These days, it seems like everywhere you look, there’s some kind of organization slapping a label on a product to certify that it’s better than competing products in some social sphere. This one is better for the environment, this one uses only recycled materials, this one uses 100% green energy in its production, this one is Fairtrade certified, this one is wholly organic, and the list goes on and on.
At first glance, this might seem like a good thing. Regardless of the specifics of the label, more people and more products pushing these social and ethical initiatives are good across the board, right?
The trouble is, it all muddies the waters. A product might be labeled with a certification, sure, but do you know the certifying body? Do you know the standards to which they hold the products they certify? Are they even real?
Putting aside the issue of fraud, the truth is that there are scales in terms of certifications for ethical products. A huge, global organization like Fairtrade has international reach, world recognition, and high standards that are validated, enforced, and proven time and again. A label like Organic, on the other hand, has none of those things. Usually.
It’s complicated, which is why we’re explaining it here today.
What is Fairtrade?
A “Fair Trade” product is a product that is produced by Fairtrade-certified producers using raw materials grown on Fairtrade-certified farms. Fairtrade International is the global governing body that sets overall standards, guides the direction of the organization, and helps ensure that the various national versions of the organization are working in conjunction with one another.
Individual regions will have their own Fairtrade organizations, like Fairtrade America and Fairtrade Canada. These regional branches do the more ground-level work to certify, audit, and monitor the farms, producers, and products that they certify.
Fairtrade works in two ways: at the farm level and at the business level. Businesses that manufacture products can have those products certified as Fairtrade, but in order to do so, those products must meet all of the Fairtrade standards. That means, among other things, that they are made using solely raw materials that come from Fairtrade farms and that the labor and processes used to manufacture them are themselves upheld to Fairtrade standards.
Since the Fairtrade label is beneficial for marketing and can come with a markup (and thus profitability), Fairtrade requires that dues be paid. This annual fee goes towards the overall management of the Fairtrade organization but also, more importantly, to the farms.
Farms are unique in that their incentive to be profitable means to do things on a large scale and use as little labor as inexpensively as possible. In parts of the world, this means exploitation, slavery, child labor, and extremely environmentally damaging practices.
To compete with this, using ethical farming is expensive, slower, and far less profitable if it’s even profitable at all. But that’s what Fairtrade requires. So, Fairtrade helps. Farms that want to be certified as Fairtrade don’t pay dues; in fact, they receive funding from Fairtrade to support them against competition that doesn’t uphold the same level of ethics.
Through this double-faceted approach, Fairtrade sets standards and works to ensure that the entire supply line, from farm to product, is ethical and valid. If any step of the way ends up muddled, like a producer using supplies from non-Fairtrade farms, the certification is invalid and revoked.
For more information, particularly on the business side, you can read our guide here.
What is Organic?
For every bit as regulated as Fairtrade is, the term “Organic” isn’t as regulated.
Everywhere you look these days, you can find organic products. The labeling comes in many forms, though, and that’s part of the problem. You can also see similar labels, like Non-GMO or “Natural,” and sometimes even in conjunction.
What does it all mean?
Ostensibly, Organic applies primarily to food, but also occasionally to other grown materials like cotton. It’s a promise that the farms that produced the food have met the standards for what constitutes organic food. As for what those standards are, well, it’s a bit more of a mystery.
In the USA, Organic is often – but not always – governed by the USDA. The USDA has a certification and validation process, and they have a series of four different labels that can be put on products. It’s not like Fairtrade, where it’s either all or nothing.
There are two problems with the organic label.
The first is that it’s not nearly as heavily regulated or audited as something like Fairtrade. That means there’s less trust in it and plenty of misrepresentation under the hood. The second is that the actual standards aren’t as rigorous as you might think and possibly aren’t even all that beneficial in the long run. More on that later.
The USDA Organic label, as mentioned, comes in four forms.
- 100% Organic. This requires certification to use, and all ingredients in the product must be on the list of allowed substances. No GMOs are allowed, and the entire product must be organic.
- Organic. This also requires certification and disallows GMOs, but only 95% of the ingredients must be organic. That 5% can be whatever, as long as it’s not explicitly on the prohibited substances list.
- Made with Organic. This is at least 70% of the product made with organic materials, but is otherwise the same as Organic.
- Organic Ingredients. This is basically a catch-all for “we made an effort to be organic, but we didn’t really check,” has no minimum percentage, and does not require certification or compliance of any sort… it’s essentially meaningless.
As for why that fourth one exists, your guess is as good as ours.
So, what does being Organic actually mean? Well, for the most part, it means avoiding things like genetically modified monoculture crops, massive factory farming using pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and other chemicals, and minimizing farming practices that can damage the soil and water. In particular, soil used for growing organic foods can’t have been treated with a prohibited chemical for at least three years.
What isn’t on the organic label is things like:
- Environmental impact in other ways; growing Almonds in a desert is perfectly acceptable if it’s done without chemicals, even if it’s devastating to the local water table.
