Read the Label

Many of us have a bigger effect on the world through what we buy, than what we do.

Collectively, the choices we exercise in choosing what we purchase matters, and being informed of a particular product’s origin lets us make better decisions.

But it can easily be confusing !

In the UK there are almost 80 ethical labelling and food assurance schemes, what do they all actually mean ? In addition there are many frequently used phrases and terminologies, such as free range or farm fresh.

All the major eco-labelling schemes have different criteria, and as their various supporters and critics point out, it’s important to understand exactly what certification does, or does not, entail.

1 Fairtrade

Fairtrade is an international social movement and certification scheme, that aims to help producers in developing countries by improving social and environmental standards. Consumers pay a small price premium which goes towards projects such as improving healthcare, developing sustainable soil and water management practices, or local education schemes. Fairtrade certification also aims to ensure goods have been produced without exploitation, such as through slavery or sweatshop labour.

2 Forest Stewardship Council Timber

The Forest Stewardship Council is an international organisation which aims to promote the responsible and sustainable management of the world’s forests, and through it’s certification scheme it aims to provide assurance of the source of timber. It seeks to improve conservation and biodiversity, improve worker conditions and tenure, and ultimately reduce pressures on natural forests.

3 Rainforest Alliance

The New York based certification scheme Rainforest Alliance now operates internationally, and has the objective of conserving biodiversity and sustaining livelihoods by transforming land use practices. Though not generally considered as rigourous a Fairtrade certification, the Rainforest Alliance take account of a broad range of criteria in certification including carbon footprint, producer minimum price programmes and sustainable tourism.

4 Marine Stewardship Council

The Marine Stewardship Council set standards for sustainable fishing, and certify sustainably produced fish. Their aim is to improve the health of the world’s oceans by recognising and rewarding sustainable fishing practices, working with partners, and influencing consumers. Originally based in London, the MSC now operates in over 100 countries around the world.


The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil was founded in 2004, with the aim of promoting sustainable palm oil and developing credible global standards. There is difficulty in defining what is sustainable palm oil, especially given the industries recent and ongoing significant expansion, but the RSPO looks to establish principles of operation for plantation owners that include biodiversity and protection of endangered species (including orang utans), carbon footprint and resource use.

6 Freedom Food

In the UK the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Protection of Animals) operates the Freedom Food farm assurance and labeling scheme, which focuses on animal welfare. Certification considers standards such as physical conditions, transportation and slaughter practices.

7 The Carbon Trust

The Carbon Trust works with organisation to help manage and reduce their carbon footprint. Originally based in the UK, the Carbon Trust now also has offices in New York, Beijing and works extensively in several countries. It operates a carbon certification and labeling scheme, which commits producers to reduce the carbon footprint of their products every two years.

8 Red Tractor

The UK based Red Tractor assurance scheme is run and operated by farming and food producing organisations, and aims to ensure minimal standards of animal welfare, hygiene and the environment in farming and food production.

9 EU Ecolabels

The EU’s Ecolabel scheme aims to identify and certify products and services which have a ‘reduced’ associated environmental impact. To qualify, producers have to comply with a set of criteria which take the entire product life cycle into account.

10 Organic

The organic movement seeks to promote it’s core principles of avoiding synthetic chemical farming inputs (like fertilizers, antibiotics and pesticides), avoiding GM products, high animal welfare standards and adopting sustainable land use practices, though exact details vary from country to country. Organic certification in the UK is carried out through the Soil Association.

Photo from Vauvau, via Flickr

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