Are our Favourite Whole Foods Ethically Sourced?

They may be great for our bodies, but are our favourite whole foods ethically sourced? And what can we do to avoid contributing to the problem?


Traditional health foods or whole foods such as fruit and nuts are great for our bodies, and are generally considered to be an eco-friendly alternative to processed snack foods such as crisps or chocolate, making them better for both our bodies and the planet. But with calls being made to make big changes to the regulation of the cashew nut industry, have a string of unethical practices gone unnoticed for too long? And how can we ensure we aren’t contributing to these problems every time we visit the supermarket?

In a world where Fair Trade is starting to prevail in a number of industries, and progress may finally be being made to clean up worldwide trade, there are always going to be areas who miss out. India’s cashew trade is sadly one of these, and this month, the working conditions for those who prepare the cashew nut for export to the EU were highlighted by a report by The Guardian newspaper. Non-Governmental Organisations have called for changes to be made, replacing voluntary guidelines with a mandatory regulation of the trade, after a number of unethical trading practices came to light.

The average working life for a worker in the Indian cashew trade includes:

  • An approximate wage of 30p a day

  • Factory or home-based working in filthy conditions

  • Repetitive work which damages the back and joints

  • Burns from the acidic liquid released from the cashew nut during the de-shelling process

India is one of the world’s largest distributors of cashew nuts, exporting 60% of the world’s supply, many of which end up in supermarkets across Europe. And with such a high demand, that’s an awful lot of workers being exploited.

Why are standards slipping?

The high demand for cashew nuts in Europe has played a part in the establishment of poor working conditions. But surely with demand comes profit? The problem lies with supermarkets constantly aiming to lower their prices to beat competitors. Lowering their prices may drive up their sales to a market growing more and more aware of the importance of eating healthily, but part of the trade must loose out, and this is almost always the workers. Cutting back processing costs means poor working conditions and a lower pay of workers, which could worsen if the trade carries on unregulated and supermarket undercutting continues.

How looking after workers means looking after our planet

While the terms “ethical” and “green” often come hand in hand, they are not mutually exclusive, with the former generally referring to the treatment of humans and the latter to the environment. However, how workers are treated and paid can have a direct impact on the surrounding environment. Fair Trade was set up primarily to ensure better working conditions and pay to the farmers and factory workers who produce everyday products. But it has a knock-on effect on environmental factors too. Higher profits in farms and orchards makes it easier to follow environmentally-friendly farming practices, anywhere from avoiding plastic packaging to installing solar panels. Fair Trade accreditation carries a number of set environmental standards that a product must meet, including crop rotation, sustainable waste management and the strict banning of GMOs. While Fair Trade does not require produce to be organic, it offers monetary incentives to those who produce organic crops, ultimately leading to better paid workers and happier working conditions.

What can we do?

The conditions and pay of workers in the cashew trade are directly impacted by our own buying habits here in the UK. Often, it is easy for the trade of wholefoods to become hidden under a guise of healthy/green/eco friendly/ethical terminology. But while a food which has undergone minimal processing may be better for the environment, it may not necessarily be an eco friendly choice (and vice versa!)

To ensure you keep your whole foods ethically sourced, make the best choices for your body, the environment and our world’s farmers and workers by following these steps:

Look for accreditation

Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance have gained a huge amount of attention in recent years, and are helping people to gradually make the change to more ethical decisions. Look for this accreditation when buying nuts, seeds and dried fruits to ensure responsible farming and sufficient working conditions for those who produce these products.

Choose your supermarket wisely

Large supermarkets are among those most responsible for the poor standards found in the cashew trade, and can easily influence the trade of similar food products. By choosing to support smaller supermarkets or shops, you may end up paying a little more for your wholefoods, but you won’t be contributing to a worldwide problem that affects the lives of millions of workers overseas.

Do your research

Many retailers are transparent and open about those who produce the food they sell. Use the resources that they provide to make your own decisions about which retailer you support. Look on retailers websites or even ask them in store. If a shop is unwilling to share information about who produces their products and how well their trade is regulated, take it as a warning sign and stay away. See websites such as Fair Trade and Ethical Trade for more information on trade guidelines and standards.

Image sourced: Eric Gaba

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