Know your labels: How to be a more informed shopper

This article was written by Sophie McAulay, director of growth at GlobeIn. GlobeIn sends you unique artisan goods monthly.

Social enterprise, sustainable fashion, ethically sourced, NGO, FTF, WFTO, and more… 

With a proliferation of marketing terms and labels used to signify a ‘positive impact’, it’s no wonder that consumers are confused. It’s difficult to be a conscious consumer when you don’t understand what it is that the brands you’re purchasing from stand for. 

If you’re starting to lose count of all these different shopping labels, let alone remember what they mean, this guide is for you. Let’s demystify some of these key terms so you can make conscious shopping decisions that support ethical producers and ditch the not-so-ethical ones.

First, a TL,DR:

Fight climate change in a way that works for you.

💌 Thinking about sustainability can be overwhelming after a busy workday, so we're here to help. Join over 7,000 other busy people and subscribe to Changeletter, a bite-sized action plan that'll take you 3 minutes or less to read every week.
Headshot of Ash Borkar (a woman with glasses and a cardigan)
"The info is always timely, actionable, and never stale." - Aishwarya Borkar,
Headshot of Meghan Mehta speaking at Google with a microphone in her hand
"Making social change always felt so overwhelming until I started reading this newsletter." - Meghan Mehta, Google

Why it’s important to know your labels

Once upon a time, consumers didn’t ask so many questions about where their products came from. But shoppers are becoming more aware of the impact that their dollar can have, and are increasingly looking for ethical, environmentally friendly, and natural products.

Brands know this, and while some of them are led by people like you and me who also genuinely care about these issues, others are simply looking to capitalize on this audience by making it seem like they tick these boxes. 

‘Greenwashing’ is a type of marketing strategy where a brand tries to win a consumer’s trust by illegitimately claiming to be more environmentally responsible than they really are. This could be anything from misleading consumers about a product’s environmental impact to claiming it uses natural ingredients, even if only one or two of the ingredients are natural. 

And ‘greenwashing’ isn’t just limited to sustainability claims, it can also extend to other so-called ‘ethically made’ products. The term ethical is broad, vague, and unregulated. Brands often throw the ‘ethical’ label on their products without defining what it means to them in the first place. An example of this is H&M’s ‘conscious’ clothing collection. Following an investigation into H&M’s sustainability claims, Norway’s Consumer Authority concluded

“As H&M are not giving the consumer precise information about why these clothes are labelled Conscious, we conclude that consumers are being given the impression that these products are more ‘sustainable’ than they actually are.” — Bente Øverli, Deputy Director of Norway’s Consumer Authority

H&M has set targets to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and to use 100% recycled or sustainable materials by 2030. While these pledges are certainly progress, they are only targets, and it will be difficult to commend H&M’s impact on the planet while they continue to operate under a fast fashion business model. This is not to mention their lack of progress on the labor rights front. Following the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, H&M joined the Bangladesh Fire Safety Accord, successfully working with other brands and unions to address health and safety issues in factories. But they also promised to pay 850,000 workers a living wage by 2018, which unfortunately did not come to fruition. Some of the factories that supply H&M were named in 2018 reports by Global Labour Justice, which detailed abuse of female garment workers. In this light, the term ‘conscious’ used to brand their clothing range appears all the more vague. 

Another example designed to confuse consumers is the ‘cage free’ eggs label, which you could be forgiven for assuming amounts to ‘free range’. But it’s not the same. While the term ‘cage free’ is regulated by the USDA, it simply means that the hens can “freely roam a building, room, or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water during their production cycle, but [they do] not have access to the outdoors.”

Industry Labels

The good news is that there are industry labels which make it easy to spot an ethical or sustainable product. The bad news is that there are more than 460 of them—but keep in mind that not all are worth paying attention to. Some labels involve rigorous assessments, while others have looser regulations and rely on a brand to report honestly. 

You’ll need to do some research to figure out which ones you want to keep an eye out for. By way of illustration, let’s delve into a particular topic: fair trade. Fair trade is an arrangement designed to help producers in developing countries achieve sustainable and equitable trade relationships. There are several different fair trade labels that exist and they all have different meanings or regulations. Let’s take a look at some of the most relevant.

