As slogans go, "eating ethically" falls easily off the tongue.
Ask what it means, however, and you're apt to get an earful, a veritable smorgasbord of definitions.
At the New Seasons Market in Portland, Ore., for instance, it means a traffic-light approach to help consumers shopping for sustainable seafood: Green-labeled fish are best because they come from places deemed environmentally healthy, yellow is cautionary, and red is, if not to be avoided, at least worth rethinking.
At the Ninth St. Bakery in Durham, N.C., the definition extends from preservative-free goods to the work environment, where employees are offered flexible schedules.
At fast-food company EVOS in Tampa, it means soy burgers instead of beef burgers and recycled paper for packaging.
"Eating ethical food means food that is good, clean and fair," says Deena Goldman, a director at Slow Food USA, a leader in the burgeoning movement.
Sounds simple enough, and in many cases, it's also a whole lifestyle choice.
"I go to bed at night and feel good because I believe in what I'm doing," says Torrie Lloyd-Masters of New York City. Her 2003 wedding and more recent baby shower focused on food that was organic, vegetarian and produced locally. "I make sacrifices for what I'm doing, but it's almost to the point that they don't feel like sacrifices because I'm proud of myself, and I think I'm doing the right thing."
Ethical eaters and the merchants who supply them have a variety of reasons for their emphasis on local produce, but many are inspired by Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon, authors of The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating, an account of consuming foods grown or produced within a 100-mile radius of their Montreal apartment.
Since the book's publication in 2005, the movement has picked up steam and is embraced at places such as Kara's Cupcakes in San Francisco.
"It (buying local supplies) helps us to be part of the community," owner Kara Lind says. "We keep everything as local as possible, down to the salt. It is that important."
Carol Goland, executive director of the Ohio Ecological Food; Farm Association, concurs. "By supporting your neighbor, you also are growing your own local economy," she says, adding there also are ecological and energy-saving reasons.
Produce travels 1,500 miles on average from farm to grocery, and much of the transport is powered by fossil-based fuels, according to The 100-Mile Diet. Buy locally grown food, and all that energy is saved, and the produce is fresher, advocates argue.
Other ethical eaters are motivated by the animal rights movement. Alan Hummel, director of meat and seafood at Portland's New Seasons Market, is working with farmers to phase out the farrowing crates that sows are confined to when nursing their young, and he supports farmers who kill their animals as quickly and painlessly as possible.
"We believe that all animals that we sell deserve the same respect that we do," Hummel says.
Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck has changed his buying habits and started the WELL (Wolfgang's Eating, Loving and Living) Program, using crate-free veal and pork.
In March, Burger King announced new animal welfare policies regarding its purchase of eggs, chicken and pork -- a major advance for the fast-food sector.
Lynn Carter's epiphany came in 2000 while shopping for poultry. The Kirksville, Mo., childbirth educator ended up buying free-range chicken and hasn't looked back.
"They tasted so good that I have never, ever bought grocery store chicken since," she says.
Her eating habits now emphasize "clean" meat, which means free-range, grass-fed animals not treated with antibiotics or hormones and humanely slaughtered. She relies on the Web site eatwild.com for directions to farmers who raise animals in a way in which she feels comfortable.
Frank Ferrell, owner of Ninth St. Bakery, offers employees flexibility in their dress and schedules, provides jobs to mentally disabled people and donates generously to local causes.
"We don't really advertise a lot," Ferrell says. "Our advertising is supporting local non-profits, mostly social justice and environmental groups."
When college friends Dino Lambridis, Alkis Crassas and Michael Jeffers opened their first EVOS (derived from "evolve") in Tampa in 1999, they did so with a similar sense of environmental and social consciousness.
"Just by the mere fact that as a company, we chose to offer a soy burger patty, or we print our materials in soy-based inks ... it basically shows that there are other options," Lambridis says. "It doesn't have to be what is available to you. Ask. Ask if there is an alternative to printing your materials in petroleum-based inks.
"The key word is educating, taking action and educating the community on alternatives."
For the ethically picky
Here are some examples of restaurants that put ethical fare on the menu:
- Red Avocado, Iowa City
- Vegan. Locally produced ingredients, recycled materials, fair wages. 319-351-6088; theredavocado.com
- T'afia, Houston
- Mediterranean. Local, seasonal ingredients. 713-524-6922; tafia.com
- Sage's Cafe, Salt Lake City
- Vegeterian. Local, seasonal produce, fair-trade coffee and teas. 801-322-3790; sagescafe.com
- Early Girl Eatery,
- Asheville, N.C.
- Southern. Local ingredients, free-range chicken. 828-259-9292; earlygirleatery.com
- Chez Panisse, Berkeley, Calif.
- Californian. Local, seasonal and sustainable ingredients. 510-548-5525; chezpanisse.com
- Restaurant Nora, Washington, D.C.
- New American. Local, sustainable ingredients, free-range chicken, hay-fed beef. 202-462-5143; noras.com