Ditching the Supermarket

Approximately an 8 to 10 minute read

The choice to shop at the supermarket really seems to be a no-brainer. You can get everything you need at one location, you're back in the car before the kids get to melt-down stage, and it’s cheaper there than anywhere else. It seems too good to be true. 

In this article we’ll explore the complex web of connections and consequences attached to  the cheap convenience on the supermarket shelves.


What's the real story?

When you compare prices between a cheap supermarket brand item and the more expensive, ethically produced version, you're comparing only what’s on the labels.

If you need it at the cheapest price in monetary terms, then obviously you buy the supermarket brand version.

But if you can afford to consider the other aspects that make up the price of this item, there is so much more to consider than just what you'll pay at the checkout counter.

Where did it  come from? Who benefits? Who else pays (besides you, the buyer)? What are the consequences, short and long term, to people, communities, and nature?

In other words, what’s the REAL story?

With the supermarket brand, the story is hidden because it's not a story that's going to make you feel good about buying it.

Ethically produced products tell us their story on the package. The fact that they want you to know where the product came from is one of the ways you know that the seller cares about the impact they’re having on people and nature.

This food on our plate has a story to tell.  It has been on a journey.  It leaves a footprint.  It leaves a legacy.  To eat without conscience, without knowledge; folks, this ain’t normal.” 

Adapted from Joel Saltin, Folks, This Ain't Normal

Part of your story

The stories behind the things we buy become part of our story.

If you buy from someone local, maybe even someone you know personally, your stories combine and join with the story of your local place, the story of you and other members of your community looking after each other. The story gets richer, more complex, with every exchange. .

When you buy the cheap supermarket brand it’s not about connections or long-term consequences, but about cheap convenience and corporate profit. In this story, connections and caring are weakened with every transaction.  

A mind-boggling conglomeration of "Big"

The modern supermarket is the homogeneous, impersonal extension of the global marketplace, where families, communities, ecosystems, and the connections between them are irrelevant.

The only measure of success in this market place is corporate profit.  

Supermarket shopping disconnects you, the buyer, from your local community and ecosystems, and plugs you instead into the global marketplace.

Standing in the supermarket aisle considering what to have for dinner, what to clean your house with or what to put on your skin, you become the endpoint of a vast system of industrial production and manufacturing.

It's an enormous, mind-boggling conglomeration of “Big.” Big Industry, Big Pharma, Big Agriculture, and Big Food (food manufacturing), to name a few.

The real cost of cheap food

The supermarket is indeed cheap and convenient compared to the effort of growing food outside your kitchen door and trading the excess with friends and neighbors, connecting with a local grower, cooping, sharing, and asking for the things you need within your local community.

But the hidden social and environmental costs of those cheap and convenient products on the supermarket shelves (not to mention the direct cost to your health) are difficult to calculate.

Plucking just food out of that conglomeration of “Big” that I mentioned a minute ago, what is the real cost of cheap food at the supermarket?

Modern industrialized agriculture, in the process of producing the food on supermarket shelves:

  • relies on copious fossil fuel inputs throughout the entire production chain
  • calls for an endless succession of new pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers and GMOs in its ever-escalating war against nature
  • also produces depleted and eroding soil, mutant insects and weeds, loss of biodiversity and fertility in our ecosystems, species extinctions, and poisoning of our waterways, oceans and atmosphere
  • involves factory farming of animalslarge scale production of cheap meat, eggs, and dairy productsin conditions so unnatural for the animals that a barrage of artificial interventions is necessary to prop them up until they arrive at the slaughter house
  • is built on the industrialization, mechanization, and consolidation of small, diverse, stable cottage industries into vast mono-cultures (which appear secure, but which wobble precariously atop a mountain of chemical inputs and genetic modification)
  • results in impoverished and shrinking rural and indigenous communities who are losing (or have lost) their connection to soil and place, their irreplaceable culture and language, their skills and knowledge

To add insult to injury, the products lining the supermarket shelves for your convenience at the end of this trail of waste and destruction are not even good for you, the end consumer. 

Most of them erode your health just as surely as they eroded the health of the ecosystems and communities that that were plundered to produce them.

If the propaganda about how this is the only way to feed the world were true, we’d be having a different discussion.

But nothing could be further from the truth -- food production doesn’t have to be this way.

A different vision of the future is emerging... It is a future where food production is re-localized, where many more people have their hands in the soil, where farming is no longer seen as a lowly profession, and where agriculture seeks to regenerate the land and become an extension of ecology, not an exception to ecology.” 

