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Your Guide to Ethical Labels

Are ethical labels greenwash or transformative social movements?

With more than 450 eco labels out there, our definitive guide shows you how to find labels to trust. 

What are ethical labels?

Ethical labels, such as Fairtrade, have emerged to help consumers identify products and companies making a wide variety of ethical claims. And new ones are springing up all the time.

They recognise products meeting certain criteria - for example paying a decent wage to workers or committing to certain animal welfare standards. However, they vary greatly both in terms of how high the ethical expectations actually are, and how robustly they are checked. 

Beginnings and success

Ethical labels are also referred to as sustainability standards and certifications, ethical accreditation schemes, eco-labels or ethical supply chain certifications. They grew out of the successful boycotts movements in the late 20th century when companies began to ask what practical steps they needed to take to comply with campaigners' demands. 

The FSC label, for example, emerged when groups calling for a boycott of unsustainable timber, and after campaigning outside retailers’ stores, sat down with the companies to talk.

Now, ethical labels are everywhere. In 2022, the Ecolabel Index was tracking 455 labels in 199 countries, and across 25 industry sectors.

Sustainable labels generally have grown in popularity because:

  • for companies they offer a way to address ethical risks, and
  • for campaigners they offer a successful model for driving change.

For example, in 2017, Fairtrade International reported that the number of farmers and workers benefiting from its programs had increased by 18% from the previous year. More than 1.6 million were receiving total premiums of around 150m Euro.

Also in 2017 Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) claimed that around 14% of cotton grown around the world was produced under its standards. In 2022, it has over 1,000 corporate members.

Multi-stakeholders and standards

Most ethical labelling schemes have two key elements: ‘multi-stakeholders’ and ‘standards’.

The best labelling schemes are created by a combination of campaigners and companies and are a compromise between the two - which is what we mean by ‘multi-stakeholder’.  The FSC has probably the most complex multi-stakeholder model with a general assembly of more than 800 groups that meets every three years.

Standards themselves have become pretty complicated too over the years. The Fairtrade Foundation has 77 different UK standards documents covering commodities from bananas to honey and organisations from small producers to employers of hired labour. And if you think this is complicated, you should see some of the Marine Stewardship Council’s standards. They have different standards for each of their 280 certified fisheries, and a report on the assessments for just one can run to nearly 300 pages.

image: green paint greenwashed wall greenwashing example of greenwashing

Are ethical labels greenwash?

Pretty much any company or industry association can dream up an ethical logo or sustainable label and add it to packaging, so it is difficult to know who to trust.

Ethical labelling is not normally regulated by governments. There are a tiny number of notable exceptions such as Organic food labelling in the EU. There are indications that this may be improving soon, but until then we need to look for help elsewhere.

Deciding when a particular standard is good enough can be a tricky or controversial call, which is why, in some sectors, there are many labels certifying the same thing in slightly different ways. In palm oil, for example, standards include the RSPO, the Sustainable Agriculture Network and the Palm Oil Information Group. Each of these may claim to be taking the right approach.

Sometimes, companies will deliberately set up competing standards to try and control - and often to reduce - the ethical standards expected of them. The UK's Red Tractor scheme for welfare standards in meat is just one such example. While it is the UK’s biggest scheme for farms, it does not have any NGO partners.

Schemes are therefore on a spectrum from more robust to less ethically meaningful. Those labels dominated by campaigns are on one side, while those dominated by companies are on the other.

Since ethical labelling schemes are essentially political projects, asking whether ethical labelling schemes are good is a bit like asking whether political parties are good. It will very much depend on your personal stance!

We think though, that some ethical labels can fairly be described as greenwash - companies making untruthful or misleading sustainability claims. Below, we therefore outline our top tips for identifying the best options.

How to separate the good from the greenwash?

Here are our top tips for checking whether a label is greenwash, and where to look for the relevant information.

The best way to find a label that is not greenwash is to look for a campaign group whose judgement you trust which has been involved in developing and managing the label. They will be listed as a ‘member’ on the label’s website. Some, for example, involve trades unions (e.g. Fair Wear Foundation) or government departments.

Fairtrade International ingredient logos

Three ways to identify the best ethical labels

Surveys have consistently shown that consumers were becoming baffled by the number of competing labels. 

Luckily, civil society groups have developed three approaches to help navigate this territory.

1. Consumer guides to specific ethical labels

With more than 450 eco labels out there, we can't give you an opinion on all of them in this article.

However most of our UK shopping guides will give you a detailed review of those you're likely to come across for a specific product. Here is a non-exhaustive list to help you find some of the main ones:

Clothing and Fashion: Fairtrade, Organic, WFTO, Fair Wear. Also see Fairtrade fashion.

