Ethical Labels to Look For

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written by:  Mirah Alix

editor's note:

I hope this guide to product certifications helps you confidently navigate supermarket shelves and clothing racks like an ethical shopping pro.

written by: Mirah Alix

editor's note:

I hope this guide to product certifications helps you confidently navigate supermarket shelves and clothing racks like an ethical shopping pro.

Choosing ethical + sustainable labels and certifications to trust while shopping can be difficult, especially now that there are so many different certifications businesses can obtain to demonstrate their level of commitment to sustainable production. So, how can you filter through the noise and make shopping decisions that make you proud?

First, know what you’re looking at.

USDA Organic, Fair Trade, Cruelty Free…what do these labels really mean? Lucky for you, we did the research. There are hundreds of ethical and sustainable labels out there, and our list is by-no means exhaustive. Here are 20 labels to learn and look for:

1. Certified B-Corporation

Not to be confused with a benefit corporation, certified B-Corp’s are scored on the B Impact Assessment administered by the non-profit B Lab. To qualify, corporations must meet the minimum requirements of ethical impact on workers, customers, community, and the environment. Notably, the B-Certification focuses on the holistic impact of a company, not just its production practices.

2. USDA Organic

From the USDA: Organic is a labeling term found on products that have been produced using cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. 

Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods to the fullest extent possible.  Organic produce must be grown on soil that had no prohibited substances (most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides) applied for three years prior to harvest.  As for organic meat, the standards require that animals are raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors, fed organic feed, and not administered antibiotics or hormones. 

3. Fair Trade Certified

This label is currently only available on agricultural products like tea, coffee, chocolate, fruit, flowers, and spices. Fair Trade is a certification that was designed to make it easier for you to support companies and products that have been produced with fair wages and safe working conditions (without child labor). Fair Trade Certified also means that farmers are held to international environmental standards.

4. Fair Trade Foundation

Because Fair Trade Certified only applies to agricultural products, companies who choose to follow Fair Trade practices are designated members of the Fair Trade Federation. This includes brands that manufacture jewelry, furniture, and more.

5. World Fair Trade Organization

The World Fair Trade Organization, is a global association of 401 organizations who are committed to improving the livelihoods of economically marginalized producers. WFTO has members in 76 countries. Members are primarily fair trade enterprises, whose business model is verified by independent audit and peer review.

6. Equal Exchange Fairly Traded

Equal Exchange is a for-profit, Fair Trade worker owned cooperative headquartered in the United States, founded in 1986. This group distributes farmer-cooperative-produced coffee, tea, sugar, bananas, avocados, cocoa and chocolate. As part of its’ bylaws, the highest paid employee of Equal Exchange may not make more than 4x what the lowest paid employee makes.

7. Fair For Life

Fair for Life Certification assures that human rights are safeguarded at any stage of production, workers enjoy good and fair working conditions and smallholder farmers receive a fair share. Fair trade improves the livelihood of thousands of smallholder farmers and workers by providing the means for social community projects and empowerment of people.

8. Fairmined

Fairmined transforms mining into an active force for good,, providing an opportunity for miners to participate in the global mineral market with a source of gold to be proud of. It guarantees a fair price for minerals for the miners, demonstrates to the gold industry that the market puts a fair price on responsible practices, and provides consumers an assurance that gold is responsibly mined.

9. Cruelty Free International | Leaping Bunny

The Cruelty Free International Leaping Bunny is the globally-recognizable gold standard for cosmetics, personal care and household products  It is the only international logo that requires a supplier monitoring system to be implemented by the company, supply chain checking for animal testing right down to ingredient manufacturer level, adherence to a fixed cut-off date policy and acceptance of ongoing independent audits to ensure compliance with all of these aspects.

10. Certified Vegan

The Certified Vegan Logo is currently on thousands of products that do not contain animal products or byproducts and that have not been tested on animals, manufactured by over 1000 companies. The logo is a visual cue for consumers interested in vegan products and helps vegans to shop without browsing ingredient lists. Certified Vegan also helps companies recognize a growing vegan market.

