Shopping with Conscience

Grocery shopping used to be so easy.

As a student, long before a husband and children, living on part-time work and a meager student allowance it was a case of eat what you could afford to buy: Then it got more complicated. Full-time work meant grocery shopping was slotted into a limited timetable, even though the available expenditure may have improved. A partner meant catering for their needs as well (more meat and beer!); the addition of children meant a trolley load that became fuller as they grew.


Throw in to the equation the addition of distance, and weeks and kilometres between town days meant an enormous trolley load of shopping at the check-out, and about a quarter of our wage allocated to toilet-paper, macaroni, bananas and porridge oats---and all the necessities that weigh both the family car and budget.


All this despite the fact we supply our own meat for the table (we do live on a farm running beef cattle and prime lambs) and most vegetables are gleaned from the garden.


These are the nuts and bolts of grocery shopping for all families. Groceries consume a large whack of everyone’s wages.



According to Peter Singer and Jim Mason, in their book “The Ethics of What we Eat”, “food and beverages” form the largest component in Australian weekly household expenditure. Though that book was written some time ago, I doubt that situation has changed.


It is not the cash outlay, or the sheer logistics of moving children and at least one over-loaded trolley to the car every fortnight, that makes shopping a nightmare: it is the ethical minefield one has to negotiate every step of the way through the neatly signposted aisles that causes me to break out into a light headed state of zombie-like indecision every shopping day.


Due to the location of our home (100km from the nearest supermarket) and the size of our extended family (seven plus guaranteed extras), shopping had been refined to a fine art. Home-brand or Black and Gold items were first choice. We stuck to basics; flour, rice, pasta, milk and staples.


Our budget gives us little room for extravagance; our lifestyle choices mean we are comfortable with that. We grow food, we bake cakes, and we have pots of soup and stew simmering on the stove in winter. Life is almost as simple as it can be in an increasingly complicated world. We used to be able to shop in about 30 minutes, even with children, with a well thought out list that ensured that we didn’t forget anything important and risk having to drive back to town for a box of matches.

But this simple routine has been complicated by increased knowledge of the politics behind food production, and the realization that, as a family which includes farmers and a rural journalist, we can not ignore the ethics of food any longer.


It now takes us more time to shop. Until we have the new process streamlined and we know where what comes from, we diligently read labels.


Why bother? Well, we have always been concerned about where our food comes from, and now we are increasingly concerned about how it got on to our table. How was it produced? Were the animals comfortable to the point of their death, and the people involved in the production of the food well treated? Were chemicals used in the production? If so, which ones? Is it genetically modified? Has it travelled from the other side of the world? Are the farmers being paid adequately for producing it?


The first dilemma to be resolved is the choice of where to shop. Until recently the IGA we shop at was locally owned; it has changed hands but it is still not owned by a multi-national, and it needs our support. So we shop there for most items, and when we can we support the newly created growers’ market. For these choices we pay a price, but there are other advantages. The queues in our supermarket of choice are never as long and tedious as those at the bigger “fresh food” supplier, and our shopping experience is usually pleasant.


That solved, there is the question of what can go into the ‘trolley of good”.


Work on a large cattle feed lot near our home, and experience with caged meat rabbits, convinced us that animals in cages or pens are not a good thing. Any meat consumed either has to be grown by us, humanely slaughtered (shot while eating and totally unaware of a nasty turn of fate), or free range.


With that in mind, buying meat at the supermarket means only the free-range chicken fits the bill, and if we have to buy beef, we try to find grass raised steaks.


Then there is the thorny issue of milk. When we milked our own cow, this was easy. Now we have to choose between milk that may come from cows in Western Australia, but is packaged and sold by companies based in the east of Australia, or, worse still, may be owned by a subsidiary of Nestlé. As our family long ago stopped buying Kit-Kat bars and any other Nestlé product (yes, that includes Milo!) as a protest against its aggressive marketing of infant milk formula in developing countries, this becomes really tricky!


When Nestlé bought Peters two years ago, rationalizing the business and sacking workers, that was another nail in the Nestlé coffin. Then attention focused on palm oil the company was purchasing which could be directly linked (according to Greenpeace) to the destruction of tropical rainforest providing habitat for the already endangered orangutan, and that was it. 


The pressure on Nestlé may have worked, and the company received a score of 8 out of a possible total of 9 in the WWF Palm Oil Buyers' Scorecard 2011. This report measures if major retailers and consumer goods manufacturers are acting responsibly in terms of palm oil use and sourcing.


But brainwashing works incredibly well, whether for “good” or “bad”, and our children won’t touch anything with a Nestlé logo on it, and one of our daughters says the company’s chocolate still tastes like blood.


Stuck in the milk aisle, this issue alone could govern our choice about where to shop. In our local IGA store we are expected to pay what seems a fair price for a product which has cost a great deal more than $1 a litre to get to the shelves. Knowledge of farming, and the energy intensive nature of dairying, means we could not possibly join queues in Woolworths or Coles with a trolley that included cut price milk. As farmers, that is just unfathomable.


