Greenwashing the Groceries

*A version of this post originally appeared in Freakonomics.com.

The news that In.Gredients, a “package free, zero-waste” grocery store, will debut in my home town of Austin, Texas, is certainly cause for optimism. The store, which will be located on the rapidly gentrifying east side of town, is bound to find an eager market of young, progressive consumers raised on a steady diet of environmental ethics, especially the unmitigated horrors of plastic. In addition to its quest to eliminate waste, the store, according to its press release, also promises to promote local and organic food, thereby achieving a trifecta of green grocer bona fides. It should do well.

That said, I think the brains behind In.Gredients vastly underestimate the environmental implications of their bold idea. The tawdry rhetorical appeal to reduced packing, local production, and organic food might resonate with an audience accustomed to associating these traits with eco-correctness. But the carbon-footprint complex isn’t so simple. Fortunately, in this case (and somewhat coincidentally), it happens to be far more consistent with the store’s purported mission.

Don’t get me wrong. Efforts to reduce waste, buy local, or go organic generally make sense. But their impact, I would suggest, is far more modest than advertised. Packaging can be wasteful, but it also extends the life of perishable food, thus increasing the chances that it’s purchased and consumed before it rots and (as usually happens) is trucked to a landfill (where, unlike plastic, it emits methane).

Local food can shrink a product’s carbon footprint, but again, it rarely makes that dramatic a difference. After all, only about nine to eleven percent of a food’s overall energy profile is used in transportation. And organic, well, this is a hot button, but with organic produce requiring vastly more land to achieve yields similar to conventional produce, it can contribute to agricultural sprawl while threatening natural biodiversity. And for those who think organic produce is pesticide-free, think again.

So the reasons that In.Gredients highlights to justify its eco-correctness are, upon closer inspection, flimsy. Call it grocery store greenwashing. The good news, however, is that the store’s bold plan to revolutionize the way we buy groceries–in particular its heavy emphasis on bulk foods with long shelf lives–strongly orients the store away from extensive meat and meat-based products and toward such low-impact (and non-processed) items as dried legumes, whole grains, and nuts. This factor, more than any other, is why the place might very well earn an ecological gold star.

I’m well aware that conventional wisdom celebrates the environmentally responsible diet as one that’s comprised of local, organic, and package-free food. It’s easy, achievable, and makes for good copy in the foodie press. In point of fact, though, the single most ecologically influential decision a retailer or consumer can make to achieve a lower carbon footprint would be to reduce as much as possible its reliance on meat and meat-based products. With rare exceptions, these products are, no matter how they’re produced, the most energy-hogging foods on the planet. What we buy and eat matters far more than where it comes from, how it’s produced, and whether or not it’s packaged. And it’s on this point, more than any other, that In.Gredients promises to do something genuinely original.

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About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

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