Supermarket Tour Information

Part 1: Introduction

I always start with ‘why’ it’s important to think about ethical purchasing. There’s a story behind all of our stuff. A story that we often don’t see and don’t know about. This includes the conditions where something is made, how far it has traveled, where the packaging ends up at the end of its life. There are many hidden impacts. See more at Story of Stuff.

When we spend our money we are in fact giving validation to the many processes that go on behind the scenes. We are investing in all sorts of systems with our dollar – often things we wouldn’t give money towards normally or endorse with our buying power. See more on page 1 of the guide.

Ethical shopping is thinking about the impacts of our purchases and choosing products that minimise these impacts. It’s using our choices to care for the planet, other people and ourselves too. It’s being responsible for these choices, based on the information we have.

This tour will help explore the many ‘better choices’ within the supermarket. It’s worth noting that the real answers are actually beyond the supermarket. There’s a myriad of resources you can find out about at our Local Harvest website.

The key context you are explaining is this:

  1. impacts are unseen;
  2. present systems are unsustainable;
  3. we have become disconnected from the things that give us life.

You might choose to use these or use your own examples, or leave it out. Less is often more, simple often best.


Then I usually turn to the middle spread (p. 38,39) in the guide and reflect on the many issues that we could consider when shopping in the supermarket, beyond the usual cost and convenience. This is not a comprehensive list – just some we’ve come across. How does it make people feel? Ask your group. The usual answer is “overwhelmed”, “paralysed”, “Where do I start?”.

So in light of this, let’s look at 5 principles to help guide our purchases. Turn to Page 4 of guide. The principles are:

  1. Every purchase makes an impact, therefore each choice makes a difference.
  2. Avoid unnecessary consumption. Ask “Do I need it?”
  3. Learn about the issues, but don’t be overwhelmed. Take on one issue at a time.
  4. Look for the best buy. Based on what you value and what’s available.
  5. Make lasting change. Create new habits. Celebrate good choices.

These five principles can be remembered on one hand – using them is your ‘vote’.

Now we’ll be exploring the aisles and using specific products as an entry point to discuss three issues of your choosing (see table below). My favorites are Food Miles, Packaging, Genetic Engineering and Fairtrade. But best to choose ones that you are particularly interested in, or may be relevant to your group. Three issues are enough for people to get an idea without being overwhelmed. 

Before we shop

But before we shop, what do we need to remember to take with us?

  1. Our reusable bag.
  2. Our list. Know what you’re looking for. Avoid unnecessary purchases.
  3. Our money
  4. Our guides – Shop Ethical! pocket guideGreenpeace True Food guide
  5. Our brain. Good to take it wherever you go.

Part 2: Exploring the Aisles

Now you’re ready to choose your first issue (eg. food miles), go to the aisle matched in the column below (eg. canned beans), and have people turn to the appropriate guide page. Then ask your group to find a best buy according to company track record using the information in the guide. You may need to help them with following information – icon decoder (inside front page), company ratings  & criticisms p8 & 9, assessment sources p73.

Next discuss your issue: turn to the appropriate blurb page (it may not be on the first page of that product category so make sure you know it in advance). Read out the information yourself or have someone in the group do it. There is a brief overview of the issue, and a series of action points (with the arrows). After taking people through these, ask them to find a ‘best buy’ with this criteria in mind. Additional info is in Further Resources column below.

Issue Aisle 2016 Guide Page 2016 Blurb Page Further Resources
Aust vs foreign
Milk Note Aust icon in guide tables. Note distinction between Aust Owned (relates to where company is based) and Aust made (relates to where product is made)
Genetic Modification Ice cream Find a GE free icecream using the resources suggested.Have Greenpeace send you out some True Food Guides.Great video outlining issues: ‘Future of Food‘ movie
Palm oil Chips Often really hard to find palm oil free alternatives. But also really important as Orangutans only have short time before their habitat is gone if current practice continues.
Organics Health food or fresh veg



See if you can find a certified organic product?
Packaging Biscuits Hard to get biscuits that’s aren’t ‘double’ packaged. Can you find one?
Factory Farming Eggs What’s the difference between regular (caged) eggs, Barn-laid, and Free-range? more
Recycled paper Toilet paper
Food Miles Canned beans I use Heinz beans as an example, having travelled 3,131kms from New Zealand; or Lipton’s tea travelling 8,259kms from India. More info at CERES report or Local Harvest
Fairtrade Chocolate
Fairtrade Coffee
Company Record Muesli bars I usually make an example of criticisms and Boycott Call with Nestlé, sharing info from p.10. As the largest global food company Nestlé has many brands – including Uncle Toby’s (p.21). In 2010, Nestlé recorded a net profit of 34.2 billion francs (three times the 10.4 billion francs it earned in 2009). Imagine your own body growing a third each year. Huge power = huge responsibility

I suggest as you shop emphasising the concept of ‘best buy’. Know what you’re looking for. Take on one issue at a time. Know that a ‘best buy’ is about prioritising what we value. You may want to find a local organic option but in reality you may need to trade off one issue for another. See your positive choices as ‘glass half full’ rather than ‘glass half empty’. Every change to your shopping list for the better is just that – a positive change.