So, as far as we know, there are only two WA milks on our supermarket shelf (today!) and of those two, the more affordable product produced by Harvey Fresh is not necessarily a knight in shining armour when it comes to ethics: recently the company was found guilty of mixing non-WA juices with its locally acquired fruits, laying waste to its claim to be a “local” company producing a “local” product. The alternative is a Western Australian product packaged in eco-friendly pouches, delicious to drink but expensive for a family our size.


We can’t afford the beautifully packaged biodynamic alternative, and the food miles and fossil fuel used to truck it from Victoria hardly seems in to the trolley goes the Harvey Fresh.


Following diary restructuring in the eastern states of Australia, perusing the milk shelves must be even harder – yogurts made in Victoria from milk from NSW; cheese made in Tasmania from milk from where? Japanese owned companies trucking litres of milk from one state to another for processing…what sense does any of that make?


Milk dilemma solved: on to the cheese. Every now and then there are blocks of tasty WA produced cheddar on display, and regardless of price, one kilo of that rests more easily on the conscience than a product trucked from NSW.


Yoghurt is easy, even though the biodynamic product may be more ethical, this week there is no such choice, and it is a tub each of the Mundella natural and wild fruits that nestle alongside the non- Nestlé goodies in the wire-basket. Memories of time spent at that particular dairy as an agriculture student in the 1980s mean that I could not bear the guilt that would result from their demise if it occurred due to lack of support from WA buyers.


And on we go. At the end of the shopping spree, we have in our trolley: Australian rice, crackers, muesli (not from a Nestlé subsidiary), pasta (GM free: its not so much about the science of genetic modification as about the influence of Monsanto on agricultural world-wide), canned corn, tinned spaghetti and peaches; Western Australian oranges, mandarins and potatoes, milk, yoghurt, cheese and bananas. We have even managed to source honey and olive oil that is grown on farms close to our own, within 10-50km of the supermarket.


We have bought flour produced by Millers, a WA company which says on its packaging that it is “unashamedly small, beside the giant miller baker groups.” When a company

claims that it is “...proudly 100 per cent Australian-owned and operated and works closely with the WA wheat growers who supply of our wheat,” it is hard not to include it on the list.


As treats we have bough a large box of Carman’s muesli bars; who can resist the packaged history which tells of a small company which grew from a university student’s passionate encounter with muesli production to a company which produces the yummiest, GM free bars, “proudly Australian”.


As for chocolate, Cadbury’s is the weekly treat, even though its production pedigree is not as easily traceable as it used to be, the Fair Trade logo it provides some soul food, though sometimes some of the more expensive, organic and Fair Trade options available sneak in to the basket if we are feeling flush (even though we are now aware that Green and Black’s is owned by Cadbury, in turn owned by Mondelez International…).


And for the drive home we have a bag of popcorn which claims to be organic, Australian made and owned and GM free---but does include some imported ingredients.


There are some items included that prick the conscience. We have bought two packets of Black and Gold chocolate biscuits, made in Fiji, and some canned tuna sourced from Thailand (but dolphin safe!). Our logic here is that the people of Fiji need some income too, and there is simply no Australian canned seafood on our supermarket shelves, today. (We need to go fishing!)


Relatively comfortable with the week’s purchases, but well aware that the decision making process is flawed and that I am as guilty of hypocrisy as the next person, I line up at the check out thinking that I am getting a handle on this new way of shopping. Though the items we are choosing are costing us more, we are buying less, so the overall budget is not suffering.

However, two thoughts flash through my mind: one is that I really do need to download

one of those Shop Ethical! 2012 apps before this shopping really does do my head in.


The second is “why bother?”. The answer to that comes to me as I re-read Singer and Mason’s book.


As they say: “No other human activity has had as great an impact on our planet as agriculture. When we buy food we are taking part in a vast global industry.”


“We are all consumers of food, and we are all affected to some degree by the pollution that the food industry produces.”


Not only that but “In addition to its impact on over six billion humans, the food industry also directly affects more than fifty billion non-human land animals a year. For many of them, it controls almost every aspect of their lives, causing them to be brought into existence, reared in totally artificial, factory-style production units and then slaughtered.”

That sobering thought is combined with further reflection on the impact we have, as consumers, on all living creatures.

“All of this happens because of our choices about what we eat.”

As the authors point out, we can make better choices. And when we make choices which include consideration of the source of the product we buy, we may find we are helping Australian farmers provide us with the products we really want.

While Australian farmers are geared for export, it does not mean that we can’t, as consumers, have an impact on domestic markets. We can choose to buy products that we think reflect the value of the farmers work. We can choose to take time to think about where our food comes from.

It seems incredibly hypocritical to protest loudly about issues like live export, when we give so little thought to food production in other ways. If we want pigs to be run less intensively, then those of us who eat pork need to buy free range pork, or ask for it.

We need to be consistent in our stance on food…think about where it comes from, who grew it, who made it…and at what cost does it come to us so cheaply?