A guide to eco-labels for environmentally conscious shopping

Infographic of different eco-labels
Christina Owen /Staff

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As you meander through the aisles of your local grocery store, you will see the eye-catching terms “organic,” “all-natural” and “fair trade” all around you. Food packaging is covered in vague terms that suggest a product is ethically and sustainably sourced, but what do they actually mean? 

Eco-labels are voluntary labeling systems certifying a product meets specific standards of environmental performance, and they provide valuable insight into how your food was made. Despite, eco-labels rarely offer information about their criteria, making it difficult to distinguish between verified sustainability and “greenwashing.” Greenwashing is the use of misleading information to make a product appear more sustainable to consumers. In being familiar with credible eco-labels, we can avoid succumbing to greenwashing amidst our efforts to be conscious consumers. 

If you are looking to make more informed choices during your next trip to the grocery store, here is a breakdown of the most common eco-labels. 

Non-GMO Project 

The Non-GMO Project is a nonprofit organization with a rigorous verification process, which ensures a product contains minimal genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Every ingredient must have a GMO content of less than a given threshold — which varies based on the crop from which it is derived. As GMOs contribute to biodiversity loss and increased herbicide use, you may opt for a product with this eco-label.

USDA Organic

The USDA Organic label is a certification protected by federal regulation. Organic produce with this label is grown without the use of prohibited pesticides, and organic meat is produced from livestock given organic feed and not administered antibiotics or hormones. Organic producers must rely on natural substances and biologically based farming practices to the fullest extent possible — preserving soil quality and crop health.

Rainforest Alliance Certified

The Rainforest Alliance is a nonprofit organization with a comprehensive certification process focused on ecosystem health and economic stability in rural communities. The certification programs promote sustainable land management practices and equitable working conditions.

Fair Trade Certified

Fair Trade Certified is a nonprofit organization that advocates for ethical supply chains by fostering environmental stewardship and sustainable incomes for farmers. Products with this label must meet rigorous standards requiring safe working conditions, sustainable land management, and the empowerment of farming communities. 

Marine Stewardship Council

The Marine Stewardship Council, or MSC, is an international nonprofit that works with fisheries to safeguard the world’s supply of seafood and the health of the ocean. Fisheries must adhere to the MSC’s three principles of sustainable fishing — minimizing impact on the ecosystem, only fishing from healthy populations and managing fishing activity to prevent overexploitation.

Food Alliance Certified

The Food Alliance is a nonprofit organization focused on advancing sustainable agriculture. To get certified, companies must implement practices that conserve natural resources, reduce pesticide use, treat animals with compassion and maintain fair working conditions. The thorough certification process considers environmental, social and economic factors to ensure the sustainability of the food and agriculture industries.


California Certified Organic Farmers, or CCOF, is an organic-certifying organization accredited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Similar to the Non-GMO Project, this eco-label guarantees that a product does not contain GMOs and was produced using organic practices — which maintain soil fertility and the balance of ecosystems. 

Your weekly grocery shopping is an opportunity to “vote” with your dollars by supporting companies that invest in sustainability and conservation. By incorporating sustainable consumption habits into our daily lives, consumers have the collective power to set the standards of the food and agriculture industries.

Contact Chloe Tiltonat [email protected].