignity, opportunities and well-being,” says Hertz.

What are 4 environmental impacts in food production? ›

Drought, flood, extreme heat and extreme cold are already affecting crops. But new advances in sustainable agriculture are rooted in regenerative practices based on a whole ecosystem approach.

What has the biggest impact on the environmental impacts of the food system? ›

Agriculture is the single biggest cause of deforestation globally, accounting for approximately 80 percent. Drivers linked to food production are also responsible for 70 percent of the planet's terrestrial biodiversity loss. Changes in land and sea use are the main regional threats to populations in all regions.

Why is it important to reduce the environmental impact on food? ›

Simply put, reducing food lost or wasted means more food for all, less greenhouse gas emissions, less pressure on environment, and increased productivity and economic growth.

Does unhealthy eating habits also impact environment? ›

Many less nutritious foods and drink account for nearly a quarter of diet-related greenhouse gas emissions, the research team found, after studying more than 3000 generic foods and 40,000 branded items. The study confirms that unhealthy diets also tend to be bad for the planet.

What social factors influence food insecurity? ›

It may be influenced by a number of factors, including income, employment, race/ethnicity, and disability. The risk for food insecurity increases when money to buy food is limited or not available. In 2020, 28.6 percent of low-income households were food insecure, compared to the national average of 10.5 percent.

What are the ten 10 factors affecting food selections? ›

Factors that Drive Food Choices
  • Taste, texture, and appearance. Individuals have a wide range of tastes which influence their food choices, leading some to dislike milk and others to hate raw vegetables. ...
  • Economics. ...
  • Early food experiences. ...
  • Habits. ...
  • Culture. ...
  • Geography. ...
  • Advertising. ...
  • Social factors.

What are the effects of change in food habits? ›

Poor nutrition can affect your health in many ways, not only can it lead to certain diseases but it can also affect your mental health, energy levels, complexion, and your overall well being. In the short term, poor nutrition can contribute to stress, tiredness, and our capacity to work.

What are the factors that influence and impact a sustainable food system? ›

A food system's sustainability is influenced by natural and human factors. These factors interact with each other within a food system. For example, the availability of water and land for food production is influenced by human actions, while human choices are influenced by environmental conditions.

What two main factors affect our food choices the most? ›

  • Taste Preferences. Taste preferences often are cited as a primary motivator of individuals' food choices (Drewnowski, 1997; Drewnowski and Levine, 2003; Drewnowski et al., 1999). ...
  • Personal and Social Factors. ...
  • Employment Status. ...
  • Acculturation. ...
  • Access to Personal Transportation.

What are three 3 implications of poor food choices on our health? ›

In the short term, poor nutrition can contribute to stress, tiredness and our capacity to work, and over time, it can contribute to the risk of developing some illnesses and other health problems such as: being overweight or obese. tooth decay. high blood pressure.

What are the main social impact? ›

This can include improving people's health, increasing access to education, promoting equality, and supporting the local economy. Organizations and individuals striving for positive social impact generally focus on improving the world by addressing social issues and promoting positive change.

What is your social impact? ›

Social impact can be defined as the effect on people and communities that happens as a result of an action or inaction, an activity, project, programme or policy. (Ps. that's not a complete & definitive definition, but we like it). People want more from the businesses they work with and buy from.

What is an example of a social impact? ›

What is social impact? Social impact is the positive change your organization creates to address a pressing social issue. This can be a local or global effort to tackle things like climate change, racial inequity, hunger, poverty, homelessness, or any other problem your community is facing.

What are the 3 main impacts on the environment? ›

The list of issues surrounding our environment go on, but there are three major ones that affect the majority of them overall: global warming and climate change; water pollution and ocean acidification; and loss of biodiversity.

What is an example of environmental impact? ›

Humans impact the physical environment in many ways: overpopulation, pollution, burning fossil fuels, and deforestation. Changes like these have triggered climate change, soil erosion, poor air quality, and undrinkable water.

What are the 3 factors that affect environmental impact? ›

Air, water, climate, soil, natural vegetation and landforms are all environmental factors.

What are the disadvantages of having bad food choices? ›

Junk food can result in long-term damage, going for unhealthy food stuffs like French fries, pizza, pastries and candy can increase your risk of developing depression, obesity, heart disease and cancer.

What are the impacts of food loss and waste? ›

Globally, there is growing consensus that we need to take action to address food loss and waste. Food that is produced but not eaten ends up in landfills and creates methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. When food is wasted, all the resources used to produce it are also wasted.

What are the four major problems that affect the world's food needs? ›

We are in the midst of a devastating global food crisis. Conflict, climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic and soaring food prices have led to a steep rise in hunger in countries across the world.

