Wondering how to determine the eco-friendliness of a food item? Instead of delving into extensive research for every product you wish to purchase, you can start by posing six fundamental questions.
Knowing a food’s eco-friendly status is becoming increasingly more relevant in order to reduce our impact on the environment.
But how do you know if a food is truly eco-friendly? Short of doing a deep dive in research behind every item you want to buy, you can begin by asking six main questions.
Figuring out if a food is eco-friendly is essentially ensuring it’s not harmful to the environment. Knowing if something is eco-friendly is not the same as being able to say it’s sustainable. Sustainability looks at a much larger area of influencing factors over a longer period of term.
But it’s a great place to start.
It’s worth saying that even having the choice of buying one brand over another because of the following set of questions is a massive privilege. The majority of South Africans have to make their food choices solely based on what’s most economical.
Unfortunately, more often than not, being able to choose better, costs more.
1. How much packaging does it use?
Consider what your food comes in. Is it a raw head of cauliflower straight from the produce basket? Or is it sitting on a polystyrene tray, wrapped in gladwrap with a laminated sticker on it? Generally, the more packaging, the less eco-friendly. For cases where packaging is necessary, say with butter, a compostable paper wrapping is more eco-friendly than laminate paper that can’t be recycled. For other cases, glass jars might be better than plastic tubs, yet with beer, an aluminium can is better than glass.
Packaging impacts on:
- the biodegradability or recyclability of the container
- the resources required to produce the packaging
the impact it has on transport cost
2. Is it in season where I live?
This generally only applies to fruit and veg and offshoot products thereof. If that produce is not in season, it was either grown in a greenhouse, requiring heating or cooling energy resources, possibly also pesticides, or it’s imported. Eating seasonally to what grows in your area would ensure a higher eco-friendly ranking on your fruit and veg.
3. Where was it grown or produced?
How far has your food had to travel to get to you? This impacts carbon emissions and fuel resources. The bag of dried fruit may say ‘Proudly SA’ – but if they’re from KZN and you’re in Cape Town, dried fruits from Montagu in the Western Cape may be a more local option for you. This is a good question for a range of products like dairy, meat and eggs, beer and wine, even honey, which can all have minimised transportation processes and/or reduced cold chain storage if produced closer to home. (Mind you, proximity doesn’t necessarily equal eco-friendly – a local brewer could be wasteful of water.) But it’s a question worth asking!
4. What do I know about the production process?
Consider whether the particular food is high in resources to manufacture. Beef for example uses infinitely more water and land than plant protein alternatives. Also consider if the food is grown as a monocrop, how it influences the water and nearby plants and animals in its environment, and whether it requires a lot of additives or preservatives during manufacture
5. What do the logos mean?
There are all sorts of international standards, regulatory boards and governing bodies for environmental best practices when it comes to food production. Brands that care and align with these will go to the trouble of being vetted in order to communicate that they adhere to certain relevant eco-friendly production methods or resource management. Do a little research so you’re armed with awareness of the truly beneficial logos (versus brands that greenwash their product with eco-friendly perception elements!) and can do some empowered food shopping.
6. When am I going to use this food?
Food waste is a massive consideration. A food may have been grown locally and manufactured according to all best practices with minimal packaging, but if it just goes to rot in your pantry, then your habits have contributed to a less eco-friendly food philosophy. Buy as eco-friendly as possible, but only what you’re able to consume timeously. Collective overconsumption also puts more demand on global resources.
Ultimately, knowing a food’s eco-friendly status is a constant practice of inquiry and reflection.
However, you can drive yourself dilly if you want every product in your shopping basket to tick every box all the time. Often it’s just not that easy.
A softer approach always comes back to balance. Aim to have products, like bread and veg, that need to be bought more often, tick more boxes. Whereas luxury products like meat that may tick less boxes, can be bought less often.
After time, you’ll find an intuitive rhythm that sees you being more mindful with all your purchases as you consider these questions while you shop, versus blindly shopping by price or prestige alone. That is, if you have the privilege to do so.