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Ask Ruth: what do the different eco-labels mean?

Ruth Styles

13th September, 2011

The Ecologist's Green Living Editor finds answers to your ethical dilemmas. This week she’s looking at eco-labels

Dear Ruth,

I try hard to make sure that everything I buy is ethical, organic or Fairtrade – preferably all three. But thanks to all the different labels out there, I’m totally confused. Does buying ECOCERT mean its Fairtrade too or not? Is the Freedom Foods label as good as organic? Help!

Lindsey, Bedfordshire

This is a question I get asked a lot and it merits a fuller answer than I usually have time to give. The first and biggest problem with eco labels is the sheer volume of them. Fairtrade, ECOCERT, Soil Association, CosmeBio, Freedom Food… the list of different certification schemes covering everything from lemons to lipstick is endless. What’s more, each has varying standards, with some – Freedom Food and Rainforest Alliance spring to mind – having proved controversial in the past to say the least. Then there’s the problem of different standards in different countries, so for example, you might buy a Soil Association certified organic t-shirt in London but then have to look for one with a Nordic Swan label in Copenhagen. It all adds up to an unholy mess of confusion, claim and counterclaim, so it’s little wonder that consumers – and the brands themselves – are fed up with labels.

In an interview with the Daily Mail, Paul Crawford, head of regulatory and environmental services at the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association [CTPA], admitted that multiple labeling schemes were leading to chaos on the shop floor, saying: ‘There are many private, commercial standards for natural and organic cosmetics, and one or two legal standards outside the EU. Unfortunately, they are all different, which makes it difficult for consumers.’ CPTA’s answer is to bring in a universal standard for beauty products, which would make it easier for shoppers across Europe to shop for eco-friendly and ethical products, safe in the knowledge that every CPTA certified product would meet identical green standards, regardless of brand and where it was bought.

That’s something for the future and its also something that the EU is attempting to achieve with its universal EuroBio stamp but for now, and to answer your question, the differences are as follows. The four main certifying bodies for beauty are ECOCERT, the Soil Association, CosmeBio and USDA, all of which require the ingredients in any given product to be 95 per cent organic and of natural origin. Any brand that’s more than 95 per cent organic has to make the claim itself, so it’s worth double checking the packaging if you’re after something 100 per cent. It’s also worth bearing in mind that organic doesn’t necessarily mean Fairtrade and vice-versa, although many brands – Bulldog skincare for example – do both.

So what about food? Once again, unless the product is Fairtrade Foundation certified, it can’t be definitively said to be Fairtrade. As with beauty, there are numerous organic certifying organisations. The main ones are the Soil Association and Organic Farmers and Growers. Both have a good track record, high standards and conform to EU and DEFRA rules on organic certification.

But while the organic bodies are trustworthy, some of the others are more problematic, according to campaigners. The RSPCA’s Freedom Food standard for animal welfare (it doesn't look at whether a product is organic or not) has drawn controversy because its regulations tend to be more aspiration than solid criteria. This means that should the producer fail to meet the rules in some way, the product can still be labeled Freedom Food. According to Tony Wardle of Viva! (Vegetarians International Voice for Animals) the standards are little better than the minimum government requirements which means you pay a premium for something that doesn’t make much difference. The RSPCA defends itself however, saying its welfare standards are deliberately practical and achievable, thus they can be implemented on both large and small-scale farms and cover indoor and outdoor systems. The Rainforest Alliance's green frog, while hot on sustainability, has also recently attracted criticism after an Ecologist special report drew attention to allegations of unethical practices and sexual harassment at an Alliance certified PG Tips and Lipton tea plantation in Kenya.

So which labels should you look for? The Fairtrade Foundation’s mark is one that is well worth looking for, as its comprehensive requirements and strict regulations mean that you get what you expect. The Soil Association too is a good label to look for and the certifying body has a good track record. Ultimately, the only way to be 100 per cent sure about what you’re eating is to grow it yourself or purchase it from a reputable, local organic outlet, where the owner is on hand to explain exactly what’s in their products. In the meantime, keep checking the label and buy Fairtrade and Soil Association labelled products whenever you can.

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