Guaranteed Fair Trade product label, World Fair Trade Organization

Image via WFTO 

The World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) is a network of organisations that adhere to particular principles of fair trade. Instead of certifying specific products, the WFTO assesses an entire business and its supply chain against ten fair trade principles. Companies who comply with the principles can use the guaranteed fair trade WFTO label. 

What it means: The WFTO has a Guarantee System which is used to assess whether a business is committed to fair trade in its mission, partnerships, structure, systems, and practices. The Guarantee System encompasses the following principles: 

  1. Creating opportunities for disadvantaged producers,
  2. Transparency and accountability,
  3. Fair Trade practices,
  4. Fair payment,
  5. No child labour or forced labour,
  6. Gender equity, freedom of association, and no discrimination,
  7. Good working conditions,
  8. Capacity building,
  9. Promoting fair trade, and
  10. Respecting the environment.

To achieve guaranteed status, a company has to go through an intensive process which includes self-assessment, approval from the Board of Directors, a peer visit, monitoring audit, and improvement plan based on feedback from the audit. Once improvements are made, a company can receive the WFTO label. 

What it leaves out: While the WFTO’s model is fairly comprehensive, encompassing both social practices and environmental concerns, some of the terms in the principles could be left open to interpretation. While members report adhering to ‘respecting the environment’, some of the suggestions of what this means (such as ‘all organisations use recycled or easily biodegradable materials for packing’) are not necessarily required and instead are to be used ‘to the extent possible’. If certain practices like this are important to you, you may need to investigate the companies using this label further in order to find out exactly what their approach is.

Fair Trade Federation Verification 

Image via Green America

The Fair Trade Federation is an association of North American fair trade businesses and a member of the World Fair Trade Organization. The FTF label is used to distinguish US and Canadian companies who are part of the fair trade movement to ethically source products from around the world. 

What it means: All FTF-verified companies must include fair trade as a core part of their mission, structure, and daily operations. Fair Trade Federation members need to adhere to nine principles which are based on, and very similar to, the ten outlined above for the WFTO. 

Companies are subject to a rigorous screening process before they can be FTF verified to prove their commitment to fair trade practices.

What it leaves out: Similar to the WFTO, the FTF verifies a wholesale or retail business to determine their commitment to fair trade, but it does not audit their suppliers in developing countries or investigate ingredients or materials used in every part of the supply chain. That part of the process is left up to the company being certified, meaning there could be differences in practices from company to company. 

Fair Trade Certified

Wait, what? Yep, there's a difference between being Fair Trade verified and Fair Trade certified. The first two labels we talked about provide fair trade verification, which assesses an entire business for its adherence to specific principles. Fair Trade Certified labels, on the other hand, are used for specific products, ingredients, and product lines. 

What it means: There are different organizations which offer Fair Trade Certification, and each have their own particular standards. The process always involves an objective, trustworthy third party has checked that a product or ingredient is being made according to fair trade standards like: 

What it leaves out: Certification is focused only on assessing ingredients, products, and producer sites. This means that while a product may be Fair Trade Certified, the business that owns it may not always be completely adhering to ethical standards in all areas of their business. Fair Trade Certified products also have a focus on agricultural and commodity products and may not include other industries. 

Fairtrade International

Image via Fairtrade

This is the world's major fair trade organisation and certification body, aimed at producers rather than traders. Fairtrade International has its own system for verifying ethical and fair trade businesses, with three hallmarks known as the Fairtrade Mark, Fairtrade Minimum Price, and Fairtrade Premium. 

The Fairtrade Mark is the branding and certification given to producers who reach the standards set out by the organization. The Fairtrade Minimum Price is an agreed upon price that guarantees producers a minimum price for products. This minimum price cannot change, even if the market drops, helping to protect producers from market variability. The Fairtrade Premium is an extra amount given to producers to help develop their communities. 

What it means: 

All industries, ingredients, and products have their own set of specific standards set out by Fairtrade International, however all organizations have to be committed to these basic principles: 

For an organization to be certified, a third party inspector conducts a physical audit that can take as long as necessary to confirm adherence to the above principles. Certification lasts three years, with a renewal audit conducted on the third year and unannounced audits occurring throughout the certification period.

The standard Fairtrade Mark with the black background signifies that ‘All that can be Fairtrade, is Fairtrade’ in the product. This applies to single-ingredient products like coffee, but also to products with multiple ingredients, like chocolate. 

