Purchasing is a political act, a concrete tool we can use daily to counter problems of enormous magnitude, from the climate crisis to biodiversity loss. In this context, Slow Food’s Earth Market program is a fundamental element in the creation of local food policies and can show institutions and civil society another way to sell and buy food.
Slow Food Earth Markets protect and promote agrifood biodiversity by creating a commercial channel for local ecotypes, suited to a limited demand, while bringing together producers and artisans who are safeguarding the culture and skills of good, clean, and fair food production. Earth Market stalls showcase Slow Food’s philosophy and the commitment of small-scale producers, who can interact directly with their customers, explaining who they are, how they make their products and how they set their prices.
When it comes to food, the concept of sustainability applies not only to production, but also to packaging and waste management. Producers at Earth Markets are increasingly trying to engage consumers in a circular economy that safeguards not only their livelihoods, but also the planet.
Here we tell the stories of five Earth Markets worldwide and how their communities of producers and consumers are bringing about change within the global food system.
Bogotá Earth Market, Colombia: The Bag Tree
At the Earth Market in Bogotá, Colombia, producers have been working on initiatives to recycle shopping bags since 2017, leading to the creation of the Bag Tree, or árbol de bolsas.
Market coordinator Yurani López explains how it works: “At home, customers collect bags they no longer need, made of paper, cloth or any other material, then bring them to the market, placing them on our Bag Tree or Bag Bank. The idea is to give circularity to existing bags that are mostly used only a few times or for a few moments and are in perfect condition, ready to be reused. The material doesn’t matter; the important thing is that no new resources are being used to create more bags for our market and also that producers don’t have to use new bags when serving customers. We also encourage the return of containers and packaging, and any consumer can give them to producers for reuse or recycling. One of the bakers at the market has also launched a no-packaging pilot project in February 2023, giving a discount to all customers who bring their own bread bags from home. If the experiment works, the initiative could well spread to other producers.”
Bouctouche Earth Market, Canada: A Management Model for Zero Waste
Since 2020, the Bouctouche Earth Market in Canada has put in place a progressive Zero Waste management model that relies on five key components: education, prevention, management of current waste, reuse and upcycling and composting.
“During the last market season, in 2022, we ran the Real Dishes program for the first time,” recounts Nena Van de Wouwer, the market’s Zero Waste Coordinator. “This allowed visitors to use real dishware instead of takeout containers to eat the food they bought at the market. A team of young people was appointed to help collect the dishes and wash them so they could be reused throughout the day, not only during the market but also at special events, like our Fall Harvest Dinner or Maple Fest.”
Nena continues: “Despite the huge impact of the pandemic, we do feel like the Bouctouche market has generated a lot of awareness. We are the first market to adopt a comprehensive approach to zero-waste management. Thanks to the introduction of the Zero Waste Coordinator role, we have been able to have deeper one-on-one conversations with our vendors regarding sustainable packaging and setting up individual action plans for each one to make a transition to the best possible Zero Waste market. The market tries to incorporate the concept of gleaning as much as possible and has come up with its own line of upcycled Slow Food products. In 2020 we had only one, lemon rinds made from lemon peels from our vendor J.R Treats, but now in 2023 we have ten products, including dehydrated coffee powder, Halloween pumpkin marmalade and green pepper jelly, and the number of gleaning vendor partners has grown from one to six (Les Digues, J.R Treats, Waffle Express, Ferme Michaud, Ferme Marcel Goguen, Town of Bouctouche, Windy Hill Organic Farm, Ferme Hirondelle). The awareness of the chefs we work with has greatly improved and they implement our zero-waste strategy during food prep, while serving and after events.”
“Since 2021, we also organize an annual Zero Waste Festival, where we run fun and educational workshops around zero waste, the environment and sustainability. There are kitchen demonstrations on how to preserve food or how to cook with kitchen scraps, compost demos and workshops on how to make your own beauty products. We invite special guests, organizations and businesses from all over the province to share their knowledge and skills during a discussion panel. The Zero Waste Festival is a family-friendly event with activities for children to create upcycled crafts and recycling games for kids. Last fall, we held a clothes swap for the first time.”
