The options are baffling: from well-established certification systems like Fairtrade and Red Tractor, to lesser-known, lesser-spotted signs like the Leaf Marque. Increasingly, independent brands are opting out of these systems – for cost reasons and/or because they find their standards lacking – and choosing to set benchmarks of their own.
Check out the BBC Good Food sustainability glossary for expert definitions of buzzwords and common terminology around green products.
Chocolate companies like Tony’s Chocolonely and Montezuma, and coffee companies like Union, Pact and Monmouth implement their own standards, buying direct from growers, cutting out the middle man, visiting producers and investing in sustainable, regenerative agriculture. Nut suppliers Food and Forest source almonds from Spanish farmers who use agroforesty methods to produce nuts that they argue are significantly more sustainable than the minimal standards set by the European Union. It’s good news for the environment, and for some small-scale producers who have historically been on the sharp end of the supply chain, but makes the world of conscious consumerism more bewildering than it has ever been.
‘Customers have every right to be utterly confused,’ says Christopher Cramer, professor of the Political Economy of Development at SOAS university. ‘There has been an expansion of interest in wanting to do the right thing through the way we shop – but the emergence of voluntary standards (like Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance etc) has corresponded with states to some extent withdrawing from regulating trade and production.’
The result is a set of standards that are inextricably bound up with business objectives like profit and market share. What’s more, he continues, these standards and systems ‘are a subset of a much bigger global problem and that is the audit industry, which itself is poorly regulated. It’s meant to protect standards but it doesn’t do that properly because the relationship between independent auditors and the organisations they audit can be a bit too cosy… and they don’t always have the resources to do the job properly.’
The long answer, he says, is to do your research – and follow the quality. ‘People who are obsessed with quality know every part of the production process has to be just right. They know quality is more expensive to produce, so they work closely with producers. The hope, at least, is that this also affects the amount of work available, and even the pay and conditions, for the large numbers of workers on farms.’
For example, when coffee growers are subject to the vagaries of the global coffee market, as they are even with Fairtrade, they must pick unripe or damaged beans, as well as good ones, in order to make ends meet. Livestock farmers in the UK would on the whole rather not engage in high density stocking, cages and growth hormones; it’s a consequence of a food system which even now doesn’t attach enough value to meat. Those looking for quality above all ‘will pay way over standard or fairtrade prices to get it,’ says Cramer – whether it’s coffee or chocolate, turkeys or smoked salmon. One of the best ways to find that is to look for suppliers as close to the source as possible; who buy direct from growers, farmers and producers, and do as much as possible to shorten and scrutinise their supply chains.
The short answer is, some standards are better than no standards. They have their place, says Cramer, and labels like Fairtrade have played ‘an important role in generating awareness and interest in the conditions in which things are grown and produced.’
What do food labels mean?
Products: everything from coffee to chocolate, winter spice mix to wine.
In a nutshell: Fairtrade demands companies pay their producers a Fairtrade Minimum Price to cover cost of production, as well as a Fairtrade Premium which is paid to the growers’ cooperative in order that they can invest in business or community projects of their choosing. Both the company and the producers must meet a set social, economic and environmental standard in order for them to use the Fairtrade label – standards which are regularly inspected independently.
Pros: whatever the controversies that have dogged them since, when Fairtrade launched in 1992 they were pioneering. They exposed the extent to which small scale producers were penalised and marginalised by conventional trading systems, and they put ethics and environmental standards back on the agenda. Whilst not without its flaws, their Fairtrade Premium model showed it was both possible and preferable to lift at least some primary producers out of poverty without resorting to charity. Another key thing to note about the Fairtrade mark is that it certifies that all the ingredients in the product have been produced to their specifications – not a minimum percentage.
Cons: the main criticisms around the Fairtrade model centre around the minimum pricing and their reliance on a cooperative model. The minimum pricing means that whilst accredited producers are protected when the market price goes down, they don’t stand to benefit when it rises; whilst their insistence that the additional Premium payment go through the cooperative rather than going direct to farmers can often prevent it from being spent where it is most needed. ‘Most cooperatives are highly hierarchical, unequal organisations. It’s the farmer with the most land that are likely to get a place on the executive committee, and stands to benefit most from the Premium payment,’ says Cramer. The third criticism is that Fairtrade charge a fee for licensing the label, much of which will be spent on marketing and offices – but then, that is true of many accreditation systems, and a little marketing can go a long way.
Products: like Fairtrade, if it comes from a crop or livestock it can be Rainforest Alliance certified. Look out for their labels on chocolate, coffee and tea.
In a nutshell: the Rainforest Alliance was established 17 years ago with the aim of halting the destruction of the rainforests. To be certified, growers must meet a list of ‘sustainable agriculture principles’ including conserving local wildlife and water resources, minimising soil erosion, treating workers fairly and reforesting where possible.
Pros: in return, they look to provide growers with the tools and skills to improve their productivity and practice – so whilst there is not a guaranteed minimum price, the hope is that these farmers will therefore be able to access more lucrative markets.