Also allow time for people to tell you and others of their experiences, struggles and perspectives. Often solutions or alternatives come from someone else who’s asked the same sorts of questions.

Part 3: Own task

Once you have gone through your three issues, then divide people into pairs and have them do a similar process with an item of their own choosing – something that they buy regularly. Have them:

  1. ask what is its story – what do we know about this product?
  2. choose a ‘best buy’ when looking at company record (use the ratings in the guide)
  3. introduce one other criteria and look for a best buy according to that. Usually one of the issues you’ve already discussed.

So you’re repeating what you’ve just done in Part 2, but with them choosing the product and issue.

Part 4: Wrap up

Gather as a whole group again. Ask how they found the process, what did they learn, how would they include this in their own shopping practices. Celebrate their good purchases. Restate the principles. Finish up with affirming that ‘every good choice makes a difference’ and that with today’s purchases, they have just taken a huge step in reclaiming their shopping basket!

Don’t forget to pay for what you’ve just bought!

Additional information

1. Unseen
An example of how the impact of our purchases are unseen is the Australian Conservation Foundation’s “Consumption Atlas”, which looks at the carbon and water footprint of households and compares different areas. In terms of carbon, Transport (cars) and Ultilites (power), usually seen as biggest contributors, only contributed 30 per cent combined. Just the tip of the iceberg. The unseen carbon footprint behind food contributed another 30 per cent and another 30 per cent was in the goods we buy. (remaining 10 per cent is for home renovations).

Our water footprint has a similar per cent breakdown, so you could reduce shower time from 7min to 4min and save 60 litres a shower, that’s 20,000 year. At the same time by reducing your meat consumption by two 150g serves per week, you’d save another 20,000 litres a year.

2. Unsustainable
Our present system of food production is not sustainable. It takes 3.5 calories in to produce every calorie out. In 1960 the ratio was about 1:1. This is largley due to an important discovery in 1909 by two Germans Harber & Barsh who were able to split nitrogen to make ammonium. This enables the feed stock for nitrogen-based fertilier, which is the basis for all conventional agricuylture today. It is of course based on a finite resource – oil.

So huge amount of resources and energy go in, with waste (pollution) out. In natural systems there is no concept of waste. All elements are used as part of the next part of the cycle.

3. Connection
Our culture has lost connection with the things that sustain us. Kids think milk comes from supermarket. It is only when we reclaim the knowledge about the impacts of our choices that we can be responsible for them. Connect up dots. Part of this is a ‘relocalising’ of our food. We know little about the many proceses connected with a California orange. It’s travelled over 12,000kms to get to us. We may know more about an orange from Mildura having travelled 500kms. But it’s even more likely we’ll know about the orange tree next door, that’s 20 metres from us.

Plastic Bags

Most of us have a bunch of these in our cupboards. The trick is remembering to have them with us when we reach the supermarket. There are 6.9 billion plastic bags used every year in Australia.That’s 7,000 per minute. Lots of unnecessary plastic. That often ends up as waste. So put your bag in your handbag or rucksack, or boot of your car. Treat them like your wallet or keys or glasses. Don’t leave home without them.


With regular (caged) eggs, up to five hens are kept in small wire cages with a minimum height of 40 centimetres and floor space of about 500-550 square centimetres. They have their beaks trimmed to prevent cannibalism. With barn-laid, up to 1000 chooks live in a large barn divided into pens. They can spread their wings, bathe in dust, perch and scratch for food. The RSPCA has accredited several barn-egg producers. With free-range, hens are free to move around on open ground during the day. The Free Range Egg and Poultry Association administers the FREPA accreditation scheme. more

See Sustainable Table’s Egg and Poultry chart.

Things you need to know

When thinking about the story behind stuff, it is useful to divide features into these groups:

  1. the product itself – includes packaging, nutrition content (salt, sugar, fat)
  2. the processes behind the product – includes wages and conditions (fairtrade issues), genetic engineering, food (travel) miles, animal issues (factory farming, animal testing)
  3. the track record of the companies who own the brand – involvements (military, gaming, tobacco, uranium, etc) and praises or criticisms in regards to areas of environment, social, animals and governance.