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Sometimes shopping local isn’t the answer

I live in Austin—pretty much Mecca when it comes to shopping local. I don’t need to patronize any shop or restaurant that wasn’t either founded in Austin, or at least in Texas. And that’s pretty much what I do.

My significant other and I recently signed up for a local meal delivery service called Lettuce. The produce is all grown locally. Customers can tour the gardens or even volunteer to harvest veggies. The meat is locally-sourced, as much as possible, and eggs come from local farms. In the future, Lettuce is considering offering even more local products such as fruits, spices, and honey.

It sounds good, but it gets even better. Lettuce delivers food to our doorstep in reusable bags and plastic containers. We follow provided recipes to prepare our food and send back any organic waste in the same plastic containers. The waste is then used to make compost to grow more veggies, and this happy little cycle of life has sold well in Austin. When I tried other meal delivery services, waste was one of my main complaints—the convenience was great, but tossing the numerous cold packs was a deal-breaker.

Supporting a local company, getting produce and meat from local farms, and returning waste to make healthy soil gives me the warm fuzzies, but I also wondered:

Good intentions aren’t good enough

Most Americans strive to be conscious consumers. We recycle, carry reusable bags, buy locally produced foods, and patronize local businesses. Yet some of our well-intentioned concerns are simply unfounded in science.

Yes, this breaks my heart, too—but it’s true. Some of the steps we take to be “good” aren’t what we think they are, and many of our good intentions often take a singular view of the problem. Instead, it’s important to take a more global and big picture view.

Before you can be a conscious consumer, you have to go beyond “good” and expand your definition. You have to ask, “Good for who?” As it turns out, what’s healthy for your body isn’t always healthy for the environment, and purchasing from a local producer doesn’t always mean that the food was grown sustainably or in an economically beneficial way. Eco-friendly products can be resource-intensive to produce.

Taking small steps toward making the world a better place—often from our own backyards—is important, and while warm fuzzies are a powerful motivator for conscious spending, are they always worth it?

Surprise! That canvas tote is an energy waster

Austin outlawed plastic bags in 2013. Whether you’re going to the pet store, liquor store, or grocery market, you’d better bring your own bag. This has driven consumers in Austin to use and love canvas tote bags.

And Austin isn’t alone. Seriously, when was the last time you went to a conference and didn’t receive a free canvas tote bag? Every attendee of Austin’s infamous SXSW Interactive conference received one this past year; letting conference-goers know how we roll.

Research recently found that for the cotton tote to be worth the greenhouse gas emissions created to make and transport it, in comparison to plastic bags, it must be used 131 times. If 40 percent of those plastic bags are reused as trash can liners, the cotton tote must be reused 173 times.

For the cotton tote to be worth the greenhouse gas emissions created to make and transport it, in comparison to plastic bags, it must be used 131 times.

How many of your cotton totes have you used 173 times? Their proliferation might be worse for the environment than plastic bags.

Admittedly, this only examines the production of the plastic bags and canvas totes. There’s also the other side: What happens when the bags are thrown away or recycled? The Economist takes a deep dive on the entire lifecycle of the plastic bag—one that I promise is not as boring as it sounds.

Draining valuable resources

There are times when growing produce locally comes at a high cost, by inefficiently using local resources. Wisconsinites make cheese because growing citrus would be cost- and resource-prohibitive. It makes more sense to keep the cows and import the oranges from Florida.

As I said, I eat a lot of locally grown veggies through Lettuce, but the farms focus on seasonal and local produce, which means that I can’t get everything from them that I might want. It’s probable that there are places in the U.S. where this model wouldn’t work, as growing seasons and weather play a major role in what a region can reasonably produce and grow.

Canada has made a move towards growing its own produce but, similar to the United States, most Canadians don’t want to be farmers. So, Canada is bringing in Mexican laborers during the growing season rather than importing the produce from Mexico. This makes the idea of locally grown produce, which sounds good on its own, into a far more complicated issue.