Cotton: Organic cotton, Faitrade cotton, Better Cotton Initiative, Responsible Sourcing Network

Food & Drink: Organic, Free Range, Vegan, Palm Oil Free, MSC, EC Best Buy

Furniture: FSC, PEFC, Leather Working Group

Health and Beauty: Organic, Leaping Bunny, Faitrade, BDIH, Natrue. EC Best Buy

Palm Oil: RSPO, Orangutan Alliance, Iceland's no palm oil, Palm Oil Free

Certain products also have their own labels:

  • Bananas: Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, Organic
  • Tea and Coffee: Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, Organic, UTZ, Fair for Life


Formal projects to rank labels have also been set up for consumers in a few other countries including Germany, Austria and the USA. The German website, for example, was launched in 2000.

2. Campaign groups are publishing their own guides to ethical labels too

Some groups are also trying to help raise standards in certification by providing consumer advice in the specific areas in which they work. The UK animal welfare group Compassion in World Farming for example, publishes a 'Compassionate food guide' which ranks food labels on a one hundred point scale. They use their own list of preferred standards such as 'freedom to express normal behaviour' to ascribe a value to the extent to which each scheme can guarantee such standards are met.

The US-based Fair World Project also publishes an 'International Guide to Fair Trade Labels'. Published in 2015 (and updated in 2020) and 125 pages long, it provides a detailed analysis, and ultimately an opinion, on the performance of nine labels across a variety of criteria.

3. There is now a certification schemes for certification schemes

In 2002, partly to try to address the emergence of problem schemes, a group of ethical labelling schemes got together to try to establish standards for this sector. The ISEAL Alliance's stated mission is "to strengthen sustainability standards systems for the benefit of people and the environment".

It has ten "Credibility Principles" which are as follows: sustainability; [continuous] improvement; relevance; rigour; engagement; impartiality; transparency; accessibility; truthfulness and efficiency.

It only had 19 members in 2019 from the potentially 455 listed on the Ecolabel Index website. However its members include some of the biggest and most significant projects. They include some well regarded schemes like Fairtrade International as well as some, like the RSPO and MSC, which have become widely criticised.

Criticism of ethical labels

There has been controversy over the years about both the whole idea of ethical labelling schemes and the approach that individual schemes are taking. 

In 2018, the Changing Markets Foundation published a report called The false promise of certification. In it they said, "The main conclusion of this report is that certification has lost its way and that its contribution to creating a more sustainable world is minute. We argue that it can even cause active damage; it lowers the bar to certify higher product volumes and in many cases fails to enforce greater transparency, thereby providing cover for unsustainable companies and practices."

The report, perhaps unfairly, didn't look at two of the least controversial schemes - Organic and Fairtrade - in putting together its case.

More often, criticisms focus on specific labels. The first organisation set up to address a single scheme was FSC Watch in 2006. Its detailed critiques continue to be a model for others to follow. 

Since then a growing number of formal coalitions campaigning for improvements to labels have emerged. For example, there were 58 marine conservation groups listed in 2019 as partners on the campaigning website at Make Stewardship Count. The group is calling for "urgent and swift changes to the MSC certification standard in order to uphold the scientific rigour, transparency, and original vision of the seafood label."

Taking a position in the real world on the point at which (for example) support for workers or sustainable forests becomes significant enough to deserve a label will always be controversial. And companies and campaigners, both within and outside labelling schemes will both be pushing all the time to get their views heard. This is entirely appropriate, and it is what politics is all about.

Why is ethical accreditation important?

Generally speaking, ethical labels are seen by all campaigners as a poor second best option to improving corporate behaviour through regulation, since they may be frequently flouted with relative impunity or the standards can be too low. 

However, corporate lobbying has made regulation practically difficult and very slow in many areas. This means that all but the worst ethical labels are usually better than nothing until regulation can come along to sort things out properly.

For consumers, labels can therefore provide some degree of trust that a supply chain is managed with ethics in mind and can provide a practical choice in the short term.

Further reading

The article was mainly constructed using edited extracts, with permission, from Chapter 8 of my own book the Handbook of Ethical Purchasing. As well as providing references and further reading, the longer version in the chapter also looks at questions such as: what is the role of auditing, transparency and reporting? Are all ethical labels voluntary initiatives? What can governments do to regulate ethical labels? Do some ethical labels amount to 'civil regulation?'

In 2014, Ethical Consumer systematically analysed the governance, members, and transparency of 17 accreditation schemes and its work is archived and available on our research site.