Cons: to carry the Rainforest Alliance label, products need only contain 30 per cent of Rainforest Alliance certified ingredients. This does give smaller companies a useful entry point, but it could be regarded as slightly misleading. Not providing a minimum price means producers remain vulnerable to the volatility of the market, and there are also signs, post their merger with UTZ in 2018, that their requirements around workers rights have been watered down, along with their definition of what a forest actually is.
Products: dairy, meat and – most notably – vegetables.
In a nutshell: standing for Linking Environment and Farming, the LEAF is a global system for recognising sustainable farming practices, promoting and supporting farmers’ commitments to their land, livestock, natural environment and local community.
Pros: produce carrying the LEAF Marque comes from farmers bound by the principles of Integrated Farming Practice, which looks at a series of tangible and achievable measures including soil and water quality; the resilience of cropping systems; energy efficiency; management of waste and by-products; community engagement; biodiversity and the conservation of natural habitats. 43 per cent of fruit and veg in the UK is LEAF marque certified – so it shouldn’t be too hard to get some sustainable sprouts and potatoes in your trolley.
Cons: the LEAF marque provides an effective and important minimum standard for sustainability, but it doesn’t guarantee that food will be organic, non-GM, produced in the UK or that animals will have not been intensively reared – all of which have pretty significant implications for ethics and sustainability.
Products: the RSPCA Assured label covers 11 species of animal, including Christmas staples – turkey, pig, chicken and salmon.
In a nutshell: previously Freedom Food, the RSPCA Assured label is awarded to those farms which meet the RSPCA’s standards of animal welfare.
Pros: this is the animal welfare label – so if animal welfare is your key concern, this is the label to look out for. Unlike many labelling schemes, RSPCA Assured is completely independent from the food and farming industries, and checks are carried out not only by their own assessors, but by livestock officers from the RSPCA. They cover indoor and free-range farms, organic and non-organic farms – ‘which does surprise some people, because there’s a bit of a myth out there that indoor is always bad and free-range is always good, but indoor has its positives and challenges just as outdoor does,’ says Liam Kurzeja of RSPCA Assured. Only 5 per cent of farms in the UK are free-range: ‘were we to concentrate only on those, we’d be doing a disservice to all the animals not on those farms.’
Cons: the pros of RSPCA Assured are also the cons: it is targeted. The label does not take into consideration the environment, natural wildlife or workers’ rights. That said, they have recently upped their requirements so the label cannot be used on any product containing palm oil from unsustainable sources, or which comes in non-recyclable plastic packaging.
Products: anything involving fish or seafood. Smoked salmon, the prawns for a prawn cocktail, scallops – all should carry this label.
In a nutshell: the distinctive blue label is only awarded to wild fish or seafood from fisheries that have been certified to the MSC Fisheries standard: a set of requirements for sustainable fishing which include guaranteeing that the wild seafood was caught using methods that do not deplete stocks or cause serious harm to other life in the sea.
Pros: the MSC was set up in the wake of Canada’s cod crisis, when the collapse of Canada’s cod stocks exposed the failure of government agencies to regulate fish stock. Established by a group of scientists and conservation experts, it’s aim was to persuade companies around the world that preserving fish stocks would benefit business as well as the environment, and much of its success – global recognition, increased demand for sustainable seafood from retailers and consumers – has stemmed from its ability to integrate its own interests with those of the fisheries.
Cons: the disadvantage of the MSC being so bound up with businesses, say critics, is that it has resulted in their having to compromise on certain standards. It’s great that so many retailers have embraced it, but where demand outstrips supply, they have lowered the bar. This has been made easier by the fact MSC don’t actually certify fisheries themselves; any fishery that wants the label must hire a commercial auditing companies to decide whether its practices comply.
Products: any food, raw or processed.
In a nutshell: any foodstuff in the EU that claims to be organic must meet the EU Organic Certification standards and carry the green leaf label.
Pros: food in the UK can also carry the Soil Association label alongside it, which means they have met the demands of the EU as well as the Association’s more stringent organic standards.
Cons: applying for organic status can be a lengthy and expensive process – particularly for small-scale farmer and producers who don’t have the time or money to do it. There are many growers in the UK and abroad farming to similar or even better standards than those set by the EU and even the Soil Association, but which cannot class themselves as organic.
Products: all food and drink that are farm-produced in the UK. The red tractor could grace your red cabbage and redcurrant jelly, but it could also be on your flour, breakfast cereal and even your beer.
In a nutshell: the Red Tractor mark can only be used on food and drink that has been produced, packed, stored and transported in the UK, and covers food safety, animal welfare and environmental protection.
Pros: the tractor is a sure sign that your food has been locally grown and produced – already a win for your carbon footprint – and meets basic requirements for food safety.
Cons: the criticisms levelled at the Red Tractor include the infrequency and inadequacy of inspections to the number of Red Tractor accredited farms found guilty of animal cruelty. Practices such as tail-docking, farrowing crates for pigs and long journeys to slaughterhouses (shown to substantially increase the stress of an animal) are all permissible under the label, and it does not take into account the protection of wildlife. Though it carries the illusion of independence, the label is actually the brain child of the National Farmers Union and the British Retail Consortium. Of course, many farms carrying the label will meet all their requirements and more; it is absolutely not a reason to avoid a product. But the lack of regular inspections means its claims are by no means guaranteed.
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