Olive Oil

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 32 olive oil brands.

We also look at the environmental issues of intensive production, shine a spotlight on the ethics of Zaytoun and give our recommended buys.

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This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

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What to buy

What to look for when buying olive oil:

  • Is it organic? Use of pesticides and other chemicals harms workers, wildlife and the environment. Opt for organic oil.

  • Is it Fairtrade? Buying Fairtrade means that producers in the developing world have received a fair price for their products.

  • Is it bought from an ethical brand? Many supermarkets are notorious for their poor treatment of suppliers, and those producing their own-brand products. Try to buy from smaller businesses and charities.

Subscribe to see which companies we recommend as Best Buys and why 

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying olive oil:

  • Is it packaged in plastic? While it is not as simple as ‘glass good, plastic bad’, we recommend buying glass packaging and recycling after use. See our bottled water guide for more on plastic vs. glass packaging.

  • Is it intensively produced? Intensive olive plantations use high levels of pesticides and demand huge quantities of water, often in regions where water is scarce. Opt for organic to know that the olives have been grown sustainably.

  • Is it grown using pesticides? Synthetic pesticides and herbicides threaten insect populations, contaminate water sources and can have ecosystem-wide knock-on effects. Look for organic certification to avoid ingredients grown with these chemicals, and to support sustainable farming practices.

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Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

Our Analysis

The market for edible oils is expanding. The five most popular types of oil are vegetable, rapeseed, sunflower, coconut and olive oil.

Vegetable/rapeseed and olive oils are bought by about four in ten people, while a third buy sunflower oils. Demand for coconut oil has grown rapidly in recent years, although it is still only purchased by 7% of consumers. 2017/18 saw demand dip slightly, although only time will tell if this is a trend.

Olive oil brands

The supermarkets have a strong presence in the olive oil market, their own brands collectively holding 53% market share. The two non-supermarket brands that dominate the market are Filippo Berio, owned by the Bright Food Group, and Napolina, owned by Mitsubishi. Those that top our table are generally smaller brands, which, if you cannot find at your local wholefood shop, can usually be bought online.

We recommend you buy organic olive oils, and organic oil is common in the olive oil market, so there is plenty to choose from, with around half of the big supermarkets offering organic own-brand choices too.

Table highlights

Bio Planete and Organico brands both lost a whole mark under the Animal Rights category, as Organico Realfoods Ltd also owns Fish4Ever, which sells tinned fish. Although the brand prides itself on selling sustainable fish, any company that sells meat or fish is marked down.

The following companies received Ethical Consumer’s worst rating for likely use of tax avoidance strategies: Asda, Archer Daniels Midland, Bright Food Group, Lidl, Marks & Spencer, Mitsubishi, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, and Waitrose.

Olive oil production

Sadly, the UK produces no olives of its own, and so it relies solely on imports. In 2001, the value of olive oil imports to the UK was worth £57m; but, by 2017, this had increased to £219m, although some of this is price inflation, with 2017 seeing olive prices spike due to droughts that affected major producer countries across the Mediterranean. Brexit, should it occur, will likely increase olive oil prices still further.

The Mediterranean basin is home to about 95% of the olive trees in the world, so production of olive oil stems primarily from southern Europe, North Africa and the Near East. EU countries account for 70 to 75% of world production of olive oil, with Spain providing 59% of the EU total in 2017, followed by Italy (25%), Portugal (7%) and Greece (7%). Olive oil has been produced in and around the Mediterranean for thousands of years. Production is generally categorised into three methods: traditional or extensive, semi-intensive, and super-intensive.

Traditional methods of production are characterised by low levels of labour and agricultural inputs, such as water, pesticides and fertilisers, and low tree density. Intensive or super-intensive olive farming generally consists of several factors: high-density plantation (up to 2500 trees per hectare), generally located on flat areas; high inputs of fertilisers and pesticides; huge water inputs and irrigation systems; and the mechanisation of pruning and harvesting.

Image: organic olive oil with vegetables ethical consumer

Intensive vs organic

According to a paper published in 2018, “Intensified olive farming is a major cause of one of the biggest environmental problems affecting the EU today, i.e. the widespread soil erosion and desertification in all southern EU countries. The expansion of irrigated olive production is increasing the over-exploitation of water resources that have already been eroded by other agricultural sectors.”

In May 2019 research from Portugal’s Institute for Nature Conservation and Forests estimated that millions of birds were being killed around the Mediterranean as a result of super-intensive, night-time olive harvesting.

