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4 Tips for Socially Responsible Eating & Drinking Habits on a Budget

By Mary McCoy

family eating dinnerWith the rise of globalism and the ubiquity of online news and opinion articles, it’s hard to turn on a computer without learning about how consumer choices impact people on the other side of the world. Since the food supply chain is globalized, the habits of American consumers set off a chain reaction across the globe. Some people choose to look the other way rather than change their consumer habits, while others choose to only purchase the products that tout social responsibility.

But there are people who live uncomfortably in the middle of these two choices. They realize that their consumer choices may negatively impact others around the world, but they can’t afford so-called socially responsible products, which often come with a hefty price tag.

If you’re one of the many people with both a social conscience and a strict budget, try to make a few simple changes in your habits that you can feel good about.

Problematic American Eating Habits

1. Coffee and Chocolate

The chocolate and coffee industries are rife with modern-day slavery and exploited labor. Most cacao beans and coffee beans are cultivated in regions of the world with few regulations, and unfortunately this means that many plantations abuse the rights of children and workers through deplorable conditions and wages in order to drive down prices and manipulate profits. Consumers of chocolate and coffee may be unknowingly supporting slavery with their sweet tooth and morning caffeine routine.

Solution: Buy Fair Trade
You can ensure that you support only ethical coffee and cacao plantations if you buy only fair-trade coffee and chocolate. Fair-trade products feature a fair-trade certification on the packaging.

Check out Grounds for Change for your coffee and chocolate needs. The products are slightly more expensive than big brands, but still affordable (and extremely affordable if you compare the costs of replacing your store-bought cup of coffee with a home brew). If you buy from Grounds for Change, you can expect to pay about $10.50 for 12 ounces of coffee beans, compared with about $5 or $6 for the same amount at the grocery store.

drinking coffee

2. Bottled Water

We know that purchasing bottled water isn’t great for the environment, so that is reason enough to stay away from hitting the plastic bottle. But consumers need to know that large bottling companies often swoop in to developing nations and purchase the rights to a community’s water supply prior to commoditizing water that was previously free. Prior to the arrival of big bottling companies, these locals were able to freely access their own water supplies at no cost, since the water was a local resource that they used for their communities. But once bottling companies arrived, this free resource became a resource with an associated price tag, thus restricting local access to their own water.

This practice takes away a community’s natural water supply, and then ships it to America where it is sold for corporate profit. The water we drink doesn’t easily make it back to the locale it came from, and this can cause innumerable problems for the populations who are left without control over their own water supplies.

Solution: Drink Tap or Filtered
Thankfully, this problem is easily and inexpensively remedied: Don’t buy bottled water. It’s no better for you than tap water, anyway. This is a natural money-saver, since tap water is nearly free, and it is good for the environment and developing nations. It also send a message to big business that you won’t be fooled by paying top dollar for a product that is essentially free at home.

If you can’t handle your tap water, make distilled water at home or purchase a reusable filter for your kitchen sink. A Brita faucet water filter costs just $30 for the system, and the replacement filters only need to be replaced once every 100 gallons (approximately every four months) for about $18. One hundred gallons of water is equivalent to more than 378 liters of bottled water, which would cost about $378 to purchase at the store, thus saving you more than $350 if you meet all your water needs through your tap.

drinking water

3. Imported Produce

In addition to the energy required to ship produce across the world for American consumption, imported produce can create another ethical problem. Most produce is full of water and requires large amounts of water to grow. For instance, a pound of tomatoes requires about 20 gallons of water to produce. This water is permanently lost to the exporting nation – most of which are developing nations – especially if produce ends up in landfills, which prevent the water from easily evaporating back into the atmosphere.

Solution: Buy Local
There are simple ways around the purchase of imported produce, and they’re more available and inexpensive than they were even just a few years ago. Farmers’ markets are proliferating across the United States, and the cost of locally-grown produce is comparable to imported produce when you buy it directly from local farmers. Not only that, fruits and vegetables from farmer’s markets tend to have more nutritional benefit than imported produce because the products are vine-ripened and picked at the peak of freshness.

To save money, only buy organic for those produce items that are known to soak up pesticides, such as spinach, apples, cantaloupe, and bell peppers. Better yet, plant your own backyard garden. When you buy tomatoes at your local store, they tend to cost about $2 per pound and are also regularly imported from Latin America. Tomatoes are easy to grow in your own backyard, and a bag of seeds will cost you $1 for an entire summer’s worth of produce.

locally grown veggies

4. Meat

Americans love to eat meat. We eat more meat per capita than any nation in the world, aside from Luxembourg. And who can blame us? Meat is delicious.

But it’s hard to refute the evidence that says a consumer reduces his or her carbon footprint more by going vegan than by purchasing a hybrid car. The animals we use for meat products create a large amount of greenhouse gases, water and air pollution, and land degradation. And by and large, these environmental impacts cause the greatest problems in developing nations, in which land degradation damages water supplies and depletes local resources, such as the quality of soil and the existence of natural forests and ecosystems.

Furthermore, the amount of water required to satisfy the needs of animals can further deplete natural resources. For example, ranchers use more than 400 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef.

Solution: Eat Less Meat
Going vegan helps the environment immensely, but you don’t need to say no to all meat. Just reduce your intake and choose your sources wisely. Pick two days per week to obtain your protein from plants and vegetables, such as rice and beans. When you purchase meat, make sure that it’s only from graze-fed animals, since their production requires less water and fuel than other animals.

Also make sure that the graze-fed meat you purchase is from local sources. Look for certifications on the meat you purchase to ensure you are supporting environmentally responsible ranchers and farmers. These certifications are valid for all meat products, including beef, poultry, and fish.

If you’re worried about the cost of going vegetarian or purchasing certified meat products, try to weigh your costs. There’s no doubt that responsibly produced meat products cost more than mass-produced products, and sometimes they cost nearly twice as much than more typical fare. But if you “go vegetarian” three to four days per week, then your weekly meat costs will be cut in half, thus making the expensive products more affordable. This move helps developing nations, the environment, your wallet, and your cholesterol levels.

free-range cattle

Final Word

Addressing these problems can appear costly and time-consuming, but it’s possible to mitigate negative outcomes while still saving money. In fact, just moderately cutting back on bad food habits could make a large difference to people on the other side of the world if we all embraced the idea of living simply.

Which other bad eating habits cause unforeseen problems for other humans?

Mary McCoy
Mary McCoy, LMSW is a licensed social worker who works closely with individuals, families, and organizations in crisis. She knows first-hand how financial choices can prevent and mitigate crises, and she's therefore passionate about equipping people with the information they need to make solid financial decisions for themselves and their loved ones. When Mary isn't on her soap box, you can find her hiking, jogging, yoga-ing, or frolicking with her family.

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