Shopping Sustainably

The choices you make when shopping for food affect your foodprint.

Shopping sustainably starts with where you shop and extends to what you buy once you’re there. Whether you’re buying fruits and vegetables at the farmers’ market or meat and fish at the grocery store, there are questions you can ask to learn more about how that food was grown or raised to make the most sustainable choice possible.

We have tips and resources for helping you navigate market stands and grocery aisles and for making sense of food labels and claims. You’ll become a more informed shopper and learn how you can lower your foodprint — buying food that is better for people, animals and the environment.

Farmers' Markets

Though they work on slim profit margins and are very busy, farmers take pride in their products and are generally happy to answer questions about how they raise their animals and grow their fruits and vegetables. It’s often farm staff (and not the farmers themselves) you’ll find at farmers’ markets, and these folks may or may not be as well informed as their employers. In any case, please be respectful when inquiring about farming practices even if not all of your questions get answered.

Farmers’ market websites might publish the standards for participating in the market. A requirement participants “grow their own” ensures the vendors are not merely purveyors of produce from other farms (or even other countries). Check if standards about pesticide use or synthetic fertilizers are mentioned. Do the organizers require vendors to be either no-spray or low-spray?

If you find produce that is not in season (see our Seasonal Food Guide) or that only grows in tropical climates (like bananas, pineapples, papayas and mangoes), this is a good indication that, unless you’re in Florida or Hawai’i, this particular farmers’ market does not have universal standards. For more information, ask the person running the market.


When you approach a stand at the market, keep your eyes open for any certifications or mentions of the farm’s practices highlighted on their signs or banners. Examples include USDA Certified Organic, Animal Welfare Approved or Integrated Pest Management. Keep in mind that some farms might use organic practices but have decided not to move forward with a certification process, due to cost or even philosophical objections. Some might even use processes that are “beyond organic,” following practices that are even more stringent that USDA organic standards. This is a good reason to engage in a conversation.

Shopping Sustainably at the Farmers’ Market: Questions to Ask

Is your farm Certified Organic? If not, do you use organic processes?

Organic agriculture uses farming practices that minimize pesticide use, build healthy soil and are free of hormones, antibiotics and genetically modified components. Organic farmers, ranchers and food processing facilities must follow standards established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), to label and market their products as USDA Organic. For livestock, these include animal health and welfare standards.

Read more about organics here.

Are your animals raised on pasture?

At the heart of sustainable livestock production is the well-managed pasture, forest or rangeland, where animals can move and graze freely. Raising livestock on pasture is labor intensive and expensive, from pasture and farm management to securing reliable processing facilities — which means that the resulting meat, milk or eggs are more expensive, too.

Read more about pastured livestock here.

Are your animals ever given antibiotics?

The non-therapeutic use of antibiotics by the modern food animal industry is now responsible for the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria that pose a grave threat to public health. About 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the U.S. are administered to livestock, primarily to prevent disease rather than to treat an infection. By choosing to purchase products from animals that are never given non-therapeutic antibiotics you are helping to prevent the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains.

Read more about antibiotic use in livestock agriculture here.


When you’re at the supermarket, keep your eye out for signs and labels on the food. With produce, pay attention to the state or country of origin. Is it labeled organic? Does the store have an organic section? With meat, look for labels like Certified Humane, Certified Grassfed or USDA Certified Organic. For eggs, look for labels like USDA Certified Organic or Animal Welfare Approved.

Use our Food Label Guide to see what different labels tell you about how the food was produced.

If you wish your grocery store would carry more local and sustainable products, speak with the manager. Encourage your friends and neighbors to do the same. Supermarkets respond to customer demand, and you might convince them that it’s worth their while to shift their purchasing.

Shopping Sustainably at the Grocery Store: Questions to Ask a Store Manager

Do you sell any sustainably raised or organic meat, poultry, dairy or eggs? Do you sell any sustainably grown or organic produce?

Most grocery stores have an organic section, which is sometimes a subsection in a larger area of the market. For example, the organic produce  or organic dairy might be all together.

If the manager says “No,” then ask if the store could order some sustainably raised and organic products, letting them know you’d be interested in purchasing them. Keep in mind that meat, produce and dairy department managers, as well as butchers, are usually extremely busy and have a lot of products on their shelves. Don’t get discouraged if they don’t know anything about sustainably raised food. If enough people ask questions reflecting a desire for sustainably raised products, store managers will respond by stocking them.

Remember that stores operate on slim profit margins and have limited shelf space. If you convince a store manager to start selling a certain item, make sure that you buy it when it’s in stock.


Making choices about seafood can be complicated. Whether you’re buying from a refrigerator or frozen case at a supermarket, or are lucky enough to have a store or farmers’ market stand dedicated to fish, there are certain key things to look out for.

You’ll want to know where the seafood is from, how it was raised and how it was caught or harvested.

Check out our Seafood Label Guide and the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guide app for a handy, on-the-go reference for seafood sustainability.

Shopping Sustainably at the Seafood Store: Questions to Ask the Fishmonger

Where is your fish and seafood from?

More than 80 percent of the seafood purchased in the United States is imported from abroad, often from countries where standards for food safety, the environment and labor in the fishing industry aren’t as reliable or perhaps don’t even exist. Look for fish and seafood that was caught domestically.

Is this shrimp from the U.S.?

America’s favorite seafood is shrimp; We eat nearly four pounds per person per year. Unfortunately, the vast majority of shrimp is imported and may have been farmed with a lot of antibiotics, or in some cases, with forced labor. Stick with U.S. shrimp and look for labels you can trust.

Is your seafood farmed or wild?

Overfishing has depleted the oceans of popular edible species (as well as other fish and ocean wildlife), while also damaging the marine environment and polluting our waters. To reduce this decline and replenish fish stocks, fish farming has become a popular alternative to wild fishing. Much finfish aquaculture has negative environmental impacts on surrounding waters. If possible, look for farmed fish that was raised in a closed system (a “recirculating farm”), this cuts down on pollution concerns and keep the farmed fish from escaping into the wild.

Farming of shellfish (including oysters, clams and mussels) is not considered ecologically harmful; in fact, farmed shellfish can have big environmental benefits, making it a good seafood option for people who want to eat more sustainably.

Check out our Seafood Label Guide or the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guide app for a handy, on-the-go reference for determining seafood’s sustainability.

How was your fish and seafood caught?

Most conventional methods of fishing unintentionally result in the catching and killing of extra marine wildlife – known as bycatch – harming or eliminating excess fish and disrupting natural ecosystems. However, other methods of fishing exist that protect wild fish populations and are better for the environment. If the fish is described as “line-caught,” that’s a good sign.

Other resources to help you be a more sustainable shopper:

Use these tools to find labels you can trust and food that’s in season.