Night-time harvesting is done because the cool temperatures better preserve the olive flavours. However, the super-intensive machines used to suck up countless numbers of birds, many of which use the trees as a resting place while on their migratory journey between Europe and North Africa. 

We therefore recommend that you buy organic. Although it does not guarantee the exclusion of heavy machinery in olive harvesting, it means that its use is unlikely. Buying organic also means that other sustainability factors have been addressed, for example, that no toxic pesticides and herbicides have been used.

Furthermore, organic, or traditional olive farming has a much lower environmental impact as it does not rely on chemicals or such large quantities of water.
It has also been shown that, in general, biodiversity in organic farmland is about one third higher than in conventional farmland.

See our investigative feature for more information on harvesting olive oil and bird deaths, and to see which brands have a bird-friendly guarantee.

The rise of organic

Despite the negative environmental impacts of intensive production methods, farmers are often pushed towards these systems due to the economic benefits they provide, as “modern intensive systems outperform the traditional ones in terms of yields, economic outcomes and profit.” But organic agricultural production in the EU is rising.

In 2017, organic farming within the EU covered 12.6m hectares of agricultural land, corresponding to 7% of the total utilised agricultural land, up 25% from 2012. Olives represent a sizeable proportion of organic production in the EU: in 2015 they accounted for 34% of the organic permanent crop area.

The history of olive oil in the UK

The introduction of culinary olive oil to the UK is accredited to Elizabeth David, a cookery writer, who published A Book of Mediterranean Food in 1950. At that time, the oil was generally to be found in chemists, intended for medicinal rather than culinary use. Despite the relatively late introduction of olive oil to our rainy shores, the idea that oil is something from the olive is embedded in our common tongue. The words ‘olive’ and ‘oil’ appear so similar because they have a shared etymology: the word oil comes from the Latin oleum (oil, olive oil), which stemmed from the Greek 'elaion', meaning ‘olive tree’.

How do cooking oils compare?

So, which type of oil should the ethical consumer buy? We would argue that the main issue is not which type of oil but, rather, which brand.

There are, however, some factors that may influence your decision on type. When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, the difference is not that significant, particularly as oil is itself likely to be a very small portion of your carbon footprint, although coconut oil produces the lowest emissions and olive oil the highest, as shown:

Oil Type UK GHG emissions (kgCO2e/kg) 
Coconut 2.1
Rapeseed 2.9
Vegetable 3.2
Sunflower 3.3
Olive 4.5

If you are wanting to buy from UK farmers, then rapeseed is really your only option, although supplies of organic UK rapeseed are few and far between. Generally speaking, the vegetable oils rapeseed and sunflower oil use the most pesticides and fertilisers, but this can be avoided through the purchasing of organic oil.

The environmental impact of five different oils

Table: environmental impact of vegetable oils with pesticides and fertilisers

The table above gives an idea of the typical environmental impacts in the production of five crops used to produce widely used oils.

Fertilisers are generally used for all crops but are relied upon least in the production of coconuts and palm fruit. The production of coconuts and palm fruit also requires extremely few pesticides. This explains why organic coconut is so widely available.

Olive production generally uses a notable amount of pesticide, but this figure is relatively low in comparison to the amount used in the production of rapeseed and sunflower oil. Organic rapeseed and sunflower oils are available but are less common than organic olive or coconut oils.

It could be deduced from this table that the oil with the least environmental impact is palm oil, due to its high yield and low amounts of fertilisers and pesticides used. There is some truth in this, and its high yield is one reason, alongside its versatility, why it has been favoured by so many companies.

However, thus far palm oil has been produced in an incredibly unsustainable way, resulting in the mass destruction of habitat. 

Palm oil

Palm oil is found in many products, although it is little used in the UK as cooking oil. None of the vegetable oils viewed by Ethical Consumer contained palm oil. However, many of the companies used palm oil in their other products.

If you wish to avoid buying oils owned by companies who received our worst rating for their palm oil sourcing, these are the brands to avoid: 

  • Crisp ‘n Dry,
  • Mazola,
  • Pura,
  • Goldenfields
  • Sunita
  • Hellenic
  • East End
  • Optima

Company Profile

Zaytoun was founded in 2004 to support the resilience and livelihoods of Palestinian farmers under occupation through fairly trading their olive oil. It was founded after Heather Masoud and Cathi Pawson visited Palestine and accompanied Palestinian farmers harvesting their crops. Witnessing the Israeli occupation first hand, they sought to transform their anger at injustice into action, and Zaytoun was born soon after.

A fair trade company and member of the World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO), Zaytoun also supports a model of agriculture that is naturally organic, sustainable and “rooted in time and tradition”.

Want to know more?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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