business consumerism development economics equality fair trade food lifestyle sustainability

Ethical shopping – an index of consumer labels

Part one of two on understanding labelling.

The ethical consumption movement is a growing one, with more and more people wanting to spend their money in ways that aren’t harmful to people of the environment. In response, the market is developing new standards, and new forms of labelling. Some mean more than others, so in the interests of genuinely sustainable and ethical shopping, here are some common labels and their meanings.

air%20freiht.jpgAir Freight
In a bid to help consumers understand food miles, some supermarkets place logos like these on their products to indicate that it has been shipped by air. Those wanting to reduce the miles that their food travels can then make an educated decision, and buy local.

This is useful in part, but only if you understand the seasons – local goods grown in greenhouses may have a higher carbon footprint than fresh produce grown overseas and shipped by plane. What you eat when is more important than where it comes from in the end. So, in and of itself, this isn’t a particularly useful logo. It’s still fairly experimental and voluntary at the moment, and those supermarkets currently using it may well drop it before it gains mainstream acceptance.

//” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.Carbon Footprint
Next time you fancy a snack, look out for this logo. It’s being piloted on Walkers crisps and Cadbury’s chocolate at the moment, and it is meant to represent the total amount of CO2 released in the production of the goods. A bag of Walkers crisps has a carbon footprint of 75grams, which is more than the weight of crisps inside.

This figure, which is hugely complicated to assess, includes the fertilizers used, emissions from harvesting, shipping, processing, cooking, distribution, and storage. It doesn’t matter with crisps, but with other products it will factor in cooking at home too. If consumers respond favourably, it will be applied to more products.

It’s worth mentioning that this one isn’t foolproof. It only counts carbon, so there are other environmental factors, such as water usage, that aren’t included. It’s also very reliant on guesswork, as the Carbon Trust can’t accurately predict how things will be stored and cooked at the consumer end of the product’s life. It’s also difficult to know what to do with that figure – so a packet of crisps is 75g. Is that good or bad? The Soil Association
The Soil Association began certifying good farming practice after the Second World War, when agriculture was intensifying due to rising demand for food. Organic standards are set by the EU and applied by each member’s own laws, but The Soil Association standards are higher, making this a useful logo to look out for.

The Soil Association is particularly ahead of the game on animal welfare, closing a number of loopholes that are allowed in current UK law. As just one example, farmers raising normal organic cattle for beef are allowed to keep them indoors, and have cut grass brought to them. The Soil Association standards require that cattle graze naturally in the outdoors.

The Association also requires farms to follow certain principles of conservation, such as leaving uncultivated strips of land around large fields, for the birds and wildlife.

Red Tractor Symbol
The Red Tractor
Assured Food Standards run the Red Tractor scheme, which is essentially an alliance of farmers and producers committed to raising the standards of British food. The symbol indicates that a product has been grown and packed in the UK, so it is predominantly an assurance of origins and of hygiene. This is important, considering that UK farming standards tend to be higher than many other countries, even in the EU, so British meat will generally speaking have better animal welfare practices behind it than some others.

However, it isn’t the same as organic or Freedom Foods standards. The AFS still allows battery farming, and doesn’t control the use of pesticides, among many other things. For these reasons, some claim this is a misleading logo that appears to be claiming more than it delivers, a fancy logo that actually guarantees little more than the legal minimum. It has been reformed in part and may be improving, but the fact that it was launched in 2000, relaunched in 2002, and then rebranded in 2005 shows a lack of confidence in its success so far.

Check out the details here if you want to compare the standards to others, or see Friends of the Earth’s press release on its weaknesses. Freedom Foods
The RSPCA founded the Freedom Foods marque in 1994, and it is the only certification dedicated exclusively to animal welfare. It recently had a major boost with the success of Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s Chicken Out campaign, which has prompted a siginificant rise in demand for better chicken. But animal welfare doesn’t end with chickens, and Freedom Food bacon should be on your shopping list. The Co-op stocks FF meats, and Somerfield and Sainsbury’s.

Freedom Food is a guarantee of welfare standards, and should be seen separately from other terms. It is possible, for example, to meet FF standards without being free range or organic, and vice versa.

//” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors. Marine Stewardship Council
Set up by Unilever and the WWF, and now fully independent, the MSC seek to certify sustainable fish and seafood products. With a quarter of world fish stocks being overfished, and half at maximum capacity, supporting initiatives like this one may mean the difference between sharing fish and chips with your grandchildren, or sharing your reminiscences about fish and chips with them.

MSC products are now quite easy to find, with major supermarkets stocking many products, including ready meals. Brands such as Young’s Seafood have also been certified. The MSC certification isn’t perfect, but it’s still worth supporting.

