Ethical vs Sustainable vs Planet Friendly. Do You Know the Difference When It Comes to Food?

ethical sustainable planet friendly

Doing things right can be tricky, can’t it? The right amount of exercise, the right amount of sleep, eating the right amount of fruit and veg per day. (Is it five? Seven? Ten?)

Even knowing who’s best to listen to, when trying to do right. And nothing can seem more confusing than knowing the right things to eat. Especially when it comes to the environment, animal welfare and the livelihoods of those that produce our food.

We use the terms “ethical”, “sustainable” and “planet friendly” a lot. Are they all the same thing? Do they intertwine? Can a food or a food brand be all three?

They all have differences and similarities. And there’s quite a bit of overlap. Defining each one and neatly putting a product, diet, foodstuff or brand into one category isn’t simple.

Take veganism, for example.

Living a vegan lifestyle, where nothing you eat, wear, clean with or use has impacted an animal in any way can be a choice for ethical reasons. Or, it could be for environmental reasons. Choosing to follow a plant-based diet where you avoid all meat, dairy and eggs could be for health reasons. Or environmental ones.

Both veganism and being plant-based are considered more sustainable and friendlier to the planet in terms of land use, water use and reduced emissions.

So, as you can see, it’s not all black and white! Some people see it one way, and some see it differently.

At Eco & Beyond we embrace ethical, sustainable and planet friendly foods. So here’s our round up of the differences, similarities and the how-to’s of each one.

It’s important to stress that what’s right for you, is exactly that – right for you. You might choose to focus on being planet friendly by eating a fresh, whole foods diet that involves a lot less packaging. It may or may not include meat from sustainable farms. Someone else might decide to switch to Fairtrade bananas, coffee or chocolate – for ethical reasons. Others might embrace it all!

Armed with this information you’ll be able to decide what’s right for you. Whichever way you decide to be a little (or a lot) more ethical, sustainable or planet friendly, you’ll be making a difference. And that deserves a celebration. So grab a cup of something delicious and let us fill you in.

Ethical: Considering the Welfare of Farmers, Growers and Animals

Eating ethically means eating in line with your morals and values. Again, these aren’t hard and fast, we each have our own moral compass. But on the whole, eating ethically encompasses veganism and vegetarianism, choosing meat with high animal welfare standards and buying foods with the health and wellbeing of those who produce them in mind.

Fairtrade Foods

The Fairtrade standard is a perfect example of producing ethical food. Buying food that’s fairly traded means you’re buying food that’s giving farmers a better deal. According to the Fairtrade Foundation website, it’s a “simple way to make a difference to the lives of the people who grow the things we love”.

Fairtrade ensures farmers and workers in developing countries are paid a fair price for their produce and have decent working conditions. You can buy Fairtrade chocolate, bananas, coffee, tea, wine, sugar and cotton.

Better Animal Welfare and Cruelty-Free Meat

Deciding to completely avoid all animal products or choosing meat and dairy from farms with better animal welfare are both ethical choices. Some might argue that ‘cruelty-free meat’ doesn’t exist but everything is personal choice. Some might also argue that animals don’t have a personal choice as to whether they’re eaten or not.

It’s unlikely that the world will ever be 100% plant-based. But we can make a difference by choosing organically farmed or high welfare meat, milk and eggs.

Factory farming, the routine use of antibiotics, poor quality produce can all have a negative impact on our health. So better farming isn’t just better for the animals, it’s better for us, too.

Sustainable: Reducing Meat Intake and Eating with the Seasons

Being sustainable, in part, is choosing food that is local, in season and, generally, vegetable rather than animal. It’s making food choices that avoid using up natural resources. It could be buying seasonal food produced from local farms. Or going vegan. Or even going scientific and opting for lab grown meat!

Animal agriculture uses huge amounts of resources. So huge that it isn’t sustainable at the rate the world is eating meat.

Seasonal, Local and Fresh

It would be lovely to enjoy strawberries all year round. And we can, if we eat imported varieties from around the world. But that isn’t sustainable. There’s freight-related carbon footprints. There’s also water shortage problems. Poorer countries growing produce for countries like the UK often dedicate more water to crops than they have available for the local people.

To eat more sustainably we can favour produce that has been grown here in the UK. And that means only eating British berries, during the summer months.

There’s plenty of seasonal food available to us. And with careful menu planning, it can sustain us all year round. We can batch cook and freeze food, and make jams and pickles during the fruitful summer months. There’s also plenty of local farms producing fresh, quality local produce.

This is even happening in our cities, and hyperlocal food goes one step further. (Or is that nearer?) There’s rooftop beehives producing hyperlocal honey, and restaurants growing their own veg on site and literally picking it to order.

Avoiding the Temptation of Impossibly Cheap Food

Hurrah! Cheap food! But what does that really mean? Quite probably low quality, mass produced food with questionable ingredients and low nutritional value.

The vast super farms that contribute to the production of cheap food aren’t sustainable. They can destroy the income of smaller farms producing healthier, more nutrient-rich foods. Runoff or slurry (animal and farm waste) can pollute local waterways. Not to mention the foul smell and greenhouse gases they produce.