The veil that keeps the real story hidden

We supermarket customers for the most part are good, caring, conscientious people who don’t intend any of the unhappy consequences that come attached to our choices as consumers.

We’re just trying to get along, pay the rent or the mortgage, and raise reasonably healthy, happy, responsible kids.

We’re often unaware of the consequences of our buying choices, because this information is hidden. It takes extraordinary effort and diligence to continually work at parting the veil to get to the real story.

Our economic growth-at-all-costs world may seem to provide a great deal of freedom, but in reality it is stiffly laced with a substructure of marketing media, playing continually in the background. Its soothing, familiar message has become so constant that we are almost unaware of it.

This sophisticated, well-funded messaging assures us that everything is okay, someone else will solve the problems in the world out there, and that we really do need that gadget or concoction on the shelf.

We need it RIGHT NOW.

It’ll help us feel better, help us numb the vague sense we have that something is amiss… 

... the infrastructure of marketing and media helps not to see, not to think, not to connect our spots of perception to create a moral worldview upon which we can act.” 

George Mobiot, The Unseen World

Severance of choice from consequence 

Before the conglomeration of Bigs took over, we had a closed loop.

A network of relationships in which “grower/producer” and “eater/user” were in various ways connected with each other and with the earth and the seasons.

Now, we have (for example) a banana mono-culture, doused in chemicals, in North Queensland, and a chain of distribution ending with a consumer eating artificially ripened bananas in winter in Melbourne. Nothing connects the banana eater, back to the banana grower or the banana growing community and ecosystem.

This severance of “food-buyer” from “food-grower and food-growing-place,” this disconnection of choice from consequence, is at the root of why we as a culture are so prone to making less-than-ideal consumption choices that do not support our own health or the health of our environment and communities.

With our awareness dulled, consequences apparently removed, taken in by the lure of cheap convenience, we behave as the good consumers we’re programmed to be. We proceed along the aisles toward the checkout counter, filling the trolley as we go.

How can we kick the supermarket habit?

Alain and I still have a supermarket habit. It’s a dependency that’s hard to break, because we’ve been conditioned, like domesticated dogs, to rely solely on the hand that feeds us.

But we are growing less dependent. (Perhaps you could say we are going feral.)

Slowly but surely, we’re replacing the weekly supermarket trip and the fully loaded trolley with trading on LETS1, local buying co-ops, connections with local food producers, and growing our own.

It tastes much better.

Yes, the way I “go shopping” now is a lot more work.

I think of it not as complicating our life, but as slowing down its frenetic pace, and enriching it – with stronger social connections, a healthier lifestyle, more real food, and a greater appreciation for how our choices impact the social and ecological networks we live within. 

I'll always "go shopping" - just less and less at the supermarket

I have no desire to try to make or grow everything we need. Doing so would turn the dream into a nightmare. It takes a community to be self-sufficient.

I utilize the LETS Community Exchange a lot.

Most things we need, we don’t need NOW. Posting a want on the LETS website allows me to think twice about whether we really need it, causes us to have to wait a while for an outcome—usually not a bad thing—and often someone responds with just what we need.

Other than using LETS, and buying from small and local business as much as possible, I also take full advantage of co-ops and the internet to buy from further away sellers to whom the livelihood of the grower, and the state of the environment are important considerations.

I will always “go shopping” in some form or another. I just intend the form to be as people and earth friendly as possible. 

One piece at a time

As with any large endeavor, this change is best broken down into small chunks.

It’s like putting together a puzzle – its best to go one piece at a time. If you can’t make it work with the particular piece you had in mind, that’s ok – put it aside for a while and try another piece.  

There are so many factors to consider in each buying decision, so many layers of cause and effect, so many interconnected issues. It’s not possible or necessary to get it right every single time.

All that’s necessary is that we are aware of the puzzle—how the picture looks right now, and how different it could look.

Awareness leads change; without awareness we remain passive consumers, blindly following corporate interests down the easy path.

For our children and grandchildren, this won’t be something they have to pay attention to on a daily basis; shopping and exchanging locally will just be the way it’s done. When they read about supermarkets in history books, they’ll wonder what we were thinking.

Footnotes to Ditching the Supermarket

  1. LETS is a community exchange system. It stands for Local Exchange Trade System or Local Energy Trade System
  • […] you've enjoyed this article you may also enjoy the post, Ditching the Supermarket, which is an excerpt from ​my ​eGuide, "Ditching the Supermarket: Reduce your […]

  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}