More on fish and the MSC here. Fairtrade
I’m sure you’re familiar with this logo, even if you haven’t come across the others. Fairtrade is perhaps the most widely recognised logo in the whole arena of ethical shopping. In this case, the certification refers to the treatment of producers, ensuring a working wage, and an honest price for raw materials. This is a hugely important area, where many suppliers, often in poorer countries, are paid less than the market rate for their products, often ripped off by agents and middle men. As well as price, Fairtrade standards guarantee worker welfare, and local sustainability.

Coffee was the best known Fairtrade product, although it was recently overtaken by bananas. 1 in 4 bananas eaten in the UK is now Fairtrade, and we spent £500 million on Fairtrade goods last year.

It is worth mentioning that while Fairtrade guarantees a fair price and has my full support, we should keep it in perspective. Fairtrade doesn’t promise to solve poverty among producers, it only promises that they won’t be exploited. Imagine a UK company advertising with slogans like ‘we now pay the minimum wage!’ with pictures of smiling working class teenagers stacking shelves, and you’ll see what I mean – of course you pay the minimum wage, is that the best you can do? A fair price should be a right, and we shouldn’t congratulate ourselves quite as much as we do that we’re finally paying African farmers fairly. We’re rectifying a wrong, and I think the somewhat triumphal marketing around some Fairtrade products betrays something of a double standard in how we think about third world workers. This is especially true of companies like Starbucks who trumpet the Fairtrade credentials that they only apply to a tiny fraction of their range.

Still, in a world where a fair price is the exception rather than the rule, more power to the Fairtrade movement. And it is a movement, not just a certification. We just need to make sure that we’re not too easily satisfied, or that Fairtrade doesn’t become just a lifestyle option, a sort of ethical offset against all the injustices of our consumer system.

//” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors. Recycling
This is a new one. You will be familiar with the older three arrows logo, which was widely used, but only ever implied the idea of recycling in the most general terms. It may have meant the package was recyclable, or made from recycled materials, or that it was partly recyclable, without specifying which bits.

So, last year the British Retail Consortium and the Waste and Resources Action Programme pioneered a new system for packaging. Aiming to clarify and standardise recycling, the little green swoosh has had a major media push since it was launched in November 2007. Several major retailers have adopted the scheme, and hopefully it will bring some clarity to recycling. Forestry Stewardship Council
Paul mentioned this the other week, so I won’t go into great detail this time around. This marque refers to sustainable forestry, and is found on wood, sheds, doors, furniture and so on. It also appears on wood derived products such as paper or charcoal. You can even get FSC approved coffins.

Considering the rate at which we are felling the earth’s forests, and consuming them as paper and furniture, we should look out for this little logo. Fortunately, FSC’s research shows that awareness is growing, and 17% of UK shoppers have bought FSC products in the last year.

//” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors. Rainforest Alliance
Finally, I just wanted to mention this one in passing, as it’s fairly small, but worth knowing about. The Rainforest Alliance are trying to unify development and biodiversity conservation, by teaching best practice and offering incentives for communities to farm more sustainably. Coffee is the best known Rainforest Alliance product at the moment, along with honey and fruit.

The Alliance’s model is perhaps more holistic, marrying social and environmental concerns, but it pays a ‘social premium’ of an extra 10-60 cents above the market price for a pound of coffee, rather than a fixed price like Fairtrade. It also permits companies to display the above logo if 30% of the contents or more is Certified, which means of course that 70% may not be either environmentally or socially responsible.

There will undoubtedly be more. If you know one that isn’t on the list, give us a shout and we’ll add it.

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  1. This goes back to your interesting and informative article on 12th November about sustainably caught fish. I recently came across a nifty little guide to sustainably stocked fish and those that are under threat. It tells you what are the best choices when you are confronted with all the tempting textures and colours on the fish stall. In fact it is a mine of information, and all conveniently contained within a little brochure the size of a credit card, to keep in your wallet or purse. It comes from the Marine Conservation Society, and you can find out more about that, and the little card, from, and

  2. I just came across your website when I was looking for information about the air transport of food.
    I really like your article about ethical shopping and consumer information by labelling, because there you give thoughts that already kept my brain busy a lot. I recently conducted two surveys in Germany and in the UK about air freight labels and the trade-off between individual benefits by having fresh fruits and vegetables all year round available and social and environmental issues. I am thinking about continuing research about the use of carbon labels. Let me know if you are interested in sharing some ideas. Currently I am working at the University of Reading at the Department of Agricultural and Food Economics, but I’ll be back in Germany at the University of Giessen in June.
    All the best for further research

  3. As oil has peaked in production, and demand is still growing, the cost of air freight grows exponentially higher. So which currently air-f’d goods will disappear first? Eventually, only superrich people and expensive delicacies will fly! About 25 years we will start sorting this out.

  4. We would like to include a link to your site or ours. Please visit the site above and determine whether it will suit your values. Then advise us of your decision. Thank you for your consideration.

    Constance J. Thompson

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