- Ethical treatment of human workers employed to tend and harvest the crops.
- Guarantees that everything on the allowable substances list is healthy.
- Attestations that diversity and equality are represented throughout the organization.
- Other kinds of labor standards and requirements.
There are a lot of questions about the validity of the Organic label. If it sounds like we’re being harsh on it, though, we’re not; we’re just being realistic. It’s actually one of the more trustworthy labels when you look specifically at the 100% organic certification. It’s the other three that make it less useful and muddle the picture.
Is a Fairtrade Product Organic?
Often, but not necessarily. Fairtrade standards encourage sustainable and environmentally friendly farming methods, but they aren’t as strict about it as the USDA. They have a broader focus that takes more of the human element into consideration.
According to Fairtrade America, Fairtrade promotes organic farming, saying, “Trade justice and environmental justice are intertwined.” They claim that 60% of Fairtrade produce is also organic. However, they also say, “We do not require organic certification because barriers like cost, location, quality of soil, and training often make it difficult to pursue for some farmers.” They encourage it but don’t require it.
Which is Better: Fairtrade or Organic?
This is a tricky question to answer. The truth is, there’s no “better” when it comes to protecting our planet and the vulnerable people on it. Any effort is better than no effort at all, and both the USDA and Fairtrade approach the issue from different angles.
If we were put on the spot and told to answer, though, we’d say Fairtrade. There are three reasons for this.
The first reason is that Fairtrade is international, whereas the Organic label is governed by the USDA and is thus limited to the United States. Other countries have their own versions of Organic, with varying standards, but it’s not always reflective. Some Fairtrade products are organic as well. It just isn’t their core emphasis.
The second reason is that Fairtrade is more comprehensive in what they encourage, protect, and value. While Organic does good work for protecting croplands, water tables, and the nutrition levels in food, there are also a lot of pitfalls with taking that singular approach, and other elements of the entire farming picture may end up suffering from it. In particular, the use of undocumented, underpaid workers for a massive amount of farming labor throughout the USA is common and left unaddressed.
The third reason goes back to what we mentioned earlier: Organic isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be.
- Organic farming techniques help, but without addressing larger concerns like overall climate change, the quality of the soil can only last for so much longer.
- Varying and changing regulations governed by differing administrations often lead to changes that loosen the standards, increasing contamination and food recalls. For example, salmonella contamination in produce is frequently caused by cross-contamination from organic fertilizers – that is, manure – that isn’t properly isolated because the requirement to do so was rolled back.
- For all labels except the 100% organic label, there’s some percentage of non-organic-certified ingredients allowed. Even 5% of a product being laced with chemicals could be potentially unhealthy, yet people are more prone to trusting it because of the label.
- Many items are allowed to obtain the certified organic label when it really doesn’t make a difference. A lot of cosmetics, for example, can be organic while not addressing more pressing concerns, like animal testing or the use of parabens.
- Organic doesn’t mean healthy, nutritious, or even safe. In fact, the USDA even says that the label doesn’t address food safety or nutrition. Public impression isn’t aligned with the actual standards, and there isn’t actually much effort being spent to improve that public perception.
- Some organic measures aren’t actually beneficial. Many modern pesticides aren’t actually dangerous to anything but the pests they target (and pesticide residues show up in organic foods despite not using them directly.)
- Meanwhile, organic farming methods often reduce yields and make it more difficult for farms to be profitable, which has resulted in immense amounts of money funneled into farm subsidies to keep them operational.
- Prohibiting GMOs – Genetically Modified Organisms – isn’t all it’s cracked up to be either. Genetic modification has been going on for millennia through selective breeding. It’s how all dog breeds were created and how Brassica has been turned into everything from cabbage to cauliflower to mustard seed despite being the same plant. It’s also why corn is edible at all.
Now, digging deep into the faults and failures of the Organic movement is beyond the scope of this article. More importantly, though, all of this is not to say that Organic is bad. It’s just not as good as many people might think. It’s mostly just that it’s been co-opted by marketing more than it has been made into a truly useful certification in some cases.
Where We Stand
At Ethix, our goal is to promote ethical, humane, and environmentally friendly products and manufacturing at all levels. Each of the products we offer has some level of adherence to these values. However, each product is different; some are produced with organic materials, some are closer to fair trade, and others focus on human rights via union labor.
When you shop with us, you know the products you’re buying have as much attention paid to their ethical production as possible. We’re also more than happy to share any and all information we have about those products with you. Transparency is one of our key values.
We don’t claim to be perfect. No one can. We do our best, and we continually push to improve in any way we can. When you shop our products, you, too, promote these values. So, why not browse our store and see what catches your eye?
Daniel Cardozo, CEO of Ethix Merch, is a passionate advocate for ethical promotional products. With a mission to transform global supply chains, he serves on the Labor 411 Foundation and Advertising Specialty Institute’s Promo for the Planet Advisory Board. Daniel is dedicated to empowering socially and environmentally-conscious consumers.