The Fairtrade Sourced Ingredient (FSI) Mark with the white background, is used on products when only one or two ingredients in the product are certified Fairtrade (for example, if Fairtrade tea has been used to make an iced tea drink). 

What it leaves out: Members of Fairtrade International have to be small-scale producers, with farms that use their own labour and that of their families—they shouldn’t depend on hired workers. Certification costs thousands of dollars per year, something that many small-scale producers cannot afford. 

Fairtrade International is known to have a balance between ‘strictness and encouraging development’, which means it prefers to let organizations pass through the certification process quickly. In doing so, some organizations will be certified even if they are not completely following the above principles, and instead given the opportunity to amend their practices afterwards. 

Fair for Life

Image via Brands of the World

Fair for Life is a third party certification program that demonstrates at least 80% of a product’s raw materials come from fair trade practices. Unlike other fair trade labels, Fair for Life can certify every step of the production process, including producers as well as manufacturers, distributors, and brands. 

What it means: Fair for Life's certification program has detailed environmental criteria and is focused on protecting the environment where possible. Its principles are based on Fairtrade International standards and the FFL label can be used with no license fee. For an organization to be Fair for Life certified, it must: 

What it leaves out: Unlike other fair trade organizations, Fair for Life certifies products and brands that are excluded by other labels. This includes certifying products from developed countries, such as Europe and the USA, as well as developing countries. 

Beyond labels

While labels are helpful, it’s important to remember that not all businesses can afford to undergo rigorous certification processes, and some may be unable to be certified due to their size or other restrictions. 

So, besides labels, what else can you look for to determine whether or not a company is ethical? Here are some tips for knowing if a company is genuine. 

1. Check their website. If a brand is claiming to be sustainable, natural, ethical, or organic, and doesn’t have a label to back it up, jump onto their website for some research. If a company is truly committed to a cause, be it labor rights, the environment, or something else, you should be able to find prominent, detailed, and clear information all about that cause. Some things to look for might include the materials they use or how their supply chain works. 

If a brand’s ‘about’ or ‘impact’ page seems vague, then they could be engaging in greenwashing. You want to find cold, hard facts and details, not broad statements or promises.

2. Read their mission statement. A company that is truly dedicated to making positive changes in the world will have that as part of their mission statement. One that is more concerned with selling products will have a mission statement that lacks any clear motivation for positive change. 

3. Look through their entire range. It could be worth looking through a company or brand’s entire product range to ensure that they all carry the same principles and values. For example, if the brand has only one ‘sustainable’ range with the rest of their products missing that criteria, then you may want to carefully consider which products you purchase from them, if any. 

4. Use online tools. Let someone else do the hard work for you! If the brand or company you’re sizing up is large enough, you may find them listed on certain websites that promote ethical or sustainable products. These websites, like Project Cece, Ethical Made Easy, Brightly, and STAIY, help break down different businesses in terms of their social responsibility and ethics so that you can shop more consciously. For clothing brands, you can search through Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index or use the Good on You app to get some more clarity. 

5. Email them and ask. If you still can’t find much information out there, why not email the company and ask? Whether you’ve found red flags or hardly any information at all, it’s worth sending an email with a few questions about where their products are made, how they ensure safety and fair pay, what sustainable practices they use, and so on. 

Stay informed

Becoming a more conscious consumer is a process! Don’t beat yourself up if you get it wrong sometimes—in many cases you’re confused for good reason. Over time and with research, you can learn more about what to look out for, and find the brands or products that you truly believe in. 

Another easy way to stay informed on environmental justice issues is signing up for Changeletter below. We hope to see you join us!

Fight climate change in a way that works for you.

💌 Thinking about sustainability can be overwhelming after a busy workday, so we're here to help. Join over 7,000 other busy people and subscribe to Changeletter, a bite-sized action plan that'll take you 3 minutes or less to read every week.
Headshot of Ash Borkar (a woman with glasses and a cardigan)
"The info is always timely, actionable, and never stale." - Aishwarya Borkar,
Headshot of Meghan Mehta speaking at Google with a microphone in her hand
"Making social change always felt so overwhelming until I started reading this newsletter." - Meghan Mehta, Google

We're ready when you are.

Get our free bite-sized climate action plans before you go!

Soapbox Project logo