A Guide to Sustainable Shopping in Chicago

Chicago is a hard place to shop for low-waste and sustainable essentials. We have a notoriously low rate of recycling, and most grocery stores won't let you bring your own containers to refill in the bulk section. Instead of surrendering, I wrote this guide to share the little sustainable victories I've had. This guide covers groceries and household essentials, but if you are interested in recommendations for furniture and clothes, comment below and I can write a follow-up post. 

As a quick side note, I know a lot of people say low-waste shopping is cheaper, but that really has not been my experience. If you have a tight budget, reducing the amount of meat (especially red meat) you eat is the biggest way you can positively impact the environment diet-wise and save money. And for everyone wanting an even bigger scale impact, check out my post on a 5-Minute Way You Can Fight Climate Change.

Back to the guide. I am going to share with you the stores I go to for different essentials. I do a bulk shop once a month for pantry staples and then get produce weekly. If you are a Chicagoan with any additional tips, please share in the comments! I live on the north side, so my recommendations are based on stores close to me. Zero Waste Chicago has amazing resources if you are in other areas, which I used when I began shopping more sustainably myself.

In general, it is better to buy local produce. This supports sustainable agriculture, our local economy, and cuts back on emissions associated with transporting food. However, local produce isn't always available or accessible, so I also include tips here for finding produce not wrapped in plastic and styrofoam as another way to care for our environment.

Farmer's markets are of course the easiest place to find local, plastic-free produce. I find my farmer's market in Lincoln Square very reasonably priced for produce (cheese, eggs and bread cost at least double what they do at the grocery store though). To find the markets near you and their open season, just check out this website. FYI, I didn't see my Lincoln Square market listed on that site, but is on our local Chamber of Commerce site. So, if you don't see a market near you, double check with your local Chamber of Commerce before giving up hope.

This is a great option if you cannot afford local produce, but still want to avoid produce wrapped in lots of plastic. I find that local international markets have more inexpensive and plastic free produce than mainstream grocery stores like Whole Foods. I have several Mexican markets near me and a German market, all of which have produce available not wrapped in plastic. Just bring your own cotton produce bags and you are good to go!

Mariano's has a section of local produce, which is normally clearly marked so you can try to focus your purchasing around those items. They also carry Bright Farms greens, tomatoes and basil, which are local. They are package in plastic, but it is made from 100% recycled materials.

The Dill Pickle (and the next store listed, Fresh Thyme) will let you bring your own containers to refill in their bulk section—no questions asked! Just bring empty jars to the cash register before filling them so the cashier will write the tare weight on the top. When you are buying in bulk, just note the item number on your phone or a slip of paper for when you check out.

Bulk Items at the Dill Pickle (varies slightly, but these are the general finds I buy here):

  • Grains (an excellent selection of flours as well as rice, oats and quinoa)

  • Dried Beans

  • Nutritional Yeast

  • Spices (a FANTASTIC selection with many fair-trade and organic options)

  • Teas (organic and fair-trade available)

  • Coffee (organic and fair-trade available)

  • Granola

  • Sugar

  • Sesame, chia and flax seeds

  • Nuts (including peanuts, cashews, pistachios, walnuts, pine nuts and pecans)

  • Dried fruits

  • Fair Trade chocolate chips (FYI that are a little pricey at $8.99/lb)

  • Peanut and Almond Butter

  • Honey (I don't personally like the taste of their bulk honey, but it is available)

  • Olive and Peanut Oil

  • Castille Soap

  • Beauty Care products like Bentonite Clay and Rose Petals

Other finds:

  • "If You Care" compostable latex cleaning gloves and other sustainable cleaning products"

  • If You Care" coffee filtersLocal produce (it can be pricey)

  • Local eggs and milk (also a bit pricey)

Fresh Thyme has a large variety of bulk items you can take home in your own refillable containers. They also have an excellent selection of natural beauty products, vitamins and supplements. While inventory changes, here are items I frequently find at this location of Fresh Thyme.

Bulk Items:

  • A large variety of nuts (I find them cheaper here than at the Dill Pickle, especially when they have a sale)

  • Snack/trail mixes/energy bites

  • Dried fruits (like papaya, pineapple, mango, raisin, banana, plantain, cranberries, apricots, dates)

  • Flour (including gluten-free baking blend)

  • Grains (couscous, quinoa and a large variety of rice and oats, including freshly milled)

  • Granola

  • Sugar

  • Protein powder

  • Dried beans

  • Himalayan sea salt

  • Oil (olive, canola)

  • Peanut Butter

  • Vinegar (balsamic, apple cider, white balsamic)

  • Agave syrup

  • Local honey

  • Liquid Aminos

  • Candies (like gummy bears and licorice)

  • Chocolate covered nuts and sweets

  • Natural beauty products

  • Vitamins and supplements

Costco shopping definitely isn't for everyone, but if you already have a membership, I wanted to share some of my favorite buys:

  • 13.5 lb bag of Arm and Hammer baking soda  (I use this for cleaning and baking- to see how I use them, check out this post. The bag is recyclable through TerraCycle free program.)

  • 1.32 gallon container of white vinegar (for cleaning and cooking)

  • 1 L container Maple syrup (the most affordable option for my baking/vegan needs)

  • Morning Star Vegan Sausage Patties (you can recycle the cardboard box and use the plastic drop off at Target to recycle the plastic bag. They are a great source of vegan protein)

Merz Apothecary is a magical place, open since 1875, where I go when I am sad or stressed to hide. They have walls lined with teas, supplements, vitamins, personal care and beauty products and it never fails to cheer me up. Here are a few of my favorite sustainable finds there:

  • Tea (in compostable cardboard containers)

  • Beeswax pellets (in compostable cardboard containers). I use these to make my beeswax wraps.

  • Body soap (in compostable cardboard containers)

  • A wide variety of fair-trade beauty and personal care products

  • Soy Candles

That's it for my list of top shops for sustainable shopping! Please add an any resources you have that I missed. I am always excited to find new sustainable options.