Ethical Shopping by Billee Sharp

On any given morning when the crumbs and empty cartons in the kitchen suggested somebody’s  midnight cereal supper I would run down to Safeways and buy a half gallon of their own brand organic milk.  Safers is the only real grocery within easy walking distance of our house so  I’ve been championing them, praising their organic agenda to anybody who would listen. The Safeways  Organics brand offers not only all the dairy goodies but a whole slew of essentials for north American cosmopolitans including righteous crackers, tomato paste and olive oil. The idea that I was perambulating in fine eco-style, often with my own re-usable shopping bag appealed to me, as did the notion that big business was embracing the ethical shopping desires of the masses.

I was totally bummed when I read Robert Gammon’s article last December “ Green Washing Milk” which explained how Safeways and other well-known brands were selling organic milk that was actually produced in factory farms. There is a loophole in the Federal organic standards where the regulations call for “access to pasture” for cows. This can be interpreted as just that, so long as the cows get to wander in a field they can be fed in an overcrowded disgusting feed-yard standing in their own excrement and over-milked three times a day. The two giants in organic milk production are Dean Foods and Aurora,  the latter supplies Safeways Organics. Both companies maintain massive farms with huge herds and conditions for these creatures is not very much better than for their “conventionally farmed” comrades.

I felt duped when I read about the milk (also Dean Foods=Horizon, I’m sad to add) and it has made me suspicious of the Safers butter, cheese and sour cream, which presumably all comes from the same beleaguered livestock. Nowadays if there is an early morning milk shortage I have to drive up to Mollie Stones which doesn’t open until 8am, this means the kids have to have black tea before school and the delicious Strauss milk, almost twice as expensive in its quaint recyclable glass bottles comes with its own extra carbon hoof print thanks to my car.

At nearly six dollars a half gallon of Strauss, this kind of ethical shopping is borderline out of my league. I was not sorry when one of my kids recently announced that he considered himself lactose intolerant and I mentally reduced the costly ethical milk bill.

However his preferred rice milk has its own ethical issues, namely the foil-lined tetra pack. These ill-concieved containers  neither recycle nor compost and a wide range of ethical foodstuffs come almost exclusively in this kind of dubious packaging. My macrobiotic recipe book has a rice milk method that could be achieved in one of those glorious Strauss milk bottles but I’m just not there yet with time or inclination and frankly I may never be.

Packaging is one of my main tweeks as I strive to shop ethically on a limited budget. Trader Joes, packages heavily and I’ve written them a note suggesting that they reduce a few layers (the wee individual envelopes for each teabag) the non-recyclable coffee canisters etc. Greenpeace suggested to its members that we start a branch-specific campaign to get TJs to reconsider its fish policy which ranks 17th out of 20 grocery stores in California for its disregard to sustainable fishing practices. There was a lot of unethical printing out of petitions etc to bring this consumer activism to fruition so I just stopped buying fish there instead.

My concerns as a wannabe ethical consumer are mainly around information, it seems half the stuff I buy isn’t the pure and blessed manna that I’m hoping my extra few cents will afford.

Recently when researching  suppliers of organic fairtrade coffee for the Mission Casbah we heard several times that fairtrade isn’t necessarily the right-on way to go. Some argue that the fairtrade guidelines don’t actually secure fair prices for the workers and that individual relationships between suppliers and farms without the FT mechanism work better.

It’s not easy to shop ethically, with controversy raging around organic agri-businesses like Earthbound farms, which suffered e coli in their spinach and other greens. And with fresh produce shopping the packaging demons reappear- so much unrecyclable plastic wrapping. Sometimes I wish I was some kind of conceptual artist and I could build some huge Koons like artifact out of the unrecyclables that crowd my kitchen cupboards and conscience.

I thank the goddess for the weekly farmers market, despite the un-eco driving and  endless gas-guzzling parking scenario down at Alemany, our hard-working Nor Cal organic farmers bring their untainted fruits and veg and we stuff it in our African baskets and gratefully bring it home.

Striking a balance between the desire for ethical consumerism and the restraints of a family budget reminds me of the dichotomies that both Wendel Berry and  Levi-Strauss (not the milk guy) identify. Where Levi-Strauss identified nature and culture, the raw and the cooked, as the two realities for humans, Wendell writes at length about our human perceptions of nature, of how wildness becomes attractive to us when we are looking at it from the distance that our civilization creates.

He cites an insightful story of two Sonora Desert oases, both bird habitats which were subjected to different environmental conditions. The first A’al Waipia in Arizona, was made over as a bird sanctuary by the Arizona Park Service, they removed the  native Papago Indians who lived and farmed nearby in an attempt to make the oasis more “natural”. When the irrigation  ditches dried up and there was no annual seed stock floating in,  the heterogeneity of the habitat was lost  and so were the birds. At the second oasis, Ki:towak in Mexico, the Indians continue to farm nearby, the oldest man in the village is the designated caretaker of the oasis: cleaning springs and ditches and planting trees. There are twice as many bird species at Ki:towak as at the Arizonan bird sanctuary. It seems that the birds with their tiny brains know better than us that life on earth really is interconnected.

Even I can see that the pure wilderness idyll is as much a fantasy as our desire to be ethical consumers in a culture that still values profits more than sustainability.

“Green Washing The Milk” Robert Gammon, East Bay Express, Dec 2009

“Getting Along With Nature” in ‘Home Economics’ by Wendell Berry, North Point Press, 1987

Billee Sharp lives and struggles with all kinds of ethical spaghetti in San Francisco. Her book, “Fix It, Make It, Grow It, Bake it : The DIY Guide to the Good Life” is published by Viva Editions/Cleis Press on 22 April, 2010


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