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How to Make the BEST Choice for the Environment

Zero Waste Lifestyle

Last Updated on April 9, 2020

I ask myself a lot of questions these days. Whenever I make purchases, I’m always looking to make the best choice for both the planet and my pocket book.

For instance, I recently bought some undies. Some had a plastic tag, but were made in the US. Others had no tags but were made in India.

The other pair were made in US, had no plastic tag, but were pricey. 

I find that everything is a balancing act. So, how do we make the BEST decision? How do we know what we’re buying is going to have the BEST impact? 

I started questioning this as I was riding home on the train from Rainbow Grocery. I finally got to meet the wonderful Shia from Wasteland Rebel. After many hours on online chatting, we met in the flesh, IRL. 

It was so crazy, because it felt like we’d been friends for years. I mean we have been online, but in person we didn’t miss a beat! It was also so nice to meet her husband. I just have to say they are adorable together! It’s so stinkin’ cute. 

We met up at Gracias Madre in SF which I’ve been really wanting to try. I was very, very impressed with their offerings. They’re a vegan restaurant committed to local and organic. 

From their website, “Our Menu is seasonal and determined by what is currently available at our Organic farm in Pleasants Valley, California, the Be Love Farm. Our cheeses and milks are made using nuts. Our tortillas and tamales are handmade from non-GMO Organic heirloom corn, some of which is grown by us on the Be Love Farm.”

To top it all off their menu is absolutely divine, I think I could have devoured all of it. They serve water without straws and have cloth napkins to boot! 

It’s definitely worth checking out if you’re in the SF area. 

 Photo from Gracias Madre

Photo from Gracias Madre

After we ate a delicious lunch, we headed to Rainbow Grocery. I plan to update that post with better photos, but it is the land of all things in bulk. And, I mean ALL things.

They have adaptogens, herbs, coffee, every type of dried fruit imaginable, fresh pasta, dried pasta, honey, maple syrup, the list goes on and on. 

But, the question popped up when both Shia and I were purchasing chocolate chips… 

There were organic chocolate chips and there were fair-trade chocolate chips. We spent a while debating the two. 

Which one is better? Ideally you’d want both right? 

I mean, ideally you’d be able to buy everything:

  • fair trade
  • organic
  • plastic-free
  • local
  • palm-oil free
  • vegan
  • in budget

Do you know how many things actually check ALL of those boxes? Not very many 

In fact, until this conversation moved from internal to external, I never even realized how much time I spent running down this mental checklist.

I spend a lot brain power weighing the pros and cons hoping that in the moment, I pick the BEST option. 

I’m going to guess many of you who pride yourself on being conscious consumers also run down some sort of mental checklist when looking to purchase items. 

So, how do you know you made the best choice for the environment? 

Honestly, you don’t. 

We don’t live in a perfect world. We can only do our homework, and work with what we have.

The choice I make, might not be the choice you make. That’s totally OK! We have to remember that we’re all on the same team. 

We’re all fighting for a better world, and it’s OK if we come to different conclusions as we might have different priorities. 

Being allergic to dairy, box number one for me, is no dairy. Clearly, I cannot compromise on that aspect.

Plastic-free and package free is also on the top of my list. Which means organic and fair-trade might take a backseat. 

You might however, have organic and fair-trade first and foremost. It’s OK if we come to different conclusions. We both, made the best decisions we could. 

It’s why perfectionism has no place in this movement. More than anything we need education and awareness.

Hopefully with more people making demands for products that check every box on the list, the more of those products we’ll start seeing it in the market place. 

That takes voices, and it takes people working together. So let’s support each other and work towards making a better world. 

…. but really which of the chocolate chips would you have bought? 

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  1. I’d have bought the organic ones 🙂 Organic trumps fair trade if I have to make a choice.
    I recently noticed how much energy it costs, wanting to make the single best choice based on all these boxes. It is seriously draining at times and paradoxically a cause for inaction when I keep searching for the best, not yet finding it and continuing the old way as long as I haven’t figured it out yet.

  2. Interesting question! I’d have bought the fair trade chocolate chips since there’s so much child labor in the chocolate business. Plus, they’re cheaper, and I suspect Rainbow Foods has at LEAST a trillion other things I’d want to buy…. theoretically, you could have bought a little of both to find out which brand tasted better.

    I met Shia of Wasteland Rebel a couple of weeks after discovering the whole Zero Waste movement. I was a total newbie and probably said a lot of stupid things, PLUS I didn’t realize how involved Hanno was in the movement and thought he was just hanging around for fun, PLUS I used a paper towel in front of Shia! Ha! Such a ZW beginner’s faux pas. She and Hanno are great, and it’s fun that you all got to connect in person.

  3. Great post! On the topic of faire trade v organic, I guess it would depend on where it first came from. In this case, I can’t tell from the labels where each chocolate chip option came from, so I would choose dark choc hands down because I don’t like bitter-sweet choc!

  4. For my husband and I, this is a weekly grocery shopping struggle! We have no farmers market in the winter so we have to rely on Walmart for produce. Almost ALL of their organic produce is in plastic while their non organic is often not. SO frustrating. Sometimes I forgo and wait until we can make the 1 hour drive to the organic grocery, but convenience ya know. Doubly frustrating is that our recycling center often doesn’t take the type of plastic used to package spinach and other things that we end up getting. Thank you for encouraging us to do our best while also understanding perfection is not always possible.

