Ethical labels explained
The Fairtrade mark, Soil Association stamp, BUAV Bunny, FSC tree… as our love of ethical shopping grows so does our confusion, with dozens of symbols fighting for our attention
Verve magazine UK, 2011
In Britain, we’re keen to be green, as a recent report by Co-operative Financial Services (the UK’s Sustainable Bank of 2010) proves. Despite the recession, our overall spending on ethical goods and services has increased by 18 per cent over the last two years – and for food, it’s even higher at 27 per cent.
If you want to shop more ethically, whether that means improving animal welfare, the plight of workers or your environmental impact, you need to understand which labels mean what.
Food for thought
Just because a food has a label or stamp on it doesn’t guarantee it’s more ethically produced or sourced than similar foods. Some, however, are certainly worth the (hopefully FSC-certified) paper they’re printed on.
The Soil Association Organic stamp www.soilassociation.org) ensures the highest standard of ethical farming in Britain, requiring farmers to minimise the use of pesticides and effects on the environment, and with the highest requirements for farm-animal welfare. Most other organic labels are less strict on the use of pesticides – although still much better than non-organic - and have few, if any, requirements regarding the welfare of animals.
Less stringent on the animal front but still worth considering is the RSPCA Freedom Food stamp. Its standards for farm animals are mostly below the Soil Association’s but significantly above the UK legal minimum. However, many people will be baffled by certain aspects, such as its allowance of barn-reared chickens who never see the light of day. Make sure your eggs say free-range, even if they have the Freedom Food stamp.
If you eat seafood, it’s the Marine Stewardship Council label www.msc.org) you want, whose members adhere to sustainable fishing principals, helping promote healthy seas and limiting damage to other sealife.
Food labels and stamps like Dolphin Friendly, Sustainable, Natural or Protecting the Environment can mean nothing if they aren’t backed by an independent auditing body.
The best solution both for animal welfare and to help reduce your carbon footprint is to stop eating meat, poultry, fish and dairy, according to a recent report from the United Nations Environment Programme. If you want food with no animal products, including hidden ingredients like animal fat and food-colorant cochineal E120 (crushed insects – ew! – check yogurts!), look for the Vegetarian Society Approved V trademark www.vegsoc.org) and the Vegan Society sunflower logo www.animalfreeshopper.com).
People and the planet
Deep down, we all know that someone else pays the price for the cheap clothes in some High Street shops. But the sad truth is that, even if you shell out a small fortune for a dress or shoes, they might still be produced in environments that damage workers’ health and wellbeing. Unfortunately, there’s no single industry standard for ethical fashion, but have a look at the Ethical Fashion Forum www.ethicalfashionforum.com) for a list of some labels to look for.
Like fashion, food is often produced and farmed by people in dreadful conditions, especially when it comes to coffee, tea, sugar and chocolate production. In both food and fashion, keep an eye out for the Fairtrade mark www.fairtrade.org.uk), which guarantees a living wage is paid to farmers, who also have to meet environmental standards and adhere to a basic level of ethical farming practices for their employees. Beware products that say Fair Trade or fairly traded that don’t carry the Fairtrade mark. While these might pay farmers a fair price for goods, there’s no guarantee.
Crucially, don’t confuse Fairtrade with the Rainforest Alliance, which focuses more on the environmental impact an organisation has and has much less stringent requirements regarding farmer pay and worker safety.– and whose standards – environmentally and for workers - aren’t always as high as you might expect. However, Rainforest Alliance compared to products with no mark will still add some level of assurance that the farmers – and the environment – are being protected more than they would be otherwise.
For planet-savers, the Energy Saving Trust Recommended Label www.energysavingtrust.org.uk) and the European Eco-label www.carbon-label.com) are the ones to look for, both of which show a company has met fairly high environmental standards. Paper products with the Forestry Stewardship Council’s (FSC) tree www.fsc-uk.org) have met strict standards on woodland maintenance, although recycled paper products are often better.
Clean and beautiful
For cruelty-free skincare, beauty and cleaning products, the choice is simple – the BUAV Leaping Bunny www.buav.org). This ensures that neither products nor their ingredients are tested on animals. A huge number of cosmetics, skincare and cleaning products for sale in Britain are still tested on animals, some of which even put on their packaging: ‘Cruelty-free’, ‘Animal friendly’ or ‘Not tested on animals’. Make sure you look for that leaping bunny for a clear conscience.
If you want to tick all the boxes – animals, environment, human rights, etc – it’s the Ethical Consumer magazine Best Buy label www.ethicalconsumer.org) you want. This magazine’s invitation-only scheme runs the gamut of green issues, but sadly, its exclusive status means it's currently found on only a few products.
And if all this label hunting seems like hard work that might not make much of a difference, bear this in mind: the lives of 7.5million of the world’s poorest people (roughly the population of London) have been significantly improved, thanks to Fairtrade. Surely that makes it worth taking a closer look at the label.
Top 5 ethical labels
Soil association: the most stringent requirements for organic farming and animal welfare
Fairtrade: ensures a fair wage for farmers in developing countries
BUAV leaping bunny: guarantees cruelty-free cosmetics, skincare and cleaning products
Ethical Consumer Best Buy: covers the widest range of green issues
FSC tree: ensures the wood or paper product isn’t damaging woodlands and rainforests