What are the two main impacts of food waste on the environment? ›

Expand. When food is thrown out and breaks down in the oxygen-starved environment of landfill it generates methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Composting prevents this sort of pollution. For every tonne of food waste not sent to landfill, almost one tonne of CO2 emissions is saved.

Why is it important to reduce food loss and waste? ›

When food is lost or wasted, all the resources that were used to produce this food - including water, land, energy, labour and capital - go to waste. In addition, the disposal of food loss and waste in landfills, leads to greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to climate change.

How do individuals food habits affect their health and happiness? ›

Research tells us that plant-based diets are associated with healthier mood states. The more fruits and vegetables people eat, the happier, less depressed, and more satisfied they are with their lives.

How can eating healthy impact the environment positively? ›

Adopting plant-rich diets would use less land, produce less greenhouse gas, require less water and improve animal welfare.

What factors influence unhealthy eating? ›

Attitudes, beliefs and knowledge about food.
  • Biological determinants such as hunger, appetite, and taste. ...
  • Economic determinants such as cost and income. ...
  • Physical determinants such as access, education, skills and time. ...
  • Social determinants such as social class, culture, and social context.

Is ordering groceries better for the environment? ›

Not necessarily. Even though Amazon has yet to publicly release the study in question (we've asked), several experts Grist spoke with said that on average, ordering online often reduces the carbon footprint of grocery shopping. But the word average is key.

How do grocery stores help the environment? ›

Use our sustainable grocery shopping tips below to help you make the right choices to bring home to your family.
  1. Shop Only for What You Need. ...
  2. Use Reusable Shopping Bags. ...
  3. Choose Sustainable Groceries. ...
  4. Pick Recyclable or Sustainable Packaging. ...
  5. Buy Bulk. ...
  6. Understand Food Labels. ...
  7. Opt for Upcycled Goods. ...
  8. Shop Plant-Based.
May 12, 2022

How do grocery stores help the environment main idea? ›

Here are some steps to lower your environmental impact while grocery shopping:
  1. Find the Right Place To Shop. Shop close to home. ...
  2. Green Your Shopping List. Choose eco-friendly products. ...
  3. Green Your Shopping Practices. Buy in bulk.
May 12, 2016

What are 3 disadvantages of grocery shopping? ›

Consider the cons:
  • It can be more expensive. Depending on the store, there can be additional costs for usage and delivery fees.
  • You cannot handpick each item. Buying fresh produce can be a challenge since you are unable to see the quality of the item before you buy it.
  • You may still need to go the grocery store.

How does grocery shopping affect the economy? ›

In addition to providing jobs, healthy food retail also increases or stabilizes home values in nearby neighborhoods, generates local tax revenues, provides workforce training and development, and promotes additional spending in the local economy generated by the store and the new jobs it creates (the “multiplier effect ...

Is online grocery shopping more eco-friendly? ›

The portion of shopping that consumers do online will have a lower carbon footprint than the physical portion. If my total shopping for a month is 60% physical, then I would create less emissions than if it were 100% physical.”

What are the social benefits of a grocery store? ›

  • Community Life: Locally-owned grocery stores support the community by providing a place for people to gather. ...
  • Hometown grocery stores serve as anchor businesses for local communities. ...
  • Healthy Food Access: Grocery stores are the best local.

How do grocery stores improve customer experience? ›

10 easy ways your staff can improve the customer experience
  1. Say “Thank you” ...
  2. Stay present without hovering. ...
  3. Never turn away from an approaching customer. ...
  4. Smile. ...
  5. Establish procedures for dealing with unhappy customers. ...
  6. Encourage patience. ...
  7. Never say, “I Don't Know” ...
  8. Don't make promises you can't keep.

What is the main goal of a grocery store? ›

The major objective of most grocery store companies is to sell products and earn the highest profits possible.

How do our shopping habits affect the environment? ›

Products' packaging contributes in large part to CO2 emissions from producing plastics, polluting ecosystems as well as adding enormous amounts of waste to our landfills.

What is sustainable grocery? ›

Sustainable food or grocery shopping is the conscious purchase of food products that have little or no negative environmental impact. It entails purchasing environmentally friendly food in terms of quantity, content and packaging.

What strategies can consumers use to be more environmentally friendly when planning their grocery purchasing? ›

Opt for items with recycled content and that can be recycled. Choose items with long warranties and with low operating, maintenance and consumable costs. Avoid products with hazardous and toxic materials. Deal with suppliers that have social and environmental policies and who minimise their packaging.


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