Confused between Fairtrade, Fair for Life, organic and ethical?

Tuesday Jan 18, 2022

Here’s your essential guide to shopping sustainably.

Trying to shop sustainably isn’t easy, wherever you shop, confusing terminology, labels, and symbols mean that even our best intentions sometimes aren’t good enough.

Read on to understand what the most common phrases seen on food and drinks labels really mean.

What does organic mean?

In terms of food, organic generally means:

  • no chemical fertilisers
  • no antibiotics
  • no GM
  • animals fed organic food
  • high levels of animal welfare

Sadly, what was once a simple answer is now incredibly complex from a labelling point of view and it depends on whether you’re talking about organic food or organic 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.

Different countries have varying standards for what constitutes organic farming and food production so while 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.

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.

Soil Association and 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.

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 accredited 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
  • GM free.

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

What is Fair for Life?

Fair for Life is the world’s most stringent independent certification for social accountability and fair trading.

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.

What does free-range mean?

The free-range 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.

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 doesn’t mean the same as organic.

At the co-op, our eggs are all 100% British and sourced from farms that are RSPCA assured. They also carry the famous British Lion Quality Mark, which is only found on eggs produced to the highest standards of food safety.

What does ethical mean?

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.

Lots of products have a detailed and transparent explanation of someone’s production process, supply chains, charitable programmes and staffing, this demonstrates that they are acting as an ethical business.

Is it 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 its international standards.

What are the Fairtrade standards?

At its heart the Fairtrade mark means a brand is tackling poverty and paying a fair price for goods and services at every step of the supply chain.

This is known as the Fairtrade Minimum Price and Fairtrade 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.

In 2019, Fairtrade celebrated its 25th UK anniversary and the Co-op have been there every step of the way. There’s still a lot to do to overcome unfairness in the food chain, but together we can make a difference. It’s our goal to make it easier for you to support communities around the world with every shop.

What does the Red Tractor mark mean?

The Red Tractor logo isn’t the same thing as organic.

It does certify that your products are:

  • grown and packed in Britain
  • that fertilisers and pesticides are used only when necessary
  • 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.