How do you even begin to know if something was made ethically, under circumstances that are good for you, good for the earth, and good for the people who made that product? It’s difficult to research every company and every product you buy, and what if the information you’re looking for isn’t even available? Well, a good place to start is just by looking for different labels that signify ethics and transparency. There are quite a few of them and it can get confusing, so we want to give you the basics for the most common ethical labels. But first, two disclaimers:
First, remember that just because a business doesn’t carry one of these labels doesn’t mean they are not adhering to strict ethical standards. In fact, there are many small businesses that are even more strict in their production that what these certifications require, but choose to not get certified for one reason or another. (For example, many small businesses may not be able to afford the fees involved in the certification process.) So you should never automatically neglect a product or brand if they aren’t displaying a label; it just may require an extra step of research on your part.
Likewise, just because a product qualifies for one of these certifications doesn’t mean it’s perfect or that the company doesn’t have room to grow. For example, just because a product meets environmental sustainability standards doesn’t mean everyone involved in the supply chain is being treated fairly. As consumers, it is our responsibility to continue to ask questions and challenge companies to keep making progress until each step of the supply chain is carried out in the right way.
There are several different Fair Trade certifications and networks. Each organization has somewhat different standards, may serve different regions of the world, or have different auditing processes. However, they all have a similar common goal: to create a world in which workers are treated with integrity, paid fairly, and work in safety. Fairtrade International defines Fair Trade as: “a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers – especially in developing countries.”
Fairtrade International focuses on small farmers organized into cooperatives, and for the most part excludes large farms and producers (this is the biggest difference between Fairtrade International and Fair Trade USA). FLOCERT is the independent auditor for Fairtrade International products and the auditors are usually located in the country where they are certifying. Both producers and traders must meet standards based on their specific industry. Examples of these standards include safe working conditions, fair wages, the right to join a union, and transparency in the supply chain.
Fairtrade International and Fair Trade USA used to belong under the same umbrella organization, adhere to the same standards, and work with the same auditors. However, in 2011, Fair Trade USA split from Fairtrade International and their certification system, deciding instead to form their own set of standards. Their decision was a controversial one, with the biggest disagreement being whether or not large farms can be certified. Fair Trade USA chose to expand from small farms and cooperatives to include larger farms and plantations as Fair Trade eligible in the hopes of making Fair Trade products more widespread and available. Unfortunately, the initiatives taken during this time have proven to be somewhat unsuccessful.
Certified Fair Trade USA products are subject to independent audits and assessments and have to adhere to strict standards. These standards include transparency in the supply chain and decision making, fair wages and stable business partnerships, safety in the workplace and absolutely no child labor, as well as environmental sustainability and prohibition of GMOs and toxic chemicals.
The World Fair Trade Organization started out as just a network of Fair Trade businesses. However, in 2011, WFTO implemented a Guarantee System, which works in a way similar to a certification. It is a way of verifying that Fair Trade practices are being carried out in an organization’s supply chain and practices. There are five major components to the WFTO’s system that a business must adhere to in order to display the label: new membership admission procedure, Self Assessment Report, Monitoring Audit, Peer Visit, and the Fair Trade Accountability Watch.
The Fair Trade Federation is another organization that is not a true certification, but a network. Its members are, however, subject to strict Fairtrade requirements and code of conduct. Members of the FTF are not audited; their membership is based on self report. The FTF focuses on North American businesses and is a member of the World Fair Trade Organization.
Most people probably know what the Organic label means. But to give you a quick refresher: products that are Certified Organic by the United States Government adhere to standards that protect natural resources, conserve biodiversity, and only contain approved substances which are not harmful to the earth or consumers. Organic farmers rely on natural products as opposed to synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, or other additives. Meat that is certified organic must have come from animals who lived in their natural environment (ie, in a pasture, eating grass), and must not be fed hormones or steroids. When shopping organic, make sure you pay attention to phrases like “made with organic ingredients,” which doesn’t necessarily mean the entire product is organic.
B Corp is sort of like Fairtrade for business. Instead of certifying that a product is doing good, B Corp certifies that a business as a whole is doing good. A certified B Corp company is a for-profit organization that uses the power of business to solve social and environmental problems. These companies meet “rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.” Certified B Corp companies are given all kinds of resources that help them assess and measure their impact and improvements, and are regularly subject to audits.
Leaping Bunny is a certification that ensures that cosmetics and household goods are not tested on animals. In order to qualify for the Leaping Bunny Standard, brands are also prohibited from using any ingredients that have been tested on animals in their products as well. This means if you see the Leaping Bunny logo, that product is 100% free from testing on animals. Be advised: although Leaping Bunny certified products may qualify as vegan, the label does not mean the products does not use any animal product at all.
The Cruelty Free bunny logo is the official symbol of PETA, and is mostly found on products in the USA. This logo means that companies have committed to not testing any of their ingredients or finished products on animals. The label is dependent on the word and integrity of the company and there is no third party auditing involved.
Products that bear the Rainforest Alliance seal adhere to strict environmental sustainability standards and the Rainforest Alliance puts transparency, integrity, and measurability at its highest priority. The goal of the Rainforest Alliance is to transform the way products are made and consumers shop in order to preserve our natural resources. The Alliance is focused on curbing climate change, keeping forests standing, protecting biodiversity, alleviating poverty, and transforming business practices.
A Green America certified business means the company is “actively using their business as a tool for positive social change.” A Green America certified company is committed to operating on principles of social justice and environmental sustainability throughout the way they source, manufacture, and market their products. It is also committed to transparency and is accountable for tracking and continually improving every area of the business. There are two levels of the Green America certification: basic Certified and Gold Certified, which is for businesses that go above and beyond the basic standards. This certification is also based on the company’s integrity, as opposed to outside auditors.
GoodWell is a brand new certification that has the potential to break the bounds of all of the previous ones. It is a universal system and standard that is fueled by conscious consumers like you. If a company becomes GoodWell certified, they are put on a track to make specific and realistic improvements each year - in supply chain transparency and ethics, environmental sustainability, employee compensation and safety, and more. The certified companies will be subject to annual third party audits in order to hold them accountable and track progress. GoodWell operates completely independent from investors in order to ensure that values and standards are never compromised. Because it’s run by consumers in a way that’s obtainable for businesses, it is sure to be a label that can be trusted. Right now, GoodWell is in the midst of their Founding Member Campaign, which is designed to identify one million individuals like you who believe in the mission enough to hope to collectively make a difference. To become a Founding Member only costs $35, which includes a lifetime GoodWell membership, discounts to all certified companies, and the opportunity to change the way businesses operate and conscious consumers shop. To learn more about how to get involved and become a GoodWell Founding Member, click here.
Next time you go shopping, look out for these labels and choose them over conventional products to make shopping ethically a little bit easier for you! What are some other labels you trust when you shop?
Abigail is a contributor to The Good Trade and the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Freestate, a resource that makes it easier for consumers to shop and live ethically. She has a Bachelor's degree in Psychology with experience in mental health, sales, marketing, and freelance writing. She is also the co-founder and managing partner of SoVo Solutions, a social media management company. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. You can say hi on social media @abigaildriscoll.