The lowdown on what ethical certifications actually mean in terms of social and environmental impacts
Ever feel overwhelmed by the dizzying array of labels and certifications facing you while perusing the Co-op aisles? You’re not alone. The most common ones you might see are organic and biodynamic. But you may come across direct trade and fair trade if you wander over toward the chocolates, or cruelty-free if you find yourself among the cleaning supplies and body-care products.
Ethical certifications can be very useful, providing concise information about the social and environmental effects of the products we purchase. But they can also be confusing, hard to interpret, and not infrequently a bit political. What’s more, they seem to proliferate. So we’re wading in to make sense of a few of these various labels.
Organic certification is one you are probably most familiar with, since many bulk dry goods and produce items sport that label. For the Australian products on our shelves, there are six private certification companies that administer the certification and that meet the National Standard for Organic and Bio-Dynamic Produce, first introduced in 1992 and updated in 2015. Australian Certified Organic (ACO) is Australia’s largest certifier for organic and biodynamic produce, but there are others: NASAA, AUS-QUAL, the OFC, Bio-Dynamic Research Institute (Demeter), and the Safe Food Production Queensland (SFPQ). Whilst we aim for local sourcing, for some products that’s just not feasible — for instance, the dried figs, which we obtain from Turkey; cranberries, from Canada; some coconut flakes, from the Philippines; and a dash of Assam tea, from India. So, to bear the label “certified organic”, these products have to be certified by approved bodies such as the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) or the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards.
You may also notice products labelled as organic or chemical-free that are not certified, but still follow organic principles! Essentially, organic standards require that no genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and no synthetic chemicals or fertilisers be used in the growing and processing of products. Now, this doesn’t mean that organic farms use no pesticides, herbicides, or fertilisers; it just means they use non-synthetic versions. Biodynamic farming takes organic principles a step further, treating a farm as a self-sustainable ecosystem. Compost and farm animals are considered integral pieces of the soil-fertility puzzle. If you’re curious to check out organic, chemical-free, and biodynamic labels in person, just head over to the fruit and veg section.
But wait: didn’t you say there were other certifications, too? Are there ever! Fair Trade, a label you might see on chocolates, tea, sugar, and other imported products, focuses on ensuring that farmers earn a liveable wage; improving farm management practices; and supporting communities. As a side note, Direct Trade (e.g., Loving Earth chocolates) is an approach and not a certification, whereby the company is showing that it interacts directly with farmers rather than through a middleman or certifier.
Finally, let’s turn toward cleaning supplies and body care. Your shampoo or laundry liquid, for instance, may sport the term ‘biodegradable’ or ‘cruelty free’. Biodegradable indicates that a product can be broken down by bacteria in wastewater treatment facilities, as opposed to detergents made with synthetic chemicals, which require additional treatment processes. In terms of responsible treatment of animals, body-care products often declare that they are cruelty-free when the products are not tested on animals. Many of these products also use organic oils and botanicals.
I hope a trip to the co-op may be a bit less daunting, after this brief overview of ethical certifications and labels. But it’s important to recognise that, although useful guides in our quest for more sustainable living, these labels can’t tell us everything. There can be variations in how strictly a label’s principles are followed or how robustly they’re audited, they can change and become watered-down (e.g. USDA Organic), and some focus more on people while others focus more on the planet. That said, certifications and labels are still a big step forward for transparency and accountability in supply chains! What do you think could be next?