We all want to make the best possible choices as consumers, not only for ourselves but for others and the environment, right? Right people? I’m imagining a wave of applause and shouting in agreement as I write this. After all, no one wants to be responsible for the plight of the Orangutan, the loss of biodiversity, over fished oceans, the deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest and the poverty of whole nations to be casting a shadow over their head as they weigh between two different brands of coffee beans before placing one in their shopping cart. That’s a weighty purchase you have there in your hands my dear friends.
Back in the day, you could turn up to your local farmers markets and buy most of what you needed directly from the source knowing that it was produced to the highest standards at that time. For the most part anyway. Today, I’ll take a punt and guess that even the most ethical consumers of you out there still purchase some degree of products that have been produced/manufactured offshore. It’s the nature of the world we live in now. Globalization has encouraged an insatiable appetite for exotic foods and products, so yes, our lifestyles have changed somewhat. We can buy anything, and I mean anything, at the click of a button on the internet. The problem here is we don’t know who these producers are, what their practices are like and under was circumstances they operate. Times have changed for the worse too, as monoculture farming, unethical trade practices, factory farms and sweat shops have grown in popularity over the last half century. This tends to muddle the waters for the eco-minded, do-good consumers like yourselves, no?
This has spurred the formation of a long, long list of independent (and often, non-profit) institutions who have made it their goal to provide ethical standards and labeling to help navigate these confusing marketplaces. This not only provides some level of ethical benchmark to which producers can work towards achieving, it also provide a means for consumers, like yourself, to gain some insight into these practices to enable you to make educated and sustainable choices to the best of your ability.
So I’m here to clarify some of the more common ethical standards and labels you’ve probably stumbled across.
To start off, there is no global standard for certified organic, so yes, you will have to check with your national regulatory body to understand what exactly it means to have an item wearing such a label. You might be surprised though to find out that organic may not necessarily indicate 100% organic. You need to read labels carefully as some items are allowed to carry the certification by only containing a percentage of organic ingredients. Confusing, right? For example, in the US, there are 3 levels of certification; 100% and 95% can bear the USDA certified organic seal while on the other hand, 70% organic cannot (but the company may list the ingredients on the packaging to state which are organic). Wikipedia actually has a great reference for individual country labeling laws around Organic Certification. Keep in mind that attaining certification can be a costly exercise for some small producers. So speaking with them directly about their farming practices is the best way to go to understand their circumstances.
The International Fairtrade certification has a focus on ensuring the just treatment of farmers and workers. In wearing this certification, a company agrees to pay what is deemed as a minimum fair and just wages based on the fairtrade rulings and contributes a ‘premium’ to the long term sustainability of the communities and cooperatives at hand. The global fair trade movement is supported by numerous other organisations but Fairtrade International has the greatest reach and public recognition. Commodities of particular focus include coffee, cacao, tea and handicrafts. Fairtrade is without a doubt an important issue to consider in growing the general consciousness about ethical consumption but it does not guarantee that the methods the farmer’s use are of the highest environmental standards. It simply ensures they are paid a minimum price for their goods but to their credit, 100% of the ingredients must be certified to the Fairtrade ethical standards.
Applicable to a variety of products such as cacao, coffee, tea, furniture, flowers, and paper, the Rainforest Alliance is a non-profit organisation that you may recognize thanks to the cute little green tree frog. The certification claims that the farms bearing their label are “managed according to rigorous environmental, social and economic criteria designed to conserve wildlife; safeguard soils and waterways; protect workers, their families and local communities; and increase livelihoods in order to achieve true, long-term sustainability (Source).” Something certainly worth noting though; the Rainforest Alliance logo only requires 30% of the product to be sourced from certified farms and does not require farmers to be organic in their practices. The degree to which they ensure sustainable farming practices is debatable but to their credit, this does encourage smaller farmers to strive towards more sustainable practices by giving them an attainable access point from which they are required to scale up from over time. They do stipulate on a label where a product is any less than 90% certified.
This certification is specific to coffee growers and can only be attained through the hands of the independent body, the Smithonsian Migratory Bird Center. “Simply put, ‘Bird Friendly®’ coffee is coffee that comes from farms in Latin America that provide good, forest-like habitat for birds. Rather than being grown on land that has been cleared of all other vegetation, “Bird Friendly®” coffees are planted under a canopy of trees (Source).” Not only is this coffee the most sustainable form you can buy for the environment, it’s organic and growers must adhere to the strictest guidelines in order to maintain their certification. I wrote more about the issue of sustainable coffee here. An example of a company doing it right is Birds and Beans (p.s I have no affiliation with these guys – I just love their ethos!).
The focus on equipping farmers with the knowledge and means to make sustainable choices in their practice is where the future of farming and ethical labeling needs to be directed. As Utopian of a world I’m sure we’d all love to live in where we all know exactly how everything we buy, everyone is a winner and it all is well in the land of rainbows and yellow daisies, many of us rely heavily on the discretion of ethical standards and labels from independent bodies to help us decipher and understand the array of products available to us in the global market place. I certainly think that ethical label standards are a step in the right direction but we still need to do our part as educated consumers to be wary of the green-washing where it may crop up. We don’t live in a perfect world after all. Use these labels to guide your decisions but be sure to do your own research and don’t be afraid to ask questions if something is unclear.
What are some other ethical standards and labels that you like to support or, heck, even NOT support?
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