11. Bird Friendly

Three-quarters of the world’s coffee farms destroy forest habitat to grow coffee in the sun and often use harmful pesticides and fertilizers that poison the environment. When forests disappear, migratory songbirds disappear, too. In order to combat population and habitat loss, Smithsonian scientists created the Bird Friendly certification. In 2018, more than 19 million pounds of coffee carried this certification across 12 countries and 4,600 coffee producers.

12. Responsible Down Standard Certified

Next time you’re out shopping for a pillow or down parka, we recommend looking for an RDS certified item – it ensures that down and feathers in certified products come from animals that have not been subjected to unnecessary harm. The certification is an independent, voluntary global standard, and defines the term “responsible” as “morally accountable for one’s own actions,” meaning brands and supply chains should respect the Five Freedoms of animal welfare.

13. Eco-Cert

Eco-Cert is an organization responsible for verifying and issuing many of the certifications listed in this article, and they also issue their own stamps of approval for eco-friendly cosmetics and more.

14. Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)

The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is the worldwide leading textile processing standard for organic fibers, including ecological and social criteria, backed up by independent certification of the entire textile supply chain.

15. Oeko-Tex

This label is often seen in products made for children as it focuses on testing for harmful substances. If a product carries an Oeko-Tex Standard 100 label, you can rest assured that every single thread, button, and other piece of the product has been tested for harmful substances.

16. Cradle to Cradle

To receive Cradle to Cradle certification, products are assessed for environmental and social performance across five critical sustainability categories: material health, material reuse, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness. A product is assigned an achievement level (Basic, Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum) for each category.

17. Bluesign

The BLUESIGN label gives you the assurance that only companies that act responsibly were involved in the manufacture of a product that is designated with the bluesign® PRODUCT label. They have used the best technologies available, used resources responsibly and taken care to minimize the impacts on people and the environment.

18. Rainforest Alliance

Commonly found on coffee and chocolate, the Rainforest Alliance label has expanded to encompass the following areas: agriculture, forestry, and tourism. The next time you plan your trip to Latin America or the Caribbean, book a stay at a Rainforest Alliance Certified hotel!

19. Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)

Irresponsibly sourced palm oil is harmful to the climate, animal populations, and people around the world. Endangered species such as the orangutan, Borneo elephant and Sumatran tiger are being pushed closer to extinction as their forest habitats are cleared, and in Indonesia, more than 700 land conflicts are related to the palm oil industry. The RSPO certification certifies that palm oil used in products was produced ethically and responsibly.

20. Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Certified

The FSC certification means products that bear this label are “forest friendly,” meaning they come from responsibly managed forest that provide environmental, social, and economic benefits. The 10 principles that the Forest Stewardship Council lays out include indigenous peoples’ rights, main

Make buying choices with your values in mind.

Wondering what to do with your new knowledge of ethical labeling? Well, put it to the test. Whether you’re shopping in stores or online, check the tag or the brand’s site to see if they’re compliant with any sustainable production certifications. Try to avoid falling into traps from brands that are merely greenwashing to attract conscious consumers. Then, share this information with your friends or loved ones to encourage their positive shopping patterns as well!

Many of these certifications are named for being “fair.” It’s up to you to decide if “fairness” or “organic” or “cruelty-free” is what’s most important when deciding where to put your buying power. Ultimately, you have endless choices while shopping for products to bring into your life. No one is perfect, but every shopping choice we make has an impact, and it’s your decision on what kind of impact that will be.

Whether you’re shopping with the intent to buy from B-Corps or simply want to know what that earthy-looking symbol is on the tag of your next purchase — I hope you’ll return to this labeling breakdown to help you confidently navigate supermarket shelves and clothing racks like an ethical shopping pro.

Want to Learn More? Check out these resources:

Knowable Magazine’s Sustainability Labels

Ecolabel Index for U.S. Foods

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