The right way to buy green

2015-03-29 14:30

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Being a “green shopper” is becoming increasingly fashionable and global brands are doing their best to keep up with environmentally friendly consumer trends.

Everything – from food to body products and clothing – has some label on it telling you why this business is greener than its competition. And while this consciousness (benevolent or not) has made for strides in sourcing and selling earth-friendly goods, there is also a lot of humbug out there that shoppers must be aware of.

Probably the best example of the green-label mythology is tree-hugging, heavenly smelling company The Body Shop, which loves to market the Fairtrade logo and paste photos of smiling Brazilian children on the bottom of your body butter.

Many businesses offer fair trade options, to help consumers make earth-friendly choices.

But there’s little substance here. While the ingredients are (ostensibly) sourced using Fairtrade agreements and we can pat them on the back for that, the packaging processes and working conditions in distribution factories leave a lot to be desired.

The Body Shop has been accused of hiring child labourers in India and opposing trade union membership across a number of its countries of operation. And, of course, there’s the small fact that it is owned by L'Oreal, the sneaky animal-testing lord of the cosmetics underworld.

But to be fair, the problem doesn’t stem from companies. It starts from a complex network of terms and buzz words for different products, and limited regulation.

Fairtrade is probably the most difficult one to pin down.

But most legitimate Fairtrade companies will follow up the claim with third party certification from an organisation like Fairtrade Labelling Organisations International, which regulates fair trade.

And with countries like the US having little to no legislation around the requirement of food labels, beyond basic nutrition, it’s a difficult territory to navigate.

South Africa is a frontrunner in this area, requiring information like nutrition, additives and country-of-origin labels to be placed on products.

So, in the midst of confusing ecojargon, cost-cutting considerations and the difficulty of getting clear information, how do we make sure we are conscious buyers?

Well, the one thing to remember, particularly with fair trade, is that it’s as much about process as it is product.

Your coffee beans may have come from a nice mom and pop farm outfit in Kenya, but that counts for nothing if the packaging is done by kids in a Vietnamese sweatshop.

There’s usually a long, self-congratulating story on the label, or on the company’s website, so do your due diligence.

Similarly, be sure to get the terms right. While an “organic” product is one which contains at least 95% organic material – with no antibiotics, hormones or pesticides used in processing – this is, of course, different to “made with organic material”, a slightly less exacting standard.

With a glance at the fine print, conscious buying can become a meaningful, constructive wayto save the planet – as opposed to another fad designed to earn you props in the right social circles.

To help you, Fairtrade Label SA keeps an updated list of products and producers on its website.

Visit for a list of products that are truly Fairtrade.

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