In 2023 the market’s focus will be on environmental education for kids and youth, to lay a solid foundation for a greener future. Says Nena: “Our goal is not only to reduce the amount of waste produced on-site during market days and special events, but also to help our 75 vendors, plus all our shoppers and local residents, to adopt zero-waste principles in their homes, businesses and the general community. The model rural market setting will also stimulate new circular economy opportunities through the reuse of materials and the upcycling of used materials.”
Capital Verde Earth Market, Mexico: Working Together to Reduce Single-Use Plastic
The Mercado de la Tierra Capital Verde in Mexico has made reducing single-use plastic a focus of its activities. “The vast majority of our producers use glass packaging wherever possible and establish specific dynamics with their consumers to return some of the packaging,” Earth Market coordinator Octavio Navarrete tells us. “Usually, if a consumer returns a container, the producer gives them a 5-peso discount on their next purchase. In general, to reduce the use of single-use plastics, we have implemented a strategy at Capital Verde to raise consumer awareness of the importance of bringing their own reusable bags to the market. Unfortunately, this is not a common practice in Mexico and the norm is for producers to hand over their goods in plastic bags.”
But now, says Octavio, “every Sunday, reused bags are available under a special banner at the entrance to the market. We have asked our producers to stop using plastic bags and, if consumers request a bag, to borrow one of the bags we provide.” Through a partnership with Greenpeace, the use of plastic in the market signage itself has also been reduced.
Aguadilla Earth Market, Puerto Rico: Reaching for Total Sustainability
Puerto Rico’s Aguadilla Earth Market is currently running a series of initiatives to reduce waste and increase reuse. They are being implemented individually (and optionally) by some of the Slow Food producer members, and volunteers are putting in great efforts to ensure their success.
“We currently have three juice producers—Fermento Comio, which makes kombucha, Fresh Squeezed Orange Juices and Montemar, which sells fresh fruit juices—who fully utilize reusable 32-ounce glass bottles,” one of the market’s coordinators, Julitza Nieves, explains to us. “The reuse and sterilization of bottles began as a result of the pandemic. Packaging in individual bottles allows the producers to have the least contact with the product and make it possible for the consumer to use and enjoy it beyond the market.”
Another program is related to the reuse and collection of egg cartons. All the chicken egg sellers at the market are participating, after receiving training from an environmental health professional who recommended procedures for sanitation. One of the market stalls has also taken the initiative to use a basket so that customers can identify items they need and put them all together, without requiring extra packaging. Additionally, says Julitza, “we separate organic waste from the market to be composted by one of our farmers, and one of the market’s founding farmers is even starting a system of collecting organic waste from some of our customers to be composted.”
Tarsus Earth Market, Turkey: A Plastic-Free Market*
“The Tarsus Earth Market has been trying to be plastic free since its opening,” says market coordinator Yasmina Lokmanoglu. “Last year, we received the a GEF Small Grant from UNDP for our plastic-free market project, and the market committee has been able to draw a road map for going forward. We currently organize seminars and workshops on the harms of plastic and disposable items for the market producers and customers. We are also researching materials to be used instead of plastic and trying to set an example for other markets in the rest of the region and the country. At first, visitors are surprised, but the next time they come with a cloth bag. The world has come to a dead end for the use of this plastic and we want to try to educate our consumers.”
“At our market you can shop plastic free without realizing it, from the paper packets used to wrap semolina, pistachio or walnut biscuits to hummus served on a sugarcane plate and eaten with wooden forks,” she continues. “You can buy pulses and grains in hand-sewn cloth bags and sample slices of cakes baked in reusable copper and aluminum pans. There are few products for which there is no plastic-free solution; we are still looking for an alternative for vacuum-packing some products, such as cheese.”
Slow Food’s Earth Markets are on a path towards ever greater sustainability. Start changing the global food system today, beginning with what you eat… and where you buy it!
Find the Earth Market nearest you
*Sustainability aside, in Turkey, the Slow Food network is taking action to bring aid to the people affected by the earthquake. For more information, read here