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Label love: what do ethical, organic and Fairtrade really mean?

Eating & Drinking
5 minute guide

Georgina Wilson-Powell

1 September 2017

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Confused between Fairtade, Fair for Life, organic, ethical? Want to know what you’re really putting in your basket? We’ve teamed up with Pukka Teas to demystify the labels on the products you love. Here’s your essential guide to shopping sustainably.

Organic

What is organic? Well that’s a good question. Sadly what was once a simple answer is now incredibly complex from a labelling point of view and depends whether you’re talking about food or skincare.

The EU law on pre-packaged foods says that if 95% of the ingredients in a packet are produced organically then you can label it organic. That means no chemical fertilisers, no antibiotics and no GM, with animals fed organic food and there's an emphasis on their welfare.

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Helpfully organic standards vary from country to country

Shockingly in the beauty industry there’s no law to regulate the use of the word ‘organic’ at all. Beauty and wellness brands don’t have to prove where any of their ‘organic’ ingredients come from or how the product was made but can still label it organic. So always check the list of ingredients (if you can’t pronounce it, chances are it’s not organic) - and if you can, dive into a brand’s sustainability policy on their website before making a purchase.

Confusingly, different countries have varying standards for what constitutes organic farming and production so while it the word organic is a good guideline the final interpretation depends on what brand you’ve got in your hand and where it comes from.

Soil Association Organic

The Soil Association is the UK’s leading organic certification body. Its principles are based on internationally recognised standards in organic agriculture which cover the land, the people working on it, the future of the local environment and the health of the food, the animals and the soil.

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The Soil Association certifies organic bakeries and cafes, products and even skincare

Its label has been accredited to over 6,000 companies across farming, food, fashion, skincare as well as cafes and restaurants, with different organic standards for each. These are often more extensive than what is required by EU law.

For Soil Association food this means at the very minimum, fewer pesticides, no artificial colours and preservatives, the highest standards of animal welfare, no routine use of antibiotics and GM free.

The Soil Association also organises Organic September, a month of promoting the health and eco benefits of eating, drinking and shopping organic.

Fair for Life

Fair for Life is the world’s most stringent independent certification for social accountability and fair trading (all of Pukka Herbs' 43 teas are now Fair for Life). 

It’s the A-grade for ethical food and non-food brands wanting to demonstrate their commitment to a sustainable planet and a socially fair business, as anyone can see all the certification and annual assessments. 

A Fair for Life label means that the company has committed to ensuring everyone at every level of the producing or production process is paid fairly and has decent working conditions, no matter whether they’re working in Belgium or Bangladesh. Even in developed countries labour laws may offer limited protection to farm workers and marginalised communities may need support – Fair for Life offers protection for all at a socio-economic disadvantage.

While the label might not be as well known as others (there are 3,000 Fair for Life products so far), a Fair for Life product is one that’s had every step of its life assessed and accredited, so you don’t need to do any more sleuthing. 

Free range

Ah free range - how pastoral and idyllic you sound. But what does free range actually mean? The label conjures up happy cows grazing easily in fields or plump chickens scratching in the kitchen garden. As with many labels however, free range is a handily vague term especially when it comes to meat and eggs. 

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Don't be fooled by the words free range - they're not as innocent as they sound

According to PETA, it’s meant to mean that industrial farmers allow chickens and animals outside, but a loophole in the law can lead to this not happening at all. At its worst it means the animals are not caged but they’re in cramped and filthy conditions, often fed drugs and treated less than humanely.

Let’s be clear, it definitely doesn’t mean the same as organic.

Ethical

We could write a book on what ethical does and doesn’t mean, it’s another sounds-great kind of term but its vagueness and non-standardised use means that there’s room for greenwashing and bastardisation all over the place.

At a basic level an ethically produced product should not harm the environment and should fairly support the suppliers, growers or producers associated with it. The discrepancy comes between companies who are willing to prove it, often with other accreditation like the other marks in this feature, and those who are happy to slap it on a website and and add a few lines about a CSR policy.

The more detailed and transparent the explanation of someone’s production process, supply chain, charitable programmes and staffing the more likely they’re taking being ethical as a starting point and not as a selling point.

Fairtrade or fair trade?

As confusing as it is, there is a difference between one word and two words. The first, Fairtrade, is an accreditation organisation that uses the familiar green and blue label to highlight its member brands who have hit all of its international standards.

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Divine is a Fairtrade chocolate company that's owned by a co-op of Ghanian farmers

Divine

So what are those standards? At its heart the Fairtrade mark means a brand is tackling poverty and paying a fair price for goods and services all over the world at every step of the supply chain  (known as the Fairtrade Minimum Price and producers get additional sum to invest in the communities or businesses).

There are different, more complex standards that relate to the environment, producers and growers. Since 1988 the Fairtrade Mark has expanded to cover a variety of fresh produce, chocolate, wine, gold and silver, cotton, flowers, honey and tea.

However Fairtrade doesn’t necessarily mean organic. While it does require its farmers to produce sustainably, it doesn’t guarantee things are grown organically.

And then there’s fair trade. Fair trade covers any product that works to the same principles of Fairtrade but it could be accredited by another organisation or not be labelled officially at all. If there’s no label from a third party organisation you have little assurance that the product or brand is doing what it says it is.

Fairwild

FairWild guarantees that wild herbs and plants that are used in things like your herbal tea are planted and harvested in a way that is sustainable to the planet and fair to the people who work in some of the most marginal bits of land on earth.

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Pukka has its own herb farming training programme that works with growers all over the world

Companies wanting to label their products as Fairwild must commit to supporting sustainable collection, social responsibility and fair trade principles. They must purchase ingredients from FairWild-certified sources, partnering with their suppliers of wild plant ingredients who undergo annual independent checks through the certification scheme. These become increasingly stringent over a five year period.

Pukka Herbs helped launch the first ever Fairwild Week in August this year, helping to showcase the companies who are Fairwild certified. Keep an eye out for it next year.

Red Tractor & Happerly

These two marks relate to buying meat and fresh veg in the supermarket in the UK.

The Red Tractor logo isn’t the same thing as organic. It does certify that your beef or strawberries are grown and packed in Britain and that fertilisers and pesticides are used only when necessary and antibiotics are only used when animals are ill. It does still buy into the idea of industrialised farming but there are rigorous standards and testing at every stage.

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Do you know where your meat has come from?

Happerly is a new food mark that guarantees food provenance, from honey to bread, cafes to fish n’ chip shops. It will let you see behind your meal, so you can discover the fishermen responsible for the cod in your batter or explore the dairy farms supplying the dairy that makes the butter in the sandwich you buy at the garage. It’s based in the UK but has global ambitions and uses new blockchain technology to build a transparent and trustworthy supply chain that all consumers can see.

While it’s not an organic mark, the farms and producers who have signed up so far tend to be the more sustainable or family run brands who pride themselves on local ingredients and looking after the land.

Article sponsored by

Pukka Herbs

Pukka's delicious teas starts with the highest-quality organic herbs, which are rich in natural oils, carefully and ethically sourced from over 50 countries from across the world. 386 million cups of Pukka tea were made last year.

Find out more about Pukka

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