Shoppers are becoming more and more aware and concerned about where their food, cosmetics, and other household products are coming from. But it can be difficult to sort out the truth in the marketing claims made by companies that have cottoned on to the trend in ethical consumerism.
We’re not here to tell you what you should believe and what you should buy, but we are here to help you understand the labels you may see on products and what they mean. Every consumer makes different choices for different reasons. Being an informed consumer is absolutely necessary so that you are best equipped to make the best choices for your needs and your values.
Let’s go through a few of the most common consumer ethical concerns.
There are plenty of reasons why you may want to support local Australian farmers, manufacturers, and businesses over foreign ones. Maybe you’d prefer your hard earned money go back into the Australian economy. Maybe you want to be sure that you support businesses adhering to Australian regulations. Maybe you want to cut down on your carbon footprint by buying products that hasn’t been shipped or flown from the other side of the world, wasting energy.
Luckily, it’s now even easier to choose Aussie made. New government regulation is kicking in for clearer product origin labelling that tells you exactly how much of the ingredients are Australian and where products were grown, processed, or packaged.
Many food items are grown or produced in countries with poor labour protection for workers, who can have no choice but to work extremely long hours for little pay. If you want to support companies that treat their workers fairly, there are a number of certification organisations and companies which can help you make that choice. While there is no government legislated labelling system, these certifications can offer more transparency for conscious consumers. A few of the more prominent certification labels to look into are:
- Fairtrade (note the distinction between Fairtrade the company and fair trade with two words)
- Rainforest Alliance
Fairtrade certifies plantations and producers on the basis of particular minimum criteria regarding the protection of children and workers’ rights, environmental impact, and fair pricing for farmers. Brands can pay to licence use of the Fairtrade logo for product packaging and marketing, the funds from which are used by Fairtrade primarily for promotional purposes. Member businesses must also contribute funds towards community development initiatives.
UTZ, which works with Aldi, Ikea, McDonald’s, Mars, Lavazza, and many more big businesses, certifies companies which comply with international labour protection standards, UTZ sustainable practice guidelines, and better farming methods. Independent auditors conduct regular checks to maintain certification.
Rainforest Alliance is a non-profit focused on conservation and sustainability as well as human rights violations. Their certification logo, a little green frog, can be found on products from brands across the food, cosmetics, and paper industries. The majority of the organisation’s spending goes directly to supporting conservation programs.
Environmentally-Friendly & Recyclable
We could write pages and pages about this, but for the purposes of this guide let’s keep it simple – environmental impact can happen at multiple different points in the process from pasture to plate (or porcelain bowl, if we’re talking about cleaning products). Here’s a few factors to consider if you’re trying to make more eco choices.
- What is the packaging made out of? Cardboard, paper and glass are easily recyclable or reusable, as are some types of plastics. Some companies use recycled packaging, or packaging made from alternative, sustainable sources. For example, plant-derived plastics versus traditional petroleum-derived plastics.
- Choosing the bigger bag means you’re buying less packaging – for example, there’s more packaging involved in two 1kg bags of rice compared to one 2kg bag. As much as possible, avoid products with multiple layers of packaging, such as a plastic package full of individually wrapped items.
- Some cleaning products may scrub out your sink but can cause damage to the environment when it drains away into waterways. Biodegradable cleaning products can break down safely into the environment. ‘Greywater safe’ means water containing the product is fine to use as recycled water, such as to water the lawn.
- The process of making some products, or practices of particular companies, can be much more harmful to the environment than others in the same category. For example, most palm oil is farmed unsustainably – in fact the palm oil industry is driving massive deforestation and burning of huge swaths of Indonesia’s rainforests, threatening the endangered orangutans, and releasing clouds of carbon dioxide pollution into the atmosphere. Palm oil is used in blended vegetable oils, cosmetics, and many food products from peanut butter to ice cream. Alternatives that are less damaging to the environment include canola oil, sunflower oil, and olive oil.
Just because a product’s packaging says ‘no animal testing’, doesn’t mean that it’s entirely true. A product may not have been tested on animals, but development may have involved testing individual ingredients or components on animals. Likewise, a company may say that they do not conduct animal testing but this could mean that testing is conducted by a third party. It’s extremely easy for a company to be misleading about their animal testing policy and practice.
One easy way to know if a cosmetics company tests its products on animals is if it sells its products in China. Chinese law requires all cosmetics sold in the country to be tested on animals first, excluding where sales are made only through an online shop or only in Hong Kong stores.
Australia’s leading certification organisation for companies which don’t test on animals is Choose Cruelty Free (CCF). The non-profit accredits producers of cosmetics, toiletries, and/or household cleaning products that do not test any products or ingredients on animals, including any third parties or supplies. Accreditation also requires that none of the manufacturer’s products contain ingredients that are derived from an animal killed specifically for that ingredient, a live animal in any way that causes pain or discomfort, any wildlife, or are by-products from the fur industry or slaughterhouses (with the latter applying only where there is a commercially significant value).
CCF accreditation requirements apply to all parent and subsidiary companies, which is why The Body Shop (whose products are all free from animal testing) is no longer accredited – it was bought out by L’Oreal, which does conduct animal testing. Accredited companies must sign a legally binding contract that declares that they have told the truth about their products. They can then choose to display the CCF Rabbit Logo on their products, although this is not a requirement.
You can find a list of CCF accredited companies on their website.
According to Australian Organic, ‘organic’ farming means growing without synthetic chemicals (e.g. for pesticides, fertilisers, and herbicides), as well as not using any GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). There’s ongoing debate over whether organic farming is better or worse for the environment – regardless, if you want to choose organic, it’s important to understand what it means and how to find it.
There is no government labelling system, but there is legislation over the use of the term ‘organic’. In Australia, the leading certification body is Australian Certified Organic (ACO).
Imported products may use certification marks from other organisations. For example:
- The US’s USDA logo
- A European Union (EU) logo or reference to European organic legislation Standard 2092/91
- Japan Agriculture Standard (JAS) logo
If you see any other logos or other certification marks, be sure to check exactly what the standards are and how they are enforced.
What if the label doesn’t tell me about my concern?
There are many diverse and complicated ethical concerns that consumers can have about what goes into their shopping trolley. If it’s not a question that you can find an answer to on product labels (or don’t know if you can trust it), you may need to do a little more research.
Google can help you out, but as company policies and practices change all the time the reliability of the information you find can depend on how recent it is. Many forums and websites for particular consumer interest areas share correspondence with companies about what products meet which ethical criteria. The most effective way to get a direct answer is to call or email the company and ask them about your particular ethical concerns.
Don’t despair if options are scarce or non-existent – your feedback can help push supermarkets and manufacturers to offer better ethical options in the future. The customer, after all, is always right.