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November 27, 2012 at 2:41 PMComments: 1 Faves: 3

The Naked Cucumber Crusade Or, Why Shoppers Need to Do Their Homework

By Laura Hogg More Blogs by This AuthorFrom the NatuREport Blog Series

Let’s take a walk

Ahh, the produce aisle. In the plastic-packaged, advertisement-saturated artificial jungle that is the grocery store, this colorful aisle is an oasis – a reprieve, a place where you can reconnect with the earth. But what’s this? A cucumber covered with plastic wrap? You scoff and turn your cart away, opting for the natural, naked vegetable to the left. 

But that’s not enough. You complain to the store manager. You’ll take your business elsewhere, you say. After all, in this day and age, how could they stock a product that’s so clearly damaging to the environment? You’re not alone in your outrage. Hundreds of people have complained, so the store does what stores need to do to survive – it listens to its consumers and stops stocking shrink-wrapped produce. A victory for environmentalists everywhere – right?

Congratulations. Though you may have gained some green street cred, you’ve actually just done the environment a disservice.

It’s not easy being green

Believe it or not, shrink-wrapped produce actually has an overall positive effect on the environment. Sound crazy? Consider the life cycle of that cucumber: it’s grown in an energy-intensive process requiring fertilizer for growth and fossil fuels for transport. After being bought in a grocery store, if it’s lucky, it gets eaten. 

But according to estimates, 30-50% of food gets thrown away before it makes it that far. Think about it – have you even once gone to clean your fridge and found absolutely nothing that needed to be thrown away? I don’t know about you, but cleaning the refrigerator is one of my least favorite household chores, specifically because I know I’m going to uncover some food that is – to put it mildly – past its prime. And the crisper drawer usually contains the worst offenders.

But I digress. If not eaten, that cucumber eventually gets carted off to a landfill, where it decomposes and emits methane – a greenhouse gas 20 times more powerful than CO2.

Not sounding so good anymore, is it? 

Let’s turn to its plastic-wrapped counterpart. Wrapped cucumbers last more than three times longer than their unwrapped cousins. A longer shelf life means less food waste, fewer deliveries (which means less transport), less methane, and less required energy overall. Plastic is usually seen as an enemy of the environment (though that soon may no longer be an issue) but it’s hard to deny that its accomplishments in this case are quite green indeed. 

So what?

I know what you’re probably thinking: why all this fuss over cucumbers? It’s not likely that a massive switchover to shrink-wrapped produce could really make much of a difference in greenhouse gas emissions, is it?

Well, probably not. But there’s a bigger problem here. Let’s be honest: most of us don’t do our homework before making purchases. Oh, sure, we’ll put the time in if there’s a lot of money at stake – if it’s a question of Surface vs. iPad, for example. Researching big purchases helps us feel good, but it also helps us forget that the little things – like, say, cucumbers – add up over time.

This humble little vegetable has become a victim of reverse “greenwashing”, a form of deceptive marketing in which products are made to appear more environmentally friendly than they actually are. Greenwashing is what makes us feel good about buying products with cartoon trees and words like “natural” on the packaging – even if they’re made from petroleum-derived junk. 

But as the cucumber has shown, the reverse greenwashing can be just as dangerous. That anti-shrinkwrap campaign was real, and it really did get a major UK grocery store to stop carrying plastic-wrapped veggies. I’m sure all those letter-writers had the best of intentions, but in the end, their efforts guided the store away from the truly eco-friendly option. 

So, readers? Do your homework. Don’t forget the little stuff. And, if you can avoid it, don’t buy naked vegetables.


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1 Comment

  • Wow! I never would have put that together! I have to admit, I'm probably more of a stickler for organic than most - I refuse to boy non-organic tomatoes or peppers for example, because I know they are some of the most pesctide abused - BUT I'm a fan of the greenhouse cucumbers that come in the shrink wrap! Their skin and seeds are so much more tender, so I'm glad to know they aren't so bad after all!

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