The challenges of being an ethical shopper

It is not surprising that online food sales skyrocketed during the pandemic. While COVID-19 restrictions changed how people shopped for food, other considerations also played into the shift. In an effort to combat food waste and know more about the origins of their foods, people subscribed to services such as meal kit providers, “ugly” produce purveyors, and boutique “farm to table” companies. While these companies offer valuable services to consumers, troubling questions have arisen concerning their practices.

Ugly vegetable green radish and carrot with sprouts on a dark wooden natural background out of a paper bag

Critics say that subscription services that claim to rescue produce destined for the landfill are instead diverting foods that would otherwise go to charity. While calling themselves environmental stewards, the companies also ignore topics such as overproduction and consumer waste. “These niche markets might be displacing established local efforts to reduce food waste and distribute uglies to food insecure households,” says Lindsay Craig of Vassar College. “Instead, they cater to health-conscious clientele and ultimately fail to address the larger issue of macro-scale farm overproduction and household waste.” Phat Beets Produce,  an American food justice collective based in northern California, has echoed these sentiments, stating that venture capital-backed firms such as Imperfect Foods “are commodifying need and undermining food banks and CSAs.” The companies dispute these claims.

Troubling issues are not limited to ugly foods or online merchants. Recently an ex-employee of “farm to door” meat purveyor Belcampo reported that the company was lying to consumers about where it sourced its products. The company, which claimed that it offered products from “vetted partner farms” has admitted to mislabeling meat, but insists this was an isolated incident from a single store.

Stories like these make the task of being an ethical consumer difficult. It can be all but impossible to track where a package of supermarket beef originates, so many people turn to online companies that tout their environmental consciousness or smaller entities that vouch for the provenance of their meat or produce. It seems that these options are also fraught with issues.

I have tried some of the ‘ugly foods’ subscription services and found them to be lacking for issues other than those described above, although that also factored into my decision to cancel. I have settled on local food cooperatives as the best solution for my household. While we can get most of our groceries from them, we must supplement with supermarket items. Not everyone has easy access to cooperatives and they can be prohibitively expensive, so this is not a panacea. Attempting to be an ethical consumer also takes a lot of time and energy, privileges not afforded to everyone.

Even though it is challenging to shop ethically – and I do a far from perfect job of it – I still strive to do so. I know that a single person’s actions will not solve anything, but my philosophy is that I would rather be a miniscule part of the solution than a small contributor to the problem.

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  • whitewoods  on  May 27, 2021

    Nice blog post. Very well reasoned. I like what you wrote about “time and energy”. Now I just have to go read some of the articles that you linked to. I’m actually kind of surprised that the meal-kit providers even try to market themselves as environmental. I’ve never used one, but I always thought it was simply for convenience, health/freshness, and to reduce waste within an individual household, but I didn’t really see it as anything beyond that. That seems like a bit too much of an extension.

  • averythingcooks  on  May 27, 2021

    In 2017, CBC’s Marketplace ran an investigation (including hidden camera footage) into claims made by certain vendors at many of Ontario’s open air farmers’ markets. Footage from this episode (title = “Farm Fresh?”) included scenes of specific vendors (who claim to be selling food grown on both their own & neighbouring farms) loading cases of produce onto their truck at the Ontario Food Terminal in Toronto (more than 100 km from their advertised farm) and removing the stickers (like those you see on grocery store produce) as they transferred fruit & veg from the boxes to bushel baskets. When asked later in the morning, this particular vendor looked right into the camera and said “all of my produce is grown on the farm my family has owned / worked for 3 generations and trucked fresh here to customers”. As you can imagine, it went somewhat south from there. Of course, many (hopefully most!) farmers market vendors are on the up & up but I’ve NEVER forgotten that particular episode.

  • ccav  on  May 27, 2021

    Thanks for this thoughtful post! I feel that some stores (Whole Foods in particular) that claim to be ethical are no longer. Since Amazon’s purchase, Whole Foods has gone down considerably in quality and has stopped carrying so many small companies’ products that were of excellent quality, after they have copied the products under their own label. Also, everything seems to be very “pre-fab” in the bakery area, and elsewhere. It’s like shopping in a food warehouse with crazy prices. I try to avoid them as much as I can these days.

  • eliza  on  May 27, 2021

    This is a thoughtful piece Darcie! I also strive to be an ethical shopper and like you I feel I’m privileged be able to do that. I’m lucky to have several Mennonite owned stores nearby, and I trust them, so I tend to buy meats and eggs from them.
    Averythingcooks, I remember that Market Place episode well, and I think it’s still on YouTube… it was very informative.

  • Larkspur  on  May 28, 2021

    I used to have a chart that a person researching the ethics of farming made and two of the most ethically produced crops at the time were carrots and lentils. I wish I remembered where it was from so could link to it, but I got it when I took the Ethics of Eating course.

  • Vanessa  on  May 30, 2021

    For what it’s worth…
    I’ve been subscribing to Misfits for a year now. I love everything about it except the packaging. The convenience. The variety. The tastiness of their products. The weekly deliveries. And by the way, in spite of their slogans, I’ve seen almost NO ugly veggies.

    I’ve previously subscribed to various CSAs… and typically here one has to go pick them up (perhaps 15-20 minutes away) but anyway there’s hardly any in town any more. And a CSA only lasts for a few weeks of the year.

    I’ve gone to farmers markets… but they only occur at specific times and places and take 20-30 minutes of driving each way to get to, and that’s both inconvenient and automobile-intensive. And the farmers markets are only open a few weeks of the year, too.

    Last I checked, I’ve got to put food on the table daily, 365 days a year. And I have to work for a living. That means I would like a steady supply and wide variety of food available with a minimal amount of effort. I appreciate the one source’s (clearly pre-pandemic) perspective (I’m a graduate of the STS program at Vassar, too!) and it’s very romantic. But it’s the perspective of a young person … “feasts with friends”, “meeting actual farmers” … very lovely. Now tell me what you’re eating in December in Poughkeepsie?

    Also, I am not won over by the assertion that disruption of the current systems of food delivery by a for-profit operation selling vegetables is necessarily a bad thing just because profit is involved.

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