Green and Ethical Food Labels

What To Look For And What Do They Mean

illustration of the world with foods and food labels circling it
Green and Ethical Food Labels

The Spruce Eats / Julie Bang

When first introduced, food labels offered ingredient lists and basic nutritional info. These days, there are many more types of labels on food, including "ethical" or "green" labels using terms like organic, free-range, cage-free and certified vegan, as well as fairtrade, certified humane, and non GMO. But what do all these labels mean? Is there a difference between foods bearing these labels and their "conventional" counterparts? And with labels that use the word "certified," certified by whom? According to what standards? Here's the lowdown on some of the most common ethical and green food labels. 

Fairtrade

a blue, yellow and black abstract image of a person raising their hand with the word FAIRTRADE on the bottom
Fairtrade logo.

The Spruce Eats / Julie Bang

Fairtrade is a certification given by Fairtrade International, a nonprofit organization certifying that products, like coffee, chocolate, bananas, or tea, are produced in accordance with specific social, economic and environmental guidelines relating to fair payment to farmers, ethical treatment of workers, and respect for the environment.

For a product to receive Fairtrade certification, its entire supply chain must be audited to ensure compliance, and companies commit to ongoing transparency. Still, some Fairtrade guidelines can be vague. For instance, "respecting the environment" can simply mean using recyclable packaging. Moreover,  guidelines often include phrases like "to the extent possible," which can make compliance hazy at best.

What Is Fairtrade?

Fairtrade is a certification on products, like coffee, chocolate, bananas, or tea, are produced in accordance with specific social, economic and environmental guidelines.

Organic

half green and white logo with "USDA Organic" wording
USDA Organic Label.

The Spruce Eats / Julie Bang

In the United States, fruits, vegetables, meats and other agricultural products labeled as organic are certified through the National Organic Program, which is overseen by the USDA. The program sets forth standards to determine the products that may display the "USDA Organic" logo on its packaging, as well as use the word "organic" to describe the product or its ingredients.

The guidelines address factors like soil and water quality, pest control, additives, fertilizers, as well as the feed, forage and hormones given to livestock. Certification is done by third parties, which in some states may be government entities, but in others are private companies. Per the USDA, most raw, unprocessed or minimally processed farm crops can be labeled "100 percent organic."

What Does Organic Mean?

Organic products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones and is produced without using most conventional pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, GMO or radiation.

Non GMO

three-field rectangular logo with butterfly sitting on a green check mark in the upper left, Non-GMO Project word in the upper right, and VERIFIED along the bottom
Non-GMO Label.

The Spruce Eats / Julie Bang

GMO, or genetically modified organisms, refers to crops whose genetic makeup has been altered, usually to make them more resistant to disease, insect pests, weeds, or the rigors of shipping. Corn, soybeans, potatoes, canola, and sugar beets are among the most common GMO crops. Non GMO means that the food has not had its DNA altered.

The FDA lets manufacturers decide for themselves whether to use the term "Non GMO" on their packages, and its guidelines are nonbinding recommendations that aren't enforced. However, third party certifiers, such as the Non GMO Project, do perform certification, and allows products that meets its standards to use a "Non GMO Project Verified" label with a butterfly on it, although this label does not necessarily indicate that a product is GMO-free.

What Does Non GMO Mean?

Non GMO means that the crop, such as corn or potatoes, has not had its genetic makeup altered.

Certified B Corporation

capital B, circled, with "certified" above and "corporation" below, underlined
Certified B Corp Label.

The Spruce Eats / Julie Bang

Certified B Corporations are companies that are certified by a nonprofit called B Labs to pledge their commitment to meeting high standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. This pledge takes the form of a legal framework for the company's corporate structure, which is intended to align its interests with those of all stakeholders, including employees, customers, and the community in which the company does business. So a Certified B Corporation label does not make any sort of statement about what may or may not be in a particular food.

Certified Vegan

outlined circle, centered with capital V inside of a heart, "certified vegan" banners the top, and "vegan.org" banners the bottom
Certified Vegan Label.

The Spruce Eats / Julie Bang

The Certified Vegan logo is registered trademark held by the nonprofit Vegan Awareness Foundation, which indicates products that contain no meat, fish, fowl, animal by-products, eggs or egg products, milk or milk products, honey or honey bee products, insects or products from insects such as silk or dyes, or sugar filtered with bone char. As such, it's handy for vegans, since they merely have to see the logo to know that the item is 100 percent vegan, without having to scrutinize the ingredients.

Cage-Free And Free-Range

illustration of two brown eggs on a patch of grass, shadowed by a hen, shadowed by a sun, "cage-free & free-range" wording sits below
Cage-Free and Free-Range Eggs.

The Spruce Eats / Julie Bang

The term "free-range" as defined by the USDA can be applied to any meat, poultry or eggs. What it means is that the animal has had continuous, free access to the out-of-doors for over 51 percent of its life. The word "access" can mean that there is a door available, even if the animal never actually goes outside. And there is no inspection or verification involved.

"Cage-free" mainly applies to eggs, since most poultry raised for meat are rarely caged. Cage-free eggs come from hens that weren't kept in cages, although in reality, cage-free hens are raised in conventionally crowded henhouses, though this probably beats living in a cage the size of an iPad.

Cage-Free Vs. Free-Range

Cage-free eggs come from hens that are raised in henhouses rather than cages. "Free-range" means that the animal has access to the outdoors.

Fair Trade Certified

black and white logo with "fair for life" and "fair trade certified by IMO"
Fair Trade Logo.

The Spruce Eats / Julie Bang

Like the Fairtrade label, Fair Trade Certified labels indicate that a product meets various social, environmental, and economic standards, including safe working conditions, environmental protection, and sustainable livelihoods for farmers. It's given by Fair Trade USA, a nonprofit dedicated to sustainable development and corporate social responsibility and covers products like cocoa, coffee, produce, dairy, and seafood. 

Certified Humane

thick blue rectangular outline with "CERTIFIED HUMANE" over a white sky, and "raise & handled" over green hills
Certified Humane Logo.

The Spruce Eats / Julie Bang

Certified Humane labels indicate that a product has been certified by Humane Farm Animal Care, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of farm animals. Its standards cover all aspects of the lives of farm animals, including the food and water they are given, the environment they live in, and how they are slaughtered. Their standards were developed by animal scientists, veterinarians, and farmers, and includes annual inspections.