Eating on a budget doesn’t have to mean low quality food. Tinned tomatoes and chickpeas, frozen veg and dried pasta combine to make a tasty and nutritious meal.

Eating Insects?!

Yep! They’re a very sustainable source of protein. As are algae based foods such as spirulina and chlorella. It takes far fewer resources to farm insects as food, than it does cows or chickens. And they actually taste nice!

We can also choose to reduce the amount of meat we eat. Say, by having Meatless Mondays or being creative with alternative protein sources.

Planet Friendly: Kicking Plastic and Food Waste to the Kerb

Planet friendly foods are foods that have less of an impact on the environment. Foods contained in less plastic packaging for instance. Or those which have travelled shorter distances and therefore have fewer ‘food miles’ and a reduced carbon footprint.

Tackling food waste is also planet friendly. If we use more of the food we already have we can farm less, reduce intensive farming and reduce resource use. Land use, pesticides, animal agriculture are all reduced. Plus, distributing excess food to those who need it helps to combat the serious issue of hunger.

Reducing Plastic Use

16 million plastic bottles are thrown away in the UK every day. By 2050 it’s thought there will be more plastic in the oceans than wildlife. With stats like these, we can begin to see how crucial it is that we reduce our reliance on single use plastics.

Thankfully, there are many ways we can make a difference to the problem of plastics. We can carry reusable water bottles, fill them up at home or the office and never buy a plastic bottle of water again!

Initiatives such as Water for London help too. They encourage us to refill by installing water fountains across the tube network in London. We can also stop using plastic straws and either go without, or opt for paper ones instead. There’s reusable coffee cups too. A lot of coffee shops now offer discounts to those using their own cup.

We can also try packaging-free shopping. Taking our own containers to be filled up with flour, lentils and even wine is now an option in a handful of shops around the country. Older readers might say this is nothing new, having been used to taking their sturdy (reusable) shopping bags to the local green grocer or butcher. Even the trusty milk float is seeing a revival!

Minimising Food Waste

Being mindful of the environment also means being mindful of food waste. We can take steps to reduce our own contribution to this problem. We can meal plan to ensure we buy, and use, food sensibly, and we can use kitchen gadgets to make portion control easier. Better for our waistlines, and for reducing waste!

Hunger and food poverty are real issues around the world, and on our own doorsteps. So it’s disheartening to hear how much edible food is wasted by shops and restaurants. This is often caused by useless use-by dates on fresh produce, wonky veg, over purchasing, and ‘not being allowed’ to give food away to the needy. We hear it all, and most of the time it’s a poor excuse.

But there are many food brands helping to turn things around. Snact create fruit jerky from excess fruit. Toast Ale make beer made from bread. OddBox deliver veg boxes from bent carrots and knobbly potatoes.

We can choose to buy these products and the more we do, the more say we have with our purchasing power. We don’t have to conform to the straight cucumbers supermarkets tell us we want. A curved cucumber tastes exactly the same as it’s ‘prettier’ peer. And when it’s chopped up in a salad, who cares what shape it used to be?!

Food sharing apps such as OLIO, allow us to share excess food, and meet the neighbours! And zero waste restaurants are popping up all over the country.

Recycling and Reusing

Recycling plastics can be a headache. Understanding which plastics can be recycled is hard enough, let alone knowing which ones our local council accepts. But opting for foods packaged in paper, card, glass or recyclable metal is also doing better by the planet.

I’ve recently chosen to buy fruit locally when I need it, rather than as part of my weekly shop. My local Budgens sells loose bananas whereas on Ocado I can only buy plastic bags which contain too many for me. There’s only so many banana based smoothies one household of two people can handle!

Avoiding plastic packaging is difficult, but just one plastic free swap a week can make a difference. Both to the planet, to retailers, and to your virtuousness!

How Much Impact Can I Really Have Alone?

A lot. Each step you take, each decision you make, has an impact somewhere in the world. And with each step to being more ethical, sustainable or planet friendly, you could find yourself taking more and more. You might even end up making bigger changes that you don’t even notice.

Everything here is open to interpretation. Some of these points will conflict with each other too.

For example, what’s better? To be ethical with a supermarket Fairtrade banana loaf? Or planet friendly with a locally made cake? (Can I have both?) Is that ethical avocado sustainable if it’s responsible for not-very-sustainable deforestation? Is a planet friendly, non-plastic packaged food, cruelty-free?

The answer is to be empowered to make your own choices. We know you want to, because you’re here, on this page, working out where you want to be.

Stay curious. Keep learning. Follow brands doing good on social media. Subscribe to emails like ours for inspiration.

The world is running out of resources and its people like you who will turn the tide. By 2050, there’ll be 10 billion of us, all needing to be fed and nourished. You don’t have to be an off-the-grid, self-sufficient smallholder to be a food hero.

Choose your battles and win them, and be gentle with yourself. Sometimes you simply need a frozen chicken nugget or a plastic bottle of water. But with all that other good you’re doing, Eco & Beyond salutes you!