Unearthing Sustainable Food Labelling: what do the stamps say?

Looking for sustainable food labelling is often something of a guessing game, and this can make it difficult to make ethical choices at the supermarket despite your good intentions. There are so many different labels carried by so many kinds of products that a lot of the time they’re easily missed, and even if you notice them it isn’t always obvious what they’re trying to say.

Coffee Beans cropped
Image by Mark Sweep

We’ve put together this handy little guide to help iron out the creases in the great tapestry of food labels and to give you the information you want to make the best choices you can. 


One of the best known of the food labelling family, you’ll probably be most familiar with it appearing on your bananas and other fruits, chocolate, coffee, cakes and biscuits, herbs and spices, and wine. The Fairtrade label certifies that the product or food ingredient has met a set of minimum social, economic, and environmental standards, including fairer prices and better working conditions for the people who grow the food for us. It encourages the protection of workers’ rights as well as investment in business and community development where it’s needed.

Rainforest AllianceRainforest Alliance

This label is used to certify that the way the food or any one of its ingredients is produced takes into account its impact on natural resources, the environment, and the local communities. You’ll see this food labelling on coffee, cocoa, chocolate, nuts and fruits, and tea.


The Leaf food labelling is used to show that the whole farm works with certain principles aimed at cutting down the effect on the environment. It’s found on a range of fruits and vegetables as well as some meat products in some of our supermarkets.

Carbon TrustCarbon Trust Carbon Footprint Label

This label shows how much carbon dioxide (CO2) and other global-warming gasses are emitted as a direct result of producing, distributing, and disposing of the product. Companies labelling their products with this have measured the carbon footprint of the product according to a British Standard and promise to reduce it within two years. You may have seen it on things like Tesco orange juice and milk, Kingsmill bread, Tate and Lyle sugar, and Walkers crisps.

Soil Association Organic StandardSoil Association Organic Standard

The Soil Association is the main group in the UK to certify that our organic food complies with EU legislation. The standards are based on the protection wildlife and the environment by limiting the use of pesticides, artificial food additives, and chemical fertilisers. Animal cruelty is prohibited and animals live a free-range life and eat non-GM animal feed. This food labelling is visible on lots of products including fruit and vegetables, farmed salmon, and processed foods.

Conservation GradeConservation Grade

The Conservation Grade food labelling system, used by farmers for a premium price for their crops, is based on encouraging biodiversity. Farmers given the Conservation Grade dedicate 10% of their land to the creation and management of nature-friendly habitats. This is mostly seen on cereal products.

MSCMarine Stewardship Council (MSC)

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is a food labelling group just for fish. It certifies fish from wild capture fisheries, but not farmed fish. MSC approves fisheries according to its own environmental standards, but it also requires that every company in the supply chain that wishes to use the label must be certified too so the product can be traced. Its fishery standards ensure fish are kept at sustainable levels and the impact on marine ecosystems and long-term sustainability are properly managed. Many fish products will also tell you whether they are ‘pole and line caught’. Pole and line catching means not using drift nets to catch the fish, as these are known to harm dolphins.


Eating Out

Food labelling becomes a whole new course to navigate when it comes to eating out, but here are a couple of the more common restaurant-based labels to watch out for:

Food for LifeFood for Life Catering Mark

The Food for Life Catering Mark is awarded to caterers by the Soil Association. There are three levels from bronze to silver, and eventually gold standard which are awarded as the caterer moves towards more use of fresh, seasonal, local and organic ingredients, high welfare meat, and sustainable fish. To reach the gold standard, at least 30% of the ingredients have to be organic or MSC certified; at least 50% of ingredients need to be locally sourced; organic meat, dairy products, and eggs must be of the highest welfare standard and vegetarian dishes have to be promoted.

Sustainable Restaurant AssociationSustainable Restaurant Association

The Sustainable Restaurant Association was launched in 2010. It helps restaurants who want to find and grow food more sustainably as well as helping people to find more sustainable restaurants to eat at. To be awarded the badge, the restaurant has to dedicate itself to becoming more sustainable and to committing to at least three of 14 optional actions. These include things like buying locally and in season, environmentally friendly farming (such as using at least 20% more fresh produce from producers certified by groups like the Soil Association or Rainforest Alliance), using ethical meat and dairy products, MSC-certified fish, and Fairtrade products, as well as keeping a check on energy efficiency, water saving, and healthy eating.

Now take a look at our Top 5 ethical food brands!

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