  5. I probably would have bought the fair trade option. I’ve come to the conclusion that sometimes, taking care of the planet means taking care of people.

    1. It’s so true, and it’s also just so hard because fair trade isn’t perfect and organic isn’t perfect either. It’s just such a conundrum. Being alive these days creates a lot of issues. If you think too much about it, I think you’ll drive yourself crazy. You just have to do your best!

  6. Great post!! It is impossible to make a perfect choice. As you said we have to make always a compromise when buying. Try your best and forget the rest! However, I am not sure that fair trade is really what we think that it is. I watched a documentary about fair trade bananas and it was terrible in which conditions they were working

  7. Thank you so much for writing this! It’s been on my mind a lot recently, particularly as I want to be vegan but I’m struggling with where to get my protein as beans, chickpeas etc wreak havoc on my gut. It’s really hard to find a balance between money, health and environment, particularly as it feels like it’s harder to be zero waste in the UK (or at least we don’t have Rainbow, which sucks)!

  8. I do have an impossible mental checklist too. In this case, I look at the ingredients and would have probably chosen the fair trade ones. The organic lists sugar first and not chocolate and seems to have “filler” chocolate rather than the real deal.

  9. This is a great post! It’s something that’s missing from the overall conversation. I find I struggle with it a little bit because while there is so much produce available in bulk, almost all of the organic produce is pre-wrapped in plastic bags. It’s frustrating.

    As for which chocolate I would purchase, I probably would have gone with the Fair Trade chocolate. It has less sugar, and I perceive it to be less processed based on the use of the cocoa beans in the ingredients list rather than blending the individual subcomponents. Also, while conventional pesticides may be used, Fair Trade standards do cover aspects of environmental stewardship that encourages farmers to think about the long term as well as their immediate production volumes. I would expect the chemical load of Fair Trade chocolate to be slightly lower than conventional. It’s also cheaper, lol.

  10. Great article! Ideally, all the items I buy would check all those boxes — except you can’t really have local AND fair trade, unless it’s a local company selling fairly traded items. Otherwise, that’s not necessarily fair trade. Next time you’re at Rainbow, you should request that they carry Equal Exchange chocolate chips in bulk! They’re organic and authentic fair trade grown by small farmer cooperatives who actually own their land – and many of the cooperatives harness biodynamic farming practices and emphasize biodiversity within their farm plots. They also don’t have any soy lecethin in them, which is something I always look out for when I buy chocolate. Emulsifiers are super unnecessary, the only companies that use them are ones that choose quantity/volume over quality.

    Also, super cool you got to meet Shia and Andrea in the same week! Congrats on your new job with Pela 🙂

  11. Thanks Kathryn, this post lifted me up! I’ve been vegetarian for years and fair trade has always been very important to me. In the past year I’ve been trying to avoid packaging, I went vegan and I’ve got some informations to make my diet more ethical (like all the problems connected to quinoa, for example). I’ve been feeling frustrated because I wasn’t able to buy everything organic, packaging free etc. etc. at the same time and reading this post made me feel better about the fact that I can’t be perfect, and that’s okay. Thank u!

  12. Hi Kathryn .Very valid concerns. So glad you did this post.I have a similar checklist and sometimes it is difficult to decide what is the best option. I would mostly choose fair trade over organic. I am in the UK and it irritates me that organic vegetables are sometimes wrapped in plastic. So I forego the organic in that instance and wash the vegetables thoroughly . We are all trying to do our bit for the environment but we should not feel guilty if we slip up sometimes! Keep the good work up?

  13. Unfortunately it is rare that I purchase organic! All the produce in my area that is organic (from the store) is packaged in plastic, and farmers markets generally only run during the year. I definitely would choose fair trade over organic though. My justification is that I am already doing my best to live a healthy life, and to forgo organic to ensure that a product was produced ethically and that the workers were treated properly trumps my desire to eat something certified organic. Love this post!

  14. I have the same dilemma between Apple cider vinegar, one is from a big brand (not cruelty free) and comes in a glass container and another is from a local brand that comes into a plastic container.

  15. Thank you so much for this post! This checklist is always there when Im shopping. Every couple of weeks I have this debate with my coffee. I already have to drive across town to get bulk beans and then I have to decide betweenness organic, fair trade, or rainforest certified. I can never make up my mind and tend to get something different each time! I know pesticides are a big issue for coffee so I lean toward and organic, but I am also starkly aware of the consistent loss of forested habitat. What can ya do?!

  16. I can’t decide if using white board markers on a glass white board is better got the earth than using a piece of paper… As the white board obviously saves paper, but the marker is made from plastic and will eventually need replacing… I try to use scrap paper, and shred it when I’m done.

  17. Great and much needed article! I would’ve picked the Fair Trade 😉 Part of Fair Trade regulations and requirements include making proven progress towards environmental sustainability and organic practices. Fair wages and non-exploited labor is definitely not part of what an "organic" labels stand for… just look at the massive banana corporations that have embraced organic for profit.