Should you go boutique or behemoth?

When it comes to shopping local, we tend to take a David vs. Goliath view—the big guys are the bad guys. But there are capitalistic benefits to industrialized farming and buying from behemoth-sized companies. If there wasn’t, they wouldn’t exist. Industrialized farming is more fiscally and resource-efficient and large corporations are often able to make a larger social impact than small, local companies.

This means that sometimes it makes sense to buy from a large, global corporation. For example, if you need a new jacket, do you buy one from Patagonia—which offers a great customer experience, their Ironclad Guarantee, and puts its dollars toward social good—or from your local boutique store?

There’s something to be said for buying a Patagonia product from a local store. Then your dollars support a local business and a socially-conscious company. Depending on what you need to buy, you just might have to do your homework.

The avocado toast phenomenon

Healthy-eating has taken the U.S. by storm. The Millennial-staples of avocado toast, almond milk, and small-batch coffee beans are nutritious and delicious. What could be wrong with consuming them?

All those products are resource-intensive to produce. A single almond requires 1.1 gallons of water to produce. One pound of avocados takes 74.1 gallons. The biggest producer of these products is California, where droughts and fires can devastate crops.

Interestingly, it takes more water to produce avocados in California than in Mexico. So, is it better to buy local, or buy produce from the place that grows them using the fewest resources? There are certainly other food-stuffs that are even more resource intensive to grow, but it’s important as conscious consumers to understand what goes into growing the products we think are right for us.

It takes more water to produce avocados in California than in Mexico. So, is it better to buy local, or buy produce from the place that grows them using the fewest resources?

And, as has been pointed out, this is a complicated issue. Yes, almonds are resource intensive to produce, but they’re also healthy for humans, lucrative for local farmers, and have reusable waste. They use up water, but they also support the California economy.

If you’re a coffee lover like me, you might also be interested to know that you can buy shade-grown coffee. This type of growing isn’t as economically efficient for the growers, but it is more environmentally friendly for the soils and local animals.

Uncover the hidden dangers

It can feel like there’s no way to win. You change your habits to incorporate something new and then learn that it’s not good for the greater good. It’s like constantly choosing between the lesser of two evils.

And the things to keep track of keep changing.

New research has found that as car exhaust becomes more controlled and more people drive eco-friendly or electric cars, there’s a new environmental demon: soap. Yep, you heard me right, soap. Emissions from consumer goods like soap, beauty products, air fresheners, and paints are as high as those from car emissions.

Emissions from consumer goods like soap, beauty products, air fresheners, and paints are as high as those from car emissions.

Another soap product coming under fire: microbeads. Those small scrubby bits of plastic in facial cleanser and toothpaste aren’t biodegradable. Instead, microbeads slip through the water treatment plants to end up in our lakes, rivers, and oceans.

We all know the importance of sunscreen—it protects your skin from aging, discoloration, and cancer. But research has found that the chemicals in sunscreen are contributing to coral bleaching and ocean acidification. By protecting your skin as you swim, you’re making the ocean unhealthy. Researchers recommend using more natural or mineral-based sunscreens instead.

What to do? Look at the big picture.

Buying things that are “good” isn’t as simple as you might think. It takes research and thoughtfulness and taking a global, big picture view of how things are produced.

In the end, you simply have to try your best. I still plan to shop local. I’m not going to unsubscribe from my locally grown produce meal delivery service. I’m still going to use my canvas tote and eat avocado toast. And, I’m still going to look for ways I can educate, consider, and improve my “good.”

Page Grossman became an entrepreneur at 22, knowing that she never wanted to settle down in a cubicle. With a degree in journalism, some money in a savings account, and Millennial-spirit, Page founded her own freelance writing business. Page writes about creating an intentional lifestyle through travel, finances, entrepreneurship, health, fitness, and nutrition. Depending on the day, you can find her writing for various blogs, slaying SEO, researching grammar questions, banishing the Lorem Ipsum, fostering kittens, and traveling the world on Instagram.