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A new wave of packaging-free grocery stores offers a new way to eat ethically.

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I aspire to be an ethical consumer of food. Because it would be nice if my dietary choices didn’t treat the planet like a pinata, I want my tomatoes to be organic, my beef to be grass-fed and my sustainable shrimp to be slavery-free. The problem is that I can’t afford all that. Have you seen how much this stuff costs?

The free app Sweat and Toil makes it easy to look up child and forced labour in commodity products. And information is power. But money is power, too. Choosing food that’s organic, for example, can cost as much as 60 per cent more than food that’s not. I can buy don’t-ask-don’t-tell shrimp for $8 a pound, but clean Selva shrimp, sustainably harvested from mangroves in Vietnam, is $30/pound. That is beyond my means. And I’m not alone.

A Canadian study published in the social science journal Social Forces in December, 2018, Ethical Consumption as a High-Status Practice, investigated the relationship between ethical consumption and socioeconomic status. From a sample group of 828 respondents, only 16.4 per cent of people who earn $20,000 to $40,000 identify as “ethical foodies.” But among shoppers who make more than $100,000, it’s 44.3 per cent.

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The study suggests that ethical foodies tend to be wealthy, but reality suggests that they have to be. And that is a problem because if only the wealthiest of us, who represent the smallest part of the population, can afford to truly prioritize morality in our food choices, then the ability of ethical purchasing to effect meaningful change in our food-supply system is limited. But while that may be true, there is some hope: An emerging retail model is helping to challenge the paradigm that ethical consumption costs more by helping consumers reduce both packaging and food waste, even if it does take a little effort on their part.

For the authors of the study, freeganism (avoiding complicity in an exploitative economy by dumpster diving for food) is a viable (and free) ethical consumption choice. But if the only moral path available to the majority is for us to eat garbage, that’s begging for a French revolution-style uprising.

Thankfully, they also suggest simply making different food choices: “While there are clear status associations with ethical/foodie eating, we don’t want to say that you have to be rich to eat ethically," study co-author and University of Toronto sociology professor Josée Johnston says via e-mail. "You could eat a lot of beans and lentils, instead of seeking out grass-fed beef tenderloin. We want to acknowledge the status/wealth associations of ethical eating without creating too simplistic a picture of the possibilities for being moral in the marketplace.”

Eating plenty of beans is a fine solution for my household. On a larger scale, however, a new wave of stores offering environmentally friendly food options, plus opportunities for saving, gives me another way to shop ethically. I’m referring to packaging-free grocery stores, such as Precycle in Brooklyn, or Nada in Vancouver, and the just-opened Unboxed Market in Toronto.

Packaging is a huge source of our garbage problem. And food packing in particular is a significant part of that problem. According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, one-third of household waste in Canada is food packaging. And only 20 per cent of that is recovered through reuse and recycling.

At Nada, which opened in June, 2018, customers bring their own reusable containers, weigh them on a scale that prints a sticker label (so checkout scanners know to deduct the container’s weight), fill them up (with food items such as almonds, pumpkin seeds, pasta, kimchi, olive oil and non-food items such as shampoo) and pay at the end. Although the startup does not yet have the economy of scale to compete with Whole Foods on price for commodities such as rice, sugar and flour, many items are cheaper, specifically those that would usually be purchased in costly glass packaging.

“There are some products where the cost savings are huge. But it’s very product specific,” says founder Brianne Miller, citing olive oil and tomato sauce. “The cost of the jar in relation to the actual spaghetti sauce is really high.”

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In many cases, Nada works directly with producers, such as Denman Island Chocolate, to eliminate wasteful packaging on the supply side. The chocolate, which is local to the store and has a supply-chain transparency that Miller is proud of, is bought in bulk and sold in chunks, retailing for half the price of the fancy supermarket, where it’s available in bars, wrapped in bright packaging.

But this model holds shoppers responsible for the physical and mental labour of bringing (and washing) their own containers. So, while the market has presented this solution, is the effort – a psychological hurdle compared with the ultraconvenience we’re used to – too much for consumers?

“Education is the biggest aspect of our business,” Miller says. “A lot of people think that shopping package-free is inconvenient and you have to lug a lot of containers. But you don’t need to be. If you have Ziploc bags, those work just as well.”

Saibal Ray, a professor and academic director of the Bensadoun School of Retail Management at McGill University in Montreal, sees it a little differently.

“People will say, ‘I would love to do it,’ but people will not do it,” Ray says. “You are telling these people they have to bring their own bags, so in some ways, you are putting a lot of the costs on the consumer. But are you giving them the benefit?” he asks. “Unless you do that, there will be the same strata of society you are attracting.”

Ray says the only way to change consumer choice is to save people time and money. “For the majority of people, the price matters most, especially for food items,” he says. “Unless convenience and price are part of the equation, it will be very difficult to convince the majority of the population.” This is especially true for families with children, he adds. But that still leaves urbanites without kids, which is a significant group if you can get them on board.

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Nada tries to make shopping at their store easier for those who may be unprepared by selling jars, and also offers free sanitized yogurt tubs donated from nearby office fridges. Even if bringing my own container is a hassle, I’d rather take them up on their offer than accepting the waste of paper and plastic every time I buy 250 mL of flax seeds.

Our values and priorities change with time. When we phased out smoking in restaurants or started charging five cents for plastic bags, merchants and consumers kicked up fuss. But as food costs keep rising, the savings of the no-packaging movement might appeal as much, if not more, than the environmental concerns. Or the ability to buy a single sprig of cilantro, or two eggs, which package-free stores such as Nada also offer, rather than purchasing and wasting more than we need.

The often-repeated stat, that half of our $31-billion food waste happens at home, is juked to blame consumers. The number is based on dollar value rather than weight. I’d have to throw away 25 heads of lettuce to waste $100 of food. At the farm or sorting plant, $100 worth of lettuce would be many times that. The real source of waste is industry-based. But that doesn’t let us off the hook. We still throw away 275 kilograms of food per household. Strategies for refusing food we don’t need can make a significant change in that wasteful habit.

Some ethical purchasing choices cost more because we’re paying fairly for the labour of others. Others require us to invest our own labour. The challenge, then, is questioning what that effort is worth to us.

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