Learning the ethics of foods

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I have dedicated one of my earlier posts to the issue of ethics of food consumption and the perplexities of being an eco-minded consumer – the one who constantly has to navigate his or her way towards ethical food practices through often conflicting moral commitments and demands. Despite the widening availability of products with combined ethics (fair trade practices progressively incorporate principles of environmental sustainability and organic foods increasingly come with a fair trade label), some choices are still hard to make. For my doctoral research, I have recently produced a selective review of existing ethical labelling schemes, and while digging my way through the variety of eco-labels, logos, symbols and signs I couldn’t help thinking whether this ever-growing plethora is one of the major reasons behind consumer confusion over and somewhat hesitant engagement in ethical shopping? There are several labels,  though, which, I think, every responsible consumer should be able to discern, so I decided to review some of the major internationally recognised environmental and social labelling schemes  – see how many (and how well) you are familiar with.

FairTrade.  This is probably one of the most well-known schemes and, according to many sources, a market leader in ethical labels. Its main objective is to improve economic benefits for producers in developing countries. Major principles behind the label come down to the payment of a minimum price for produce as well as price premiums, development of direct, unmediated and, importantly, long-term relationships with producers and also technical assistance. The FairTrade label can be found on a wide range of goods from cotton and spices to honey and wine, but the most popular products are tea, coffee, cocoa and, of course, bananas – the food through which many of us came to know and embrace FairTrade.

Rainforest Alliance. The overarching goal of the Rainforest Alliance is to preserve biodiversity and prevent environmental destruction in general and deforestation in particular. The organisation focuses its efforts on the improvement of land-use practices, such as agriculture, lumbering and cattle raising, but also pays increasing attention to tourism and promotion of responsible consumer behaviour. It sets stringent sustainability standards addressing a wide range of environmental challenges, such as water pollution, loss of biodiversity, waste management and more. Look for the Rainforest Alliance seal on such products as coffee, cocoa, flowers, also exotic fruits, including, but not limited, to bananas, mangoes and pineapples. Needless to say, the vast majority of goods carrying The Rainforest Alliance Certified label come from the countries of Latin America.

Marine Stewardship Council. This is a private non-for-profit organization which runs an eco-labelling scheme in order to promote sustainable fishing. It is a recognized leader in the sustainable seafood labelling whose major goal is to prevent the depletion of world fish stocks by improving standards of fisheries management.  The logo is awarded to fish products which comply with the scheme’s rigorous sustainability and traceability standards – these ensure that the product a) comes from a sustainable fishery with well-maintained fish stocks and minimum environmental impact and b) can be easily traced back to it.

Forest Stewardship Council. This is yet another independent non-for-profit organisation dedicated to the idea of environmental sustainability. Preservation of wild forests through the improvement of forest management practices is its major goal and the globe is its target area. Established in 1993,  two years after the UN Earth Summit, for almost two decades the organisation has been actively working towards environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable forest industry, and the total certified area now reaches 180,538,563 hectares spread across 80 countries worldwide. Forest Stewardship Council logo can be found on food packaging produced according to the schemes’ standards of forest management, Tetra Pak being one of the most well-known subscribers to the scheme.

Utz Certified. This Amsterdam-based non-for-profit manages a labeling program which promotes sustainable farming, efficient land-use practices as well as better working conditions for farmers. The program was initially focused on coffee, but the range of agricultural products that carry the Utz certified label has expanded and now includes tea, cocoa and roobois. For the products to be a Utz Certified stringent requirements around agricultural and farming methods and management, safety and labour standards, environmental sustainability have to be met. The label also ensures that the produce can be tracked back to the farm. Established in 2002, the scheme now covers products sold in around 50 countries worldwide.

EU organic. Finally, the Euro-leaf – an eloquent label for EU-certified organic produce – in which stars from the European flag combine to form a leaf on the green background to denote the unity of Europe and nature. Semiotics aside, the label indicates that the product complies with quite stringent regulations that the EU has developed for the organic farming sector. A wide range of products, including processed foods, can earn the Euro – leaf as long as at least 95% of their ingredients are organic. Organic farming relies on a number of principles, such as strictly limited application of chemicals, prohibition of GMOs, specific animal husbandry practices and so on, and is thought to contribute to the protection of  environmental resources, preservation of biodiversity and better animal welfare as well as deliver healthier, tastier foods to people.

These are just some of the major environmental and social labelling schemes that are currently present on the global food market, but if you know and are able to spot them on supermarket shelves, you will be well equipped to express enough care about the global impact of your consumption choices.

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