One way to make a more informed choice, without shelling out a huge premium, is to look at Oxfam’s Behind the Barcodes ranking of supermarkets. Since 2018 the charity has been releasing a list of the major retailers, ranking them in a range of areas of policy and practice including the protection of the rights of workers, farmers and women, and gave each supermarket a score out of 100.
This year’s rankings were released in the summer and were lost in the white noise of Covid-19, but they are worth examination. “The companies don’t really want to know what is going on in [the supplier] workplaces, says Wilshaw.
“What they want is plausible deniability; they want to be able to point to something and say, we did do our homework and we didn’t find anything. We are pushing them with this scorecard to do better and look harder.”
While it might not make you change where your shop, an email to the CEO of your regular supermarket to ask why their score is so low – Tesco comes top, but with a mere 46 per cent it’s hardly something to celebrate – will go a long way, Wilshaw insists.
Being more specific about a single ingredient is harder. Wilshaw recommends opting for Fairtrade products where you can, or checking out the Oxfam Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index, another ranking, but this time of countries, on a number of issues including public health, workers’ rights and gender equality.
“You could choose to buy your avocados or cashew nuts from a country with a better minimum wage, investment in healthcare and laws to protect women from rape, even if you can’t find reliable information about standards in the supply chain.”
Would it be better just to stop buying the product? Not necessarily, says Wilshaw. “The worst thing is for them to lose their markets, as it has a direct impact on their jobs. So even if it’s not the most ideal circumstances, we don’t condone boycotting. Don’t abandon a product because of one concern, unless you have a better alternative – which is what drives the market to provide the better alternatives.”
Gooch also advocates buying Fairtrade produce if you can afford it, because it guarantees a minimum price to the farmer as well as sending grants to workers’ groups for them to spend on projects as they choose.
“Brands’ own schemes tend to spend money on schools, say, because pictures of kids are good for promotional material, rather than what is really a priority for the community.” Rainforest Alliance, she says, does not guarantee a minimum price or fund community projects, so doesn’t benefit workers in the same way.
Gooch would like to see us more engaged with the source of our food. “We need to ask ourselves what they are doing for the community”. Key to this is knowing where our food is from – not simply the country, but the farm and factory – so transparency from brands and supermarkets is vital.
“Then the workers would have the possibility of saying to their direct employer, ‘you do realise we are meant to be in the supply chain of say, Sainsbury’s or M&S; that tells us that they want good conditions, please improve your employment practices otherwise we can complain to them’. That is a good dynamic to put in place.”
It’s not so much to ask: giving us the option of finding out where our food is from. And then we can all sleep better at night.
Avocados have been raising concerns since their surge in popularity started half a dozen years ago. Apart from recent issues with abuse of workers, they’ve been blamed for deforestation in Central America. And the same year there were accusations that in Chile water was being diverted illegally to avocado plantations, plunging villages into drought.
How to shop better: Avocados from Africa, Latin America, the US, Israel and Spain are all sold in the UK. Without information about the specific farm that an avocado has come from, it’s hard to be sure that it’s been ethically grown and harvested, and Fairtrade doesn’t certify any avocados sold in the UK.
You can check which country your avocado has been grown in. According to the Oxfam Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index, Israel and South Africa, who rate 17th and 18th in the world, do better than other avocado-producing countries including Spain (29) Colombia (55) Kenya (77) and Morocco (103).