What Do These Ethical Labels Really Mean?

04/10/2017 17:21 BST | Updated 04/10/2017 17:21 BST
Thomas Northcut via Getty Images

Confused between Fairtade, Fair for Life, organic, ethical? Want to know what you're really putting in your basket in the supermarket? Let's demystify some of the thinking behind the labels shall we?

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.

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).

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.

So how about Fairtrade then? Or fair trade? 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.

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).

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 is a fairly new term but one that's gaining in traction. 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.

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. 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.

And then there's the word, ethical. I 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 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 and those who are happy to slap it on a website 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.

Want more? Read about what's really behind more labels over on pebble magazine, your guide to ethical living.