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Do you buy in to sustainable food?

Hands holding coffee beans

Sustainable labels can be confusing and expensive, but let’s remember that they’re choices for each individual to make. We should work out what’s right for our own conscience – and budget.

Do you look for ethical and environmental labels when buying food? Maybe you’ll reach for that Fairtrade banana and sip Cafédirect coffee, but do you go for Rainforest Alliance chocolate? Do you only pick MSC-approved fish and Red Tractor-certified meat?

Don’t worry, neither do I, despite having to learn about all these schemes as part of my job. It’s a sad confession I know, but sometimes we make ethical and environmental choices and sometimes we don’t.

There are a variety of reasons for this – among them awareness and our dear-old friend price – but at least we’re able to choose.

Lack of label awareness

When we interviewed members of the public on the issues of sustainability and ethical labelling, the results were quite a shock. They showed that these labelling schemes are generally poorly understood and on the whole don’t help consumers understand how different aspects of sustainability have been addressed.

Assessing the value of these schemes is easier said than done, and comes back to whether they’re actually doing any good in the first place.

Some schemes are broadly trusted, like the Fairtrade mark, which 82% of our respondents were aware of. It’s relatively easy to understand, it’s been around a fair while, and consequently it’s a recognizable symbol. Similar things can be said about organic labelling, which followed with 52% awareness.

This leaves a bit of a challenge for the other schemes, like the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). Explaining fish stocks and densities, the ecological impact of trawling, the dangers of long-line fishing and how fisheries are managed is quite a challenge. Putting all that in a recognizable label and convincing people you’re helping? Much harder.

How can we build consumer confidence?

While trust can be built with time, asking consumers to care enough about these schemes to pay a bit more isn’t easy. They do cost money – manufacturers are charged for
using the logo, and some charge additional fees per item sold. However, these costs vary from label to label, and from manufacturer to manufacturer.

It’s also important to remember the huge range and variance of the schemes. We recently hosted a seminar where industry delegates discussed the future of sustainability labelling.

Some propose an ideal where labels appear together in a ‘sustainability tag’ on the front of packaging – similar to nutrition labelling. However, the range of schemes makes this incredibly complex. Labels like organic or Fairtrade apply to a far greater range of goods than a dolphin-friendly label for example.

Choosing what’s right for us

In my mind, it’s important to separate all these factors out and make our choices, as consumers, accordingly. We won’t always choose a certified product, but a lot of us will get curious and learn more about them.

As a student I didn’t know a free-range egg from an Easter egg. But now I’m (arguably) wiser and not financed by my overdraft, I know more about what I buy. Ultimately, as long as we have the choice to make ethical decisions we’re moving in the right direction. Educating ourselves about the schemes and working out what we want to buy in to is the next logical step.


I am an Old Age Pensioner – living on the poverty line – I only have one choice – the cheapest possible – There are no farmers markets where I live – There are virtually no food shops at all where I live – They are far more expensive than the supermarkets that drove the rest of them away.

I would love to be able to afford a choice – But the only choice I have – is cheap or starve!!

I am perfectly aware of all of these trendy things – but my pension has dwindled since Thatcher removed the link between pensions and wages – My pension has fallen by around 40% – Sadly the food – any food – has risen – along with everything else.

Sophie Gilbert says:
18 October 2010

I’m lucky, I was brought up in an environment where health, fair trade and the environment have always mattered, so I’ve always been aware of these issues, but my purse doesn’t allow me to buy only ethical or ecologically sound products. Here’s hoping that some day they will be the only ones that exist.

Sophie Gilbert says:
18 October 2010

And the prices come down, otherwise I’m hoping myself into starvation!

Mike Williams says:
22 December 2010

A small group of us have recently started a campaign for better ethical food labelling and have come up with a design that we would like to see on all food products, taking into account as many issues as possible – see here for an example and further details.

Any suggestions welcome and feel free to take elements of the idea to incorporate into other campaigns or initiatives.