What it really means to shop sustainably

Posted at 7:12 AM, Mar 28, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-28 07:16:50-04

It's trendy, it's supposed to signify 'healthy and environmentally friendly'--- and it's the new buzzword in grocery shopping: "sustainability." It sounds like a wonderful concept, right?

But what does it mean?  Could it cost you more? And how can you tell if what you're buying is "sustainable" in the first place?

Zach Stein and Liz Harroun bring their own containers and bags to the store to "fill up" --- one way of being "sustainable."

"We could do small things that would make a big impact," said Zach.

They purposely shop in a store that boasts that the food sold is grown locally and sustainably. 

"It's really great that people are caring where the stuff they are buying and eating comes from," says Liz. 

What does sustainability mean?

The USDA tells us there's no official marketing definition.

But the main concepts are: people, planet and prosperity.

Food industry analyst Phil Lempert tells us, "It's that a product or a company from farm to table is doing everything they can to really protect the assets of our planet."

Is there enough locally-grown food?
Is the soil being protected?
Are farmers making enough money to support their families and workers?

So, what items in your local store are sustainable? That can be challenging.

There are some ratings systems like "How Good", which evaluates products on their sustainability, but Lempert says, "Since there's no marketing definition for sustainable, it's hard for consumers. We've got to look when we're in the supermarket what claims might be made on that package. If you're concerned about sustainability you want to go to that company's website and read up what they're doing."

We talked to the manager of a store called In.gredients, which specializes in sustainable. He says it faces its own challenges.

"What we're doing is exciting and people love it, but it doesn't mean it's easy," said Josh Blaine.

Locally-grown produce means many items are seasonal. And then there's the  matter of cost.
"It can be more expensive to source local products because we're working with smaller scale farms; we're also working with people who are trying to do right by the environment," said Blaine.

But, shoppers like Liz and Zach say it's worth doling out more green to go green.

"Paying a little bit more to know what I'm buying, where it comes from, is definitely something I'm okay with" said Liz.

Will the USDA make a marketing definition for sustainability? Congress may have to initiate the first steps.