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The ethics of shopping

"Is anything sustainable foodwise?" my sister Jenny

I know I've talked about this before - the difficulty - no downright impossibility of shopping ethically for food, but as I stood dithering between one lot of bocconcini and another this morning I thought I would revisit this on a purely practical example level by taking you through a few of the things I bought this morning and what I felt I needed to consider. If I was going to be 'good' that is.

Let me say at the outset that none of the decisions I make have anything to do with being vegetarian or vegan. Neither does the fact that my shopping was in a supermarket - Coles this morning, but we're not especially loyal to any of them. I suspect that even if you shopped somewhere else you would still be confronted by the same issues.

So let's start with all the things you need to consider if you are going to shop ethically - including environmentally and healthily. Where does it come from? What's the packaging? What's in it? Who produces it and how? How does the farmer farm - does he use pesticides, and all the other stuff around farming? Is slave labour involved? Are animal species in danger? Is there animal cruelty? What does it cost? Is it healthy? I'm sure there are many more but I can't think of them at the moment.

I should also point out that who you are is a factor. If you have no or very little money then cost wins over virtually everything else. If you have some kind of real food allergy then this is also a factor. If you can't read - then throw most ethical decisions out of the window unless you pay attention to these via social media or media in general. If you are a working mother you have very little time and distractions so not much chance of being ethical there.

Anyway here are a few examples from today. Just a few. I might do this again now and then because I did not have to consider every single thing that I could today. I bought no meat or fish for example so everything involved with farming animals was irrelevant today. I think.

Let's start with that bocconcini.

Oh yes I should consider animals here. Were the cows cared for? On the left Coles home brand at a price of $20.95 per kg. On the right La Casa del Formaggio at a price of $27.27 per kg. If you have a budget then it's obviously a no brainer. Neither of them are made from buffalo milk, so there's no gourmet aspect here, and both are made in Australia from at least 99% Australian ingredients. (I wonder what the other 1% is and where it comes from?) They both use a vegetarian rennet. I dithered because by the time I got to the dairy section I had been through a few ethical decisions and was feeling a bit high-minded, so when I saw that the Coles brand had a firming agent and acidity regulator and the other one didn't I thought I would be virtuous and go with the other one in spite of the considerable difference in price. I truly thought I had made that decision but now find I actually bought the Coles Home Brand version. Maybe my hands overtook my brain. Oh and they are both in plastic containers - which can be recycled and I have no idea about the conditions in the factory that produced them. I mean how can I?

Semi-dried tomatoes. Let me say at the outset that this is not a product I would normally buy. I would make them myself, but it was an ingredient in that romesco sauce to go with the blinis for tomorrow and I was running out of time to do it myself. Which is probably not quite true, so put it down to sheer laziness. My choice (I thought at the time) was between three items but I now see I could also have got some from the deli section:

I bought the Always Fresh version - partly because I didn't want that many, partly because of price, but also partly because there were no additives other than the oil and herbs. But I forgot to look at origin. Both what I bought and the Sandhurst jar are imported from Turkey. No Australian content at all, not that the Sandhurst strips in the vacuum pack are completely Australian - only 30%, so I'm guessing that the actual tomatoes are also from Turkey. Coles deli ones - also rather larger chunks as you can see - were 95% Australian. For today the size of the piece didn't matter because I was going to blitz them in a food processor anyway. There's a considerable difference in price though - from left to right, top to bottom, the per kg. price is $15.23, $14.00, $28.00 and $36.00. That's a huge difference from the cheapest and the most expensive - both ironically from Sandhurst. I think in the end I made my decision on how many I needed. Not a terribly ethical decision there.

Tinned butter beans. This really comes down to cost over the three choices. Well without doing a taste test that is. And what normal person can do that?

All three are Italian. And all three have just beans water and salt in them, - well no - Edgell also has a firming agent - so that's probably a black mark. Why would you not buy the home brand here though - it's only $1.90 per kg as opposed to $4.75 from Annalisa and $3.00 for Edgell? Now it's entirely possible that the producers pay their staff at different rates and the staff are treated well, that the beans are of different quality but you just cannot tell from the information on the tin. So price is the winner here. Unless you want to buy them dried and cook them - although Coles doesn't seem to have any of those. I find that tinned beans and tinned tomatoes almost always they come from overseas. Why is that? Why don't we grow them here?

Toilet paper. Now this is just mindblowingly difficult. Or it was today. I suspect that some of the more ethical brands were not there. There didn't really seem to be much choice and in the end we did go for price. But it's really, really difficult. Where does the paper come from? Is it recycled or made from sustainable forests - and anyway what does that mean? Is it 2 ply or 3 ply, embossed, rippled or dyed. I always avoid anything dyed, and also embossed, and I do generally try to use recycled paper ones. Unbleached too. But it's sometimes difficult to get all three in one package. Packaging is an issue too - is it paper or plastic. As for price that also is difficult. I think you can find out how much per 10 sheets or so, but they are also different sizes and different thickness. And we live with a septic tank so that's something we need to look for too. In the end we bought this one - with these claims:

"Kleenex Plush Ply Toilet Tissue is hypoallergenic, biodegradable and septic tank safe. Made from ethically sourced fibre that promotes the sustainable management of forests, Kleenex Toilet Tissue has earned Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification - the highest possible independent standard for responsible forest management."

But then they all make similar claims - and I guess that is progress because in times gone by they either wouldn't have said, or they would not have been so environmentally aware. Still wrapped in plastic though.

I'll leave it at that for now. David bought Maltesers - which he shouldn't have done - not good for you, and there are possibly problems with the chocolate bean sourcing. Coffee beans - David bought this and so I don't know the process he went through. Probably only price, as with most people, most of the time. But coffee is also something with ethical concerns - mostly to do with growing and production.

I bought some capsicums at a pretty awful price. I would have bought their 'I'm Perfect' ones but there were none available. Which in some ways is good - I assume they had all gone - but in some ways is not. Maybe more of them should be on offer. It's a win win for farmers and consumers alike that one.

The point is that mostly we take things on trust because we either do not have the time, the money, the education or the interest in choosing every item on the shelf in an ethical manner. Yes there is a lot of information on the packaging these days, but it's in tiny print and there is so much of it, and we don't really understand it anyway. The fewer the ingredients the better is one rule to live by, plus looking for how much salt, sugar, fat ... And you can't just research thoroughly and stick by that choice because products change all the time.

Are you prepared to pay more for 'organic' for example? How do you know whether it's not produced with almost slave labour? It might be organic but the people who pick it may be paid virtually nothing. Who knows.

I'm afraid I agree with Jenny. It's just not possible to shop ethically and sustainably.


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