April 4th, 2014

Food, gloriously certified food

7 minute read

by Sarah Ettlinger


According to new figures recently published in the Ethical Consumer’s annual Ethical Consumer Markets Report, sales of ‘ethical’ food and drink increased by 51% from £6.7 billion in 2007 to £10.2 billion in 2012 (in 2012 real food prices), despite the economic downturn. The report defines ethical consumerism as “personal allocation of funds, including consumption and investment, where choice has been informed by a particular issue – be it human rights, social justice, the environment or animal welfare.” The vast majority of this increase came in the last year, where purchases increased by a whopping 33%.

Assuming that you take ‘social justice’, ‘sustainability’ or any of these other criteria into account when deciding what goes into your (reusable) shopping bags, deciding what to eat is inevitably going to raise considerations beyond the merely culinary. But just what choices do we have, and on what grounds should we base our decisions? How do we know where to start?


Certifiable lunacy

The categorisation of ‘ethical food and drink’ in the Ethical Consumer Markets Report is interesting. It covers the following categories: organic, Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, free range eggs, free range poultry, vegetarian meat alternatives, Freedom Foods, sustainable fish, and boycotts. Looking over this list, one thing is obvious: this is a mixture of brand-name labelling schemes (Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance and Freedom Food) and catch-all generic terms for ‘ethical’ or ‘sustainable’ products (organic, free range and sustainable fish). There is also at least one very noticeable omission, ‘local food’, one of the trendiest subjects of the current sustainable food debate.

In 2010, Duke University claimed there were 90 ‘eco-labels’ in the food category, 6 of which were in use in the UK. The current (March 2014) Ecolabel Index gives 148 food-related labels, however, with 27 in the UK. And finally, the Organic Monitor reckons there are globally more than 200 ethics and sustainability-related food labels. Clearly, this is a minefield for consumers. As Simon Hann pointed out in his blog on eco-labels, the market is confusing, if not downright impossible, to work your way around.

In the UK, there are three main aspects of a product that can be certified: how much its producers have been paid, the environmental credentials of its ingredients and, for animal products, welfare standards. The ‘three pillars of sustainability’, the environment, society and the economy, are covered fairly well with these three aspects – the level of pay given to producers essentially covers aspects of both societal and economic concerns.

However, most certification schemes only attempt to deal with one of these aspects; some cover two, while very few cover all three. It is therefore not easy to buy all-round sustainable produce, despite the multitude of labels.  As consumers, this means you are either left having to choose one aspect or pillar of certification, and pick a relatively simple mark that does just that (usually one label for each product type in your shopping basket), or else you have  to do an awful lot of research to understand exactly how the more complex marks work.


Label to see the forest for the trees

Fairtrade, one of the most well-known marks in the country with £1.55 billion sales in 2012, may seem to be just about how fairly producers have been paid for the products you buy, but actually it incorporates elements of environmental concern on top of the economic and social. Rainforest Alliance, its biggest rival (in 2010, Rainforest Alliance overtook the Fairtrade Mark in sales figures for the first time), also works on these three areas, but with a heavier focus on the environmental side.



The number of certification schemes is bananas. Image by Maxhavel, via Wikimedia Commons.


As both schemes certify similar products, the choice between the two is one that consumers often face, particularly so when purchasing tea, coffee or chocolate. At first, it may seem that the choice is between a more environmentally (or rainforest) friendly product and one that emphasises the economics. Delving deeper into the methodologies of the schemes, however, one realises that things are not so simple.

For some products, such as coffee and cocoa, the Fairtrade Foundation only certifies small-scale farmers or co-operatives. Rainforest Alliance certification, however, can be given to plantations of all sizes. Rainforest Alliance also allows its certification mark to be used on products that contain a minimum of 30% certified product, which it claims allows multi-nationals to start somewhere and build up their supply of certified ingredients, therefore ultimately increasing the reach of the standards. The Fairtrade Mark, on the other hand, requires that 100% of ingredients that can be certified in fact be certified.

Personally, I’m torn between feeling that it’s probably quite helpful to discourage the ‘all or nothing’ mentality that often prevails in discussions of ethics and sustainability and that Rainforest Alliance creates a new breed of hypocrites who can certify a small proportion of their product(s), receiving praise for this while continuing to exploit the people making the rest of their product(s). (This reminds me of the great Nestle Fairtrade Kit Kat debate.)


On the mark

Ultimately, those consumers who want to do the right thing in the middle of their weekly shop are not being given much help with deciding which products to buy, as there currently aren’t any marks that are truly all-in-one, encompassing all aspects of ethics or sustainability and available for all product groups. To make matters worse, those marks that there are are not always self-explanatory. Which? produced a helpful guide to sustainability-related food labels in 2010, but it still seems to be one of the few of its kind.

Compounding this, we have each major supermarket championing a different certification scheme: all of Sainsbury’s bananas and own-brand tea and coffee are Fairtrade while earlier this year Tesco committed to certifying all its own-brand tea through Rainforest Alliance.

Perhaps we should be wary of overestimating the increase in intentional choice of ethical certified products. A recent Defra survey indicates that 18% of consumers rate eco or ethical concerns in their top 5 list of influences when choosing products, a figure that has remained steady since 2010. It seems likely therefore that increases in ethical sales could be due in part to accidental choices, thanks to the large numbers of certified products now gracing supermarket shelves, such as all that Tesco own brand tea. Furthermore, as food prices continue to rise across the board, increases in ethical sales must be taken in the context of increased spending on all other non-ethical products.

However, even if overall awareness remains low, the amount of money spent on certified products is increasing, so it’s about time we got a label that makes plain all the issues that products in fact stand for. For complex marks, the necessity remains to increase the transparency of what their standards actually mean. These improvements would certainly facilitate increasing consumer awareness and help to turn those accidental purchases into intentional ones.

In the meantime, while we are still short of such a mark or higher levels of transparency, I have a different suggestion for consumers looking to improve the credentials of their weekly shop. Pretend you are a catering organisation, and have a look at the Soil Association’s Good Food for Life catering mark. Without needing to fork out the £1000 application fee, providing your moral constitution gives you the stomach for it, you’ll still be able to read through the 20 pages of guidance and methodology documents. It may not be as easy as checking for a logo, but it’s worth it because this mark does actually seem to do what no other marks or schemes have done in the past: encompassing sustainability, ethics and health.

Points are received by taking action in areas such as reducing additives in food, increasing the seasonality of your menu, reducing food waste, where your ingredients come from and how they have been produced. In this latter section of the methodology, the Soil Association ranks various marks and labels, including organic, free range, Fairtrade and Freedom Food by awarding a different number of points to each label. (Interestingly, Fairtrade appears on the list of labels you receive points for, but Rainforest Alliance is nowhere to be found.) If you can scrape enough points together for Gold, you’ll certainly be well on your way towards an ethical and sustainable diet.


Sarah Ettlinger


Sarah Ettlinger Junior Consultant


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Nicolay Kiselev
Nicolay Kiselev

If you will think about poor men and women, you have not enouth time to think about this problem (if you have a conscience and honour)