Ethical Food Shopping: A Pact With the Devil

11/07/2012 18:12 BST | Updated 10/09/2012 10:12 BST

Having been married and had a family, then been single, then been married and had a family again, I can say conclusively it's easier to be green when you're single. In fact, I'm pretty sure there must be a rule somewhere which states that your ability to be green is inversely proportional to the number of people in your household.

Take shopping. During my time as a bachelor, I hardly knew what the inside of a supermarket looked like. Most of my shopping was done at either a Middle Eastern style grocery store at the bottom of my road or at a wholefood shop in the centre of town. I probably paid over the odds for what I got, but as I was mostly just feeding myself it didn't much matter.

Things changed once I started having children again. Within the space of a few months, I went from feeding myself and my (big) kids on occasional weekends to catering for a family of four every day of the week. My weekly shop quadrupled while my income, if anything, declined as the demands of fatherhood set in. Suddenly, buying locally-produced honey at £4.20 a pot seemed an extravagance, when you could get the same quantity for half the price at a nearby supermarket. And what about tofu? Did it make sense to buy our nice ethical brand of tofu from the Middle Eastern store when exactly the same product was available from Morrisons for at least £1 less?

The purist in me argued we should buy local regardless and avoid supermarkets at all costs. But I also had to remind myself that, being self-employed, I needed to put money aside to pay my tax bill at the end of the year, plus the baby needed to be kept in nappies, and sooner or later I would have to buy myself some new shoes. Not only that but, if we were to keep our sanity, we would need a holiday sometime.

It was all very well being green, but if it meant spiralling into debt then I had to admit we had probably got the balance wrong.

Then we moved from a small seaside flat to a spacious three-bed house on top of the hill. We were now a 20-minute walk away from the nearest shops with no car, one toddler and my wife heavily pregnant with our second baby (and I use the word 'heavily' advisedly, as he turned out to be a whopping 10-pounder!). Unless I wanted to spend all my free time lugging foodstuffs up the hill, we would have to take drastic action: we would have to go to a supermarket.

The compromise was to shop at the Co-Op, which seemed the least bad of the big supermarket chains. Despite their recent acquisition of the Somerfield chain, the Co-Op still features in most lists of most environmentally-friendly supermarkets, mainly because of its record on animal welfare and its range of Fairtrade and organic products. It ranks third on the unadjusted list of supermarkets on the Ethical Consumer website - interestingly after Budgens and Londis - and was included in the Ecologist's list of six 'greener' supermarkets in the UK. Just as importantly, they offered free home delivery - though sadly not online.

For a little while, we were able to carry on buying our fruit and veg from the Middle Eastern grocery, where the produce was not only fresh but also cheap. But then that closed down - presumably because everyone was buying their tofu at Morrisons for £1 less - and was replaced by a Sainsbury's Local. We were bereft.

An organic veg box was the obvious solution, but which one? After being disappointed by a local box which was as boring as it was stingy, we got tempted by a free offer from Abel & Cole. It didn't take long for us to be won around by their efficient online service and free gifts. The day I saw a celeriac in the box and said out loud, 'What the hell do I with a celeriac?', and then immediately found a leaflet which said, 'What the hell do I with a celeriac?' (or words to that effect), I was converted. You can't argue with that level of customer service.

And so for the past two years, we have had a weekly delivery from the Co-Op - less convenient than Ocado, as you can't shop online and more expensive than Asda, but they make the best frozen pizzas - plus a weekly veg box from Abel & Cole. We also have a monthly delivery of staples such as soya milk and spaghetti courtesy our local wholefood wholesalers, which includes a 15% donation to the local Green Party - more of which another time.

Of course we could have sacrificed our holiday, or I could have bought some cheap trainers rather than those fancy vegetarian 'leather' shoes.

Unless you are well off or willing to sacrifice your quality of life, going green is always going to be a trade off between competing principles. And at some point you are likely to have to make a pact with the devil.

I now know what the inside of a supermarket looks like: I know that Asda makes a surprisingly good range of frozen vegetarian food and that Sainsbury's is the only supermarket which regularly stocks Belgian waffles. But I still don't known what the inside of Tesco's looks like.

On the plus side, I'm pleased to report that we still buy the expensive local honey. Some things are too good to give up.

Ethical score, UK supermarkets (out of 20, unadjusted)

Budgens 7

Londis 7

Co-Op 6.5

Farmfoods 6.5

Booths 6

Costcutter 5.5

Iceland 5.5

Marks & Spencer 5.5

McColl 5.5

Premier 5.5

Spar 5.5

Aldi 5

Lidl 5

Waitrose 4.5

Morrisons 3

Sainbury's 2

Tesco 1

Asda 0

Netto 0

Source: Ethical Consumer

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