Food & Drink

Food & Drink

An Ethical Guide to Wine

ethical wines

Whether you’re a connoisseur or a casual consumer on the weekend, we all have our reasons for choosing our favourite brand of wine.  If we’re honest, most of the time it revolves around taste.  We choose a grape variety that we like and stick to it, or we study the tasting notes and awards labels to find a new recommendation.  How often do we think about the hidden ingredients: the efforts of the workers, the added chemicals and environmental impact of the vineyard?

Tim Hunt from Ethical Consumer investigates what it takes to create a kinder chardonnay and the brands and retailers who are pioneering this work.

Here in the UK, wine is the most popular alcoholic drink of choice, with 60% of us choosing wine over other beverages, and 30 million of us regularly partaking in a glass of this popular tipple. Around 600-800 grapes are squeezed into every 75cl bottle of wine and, for the farmers and growers, the UK is an important market.  Sadly, these grapes don’t contribute to our five a day, but there is no reason why our consumption and purchasing decisions can’t be used for good.

The issues behind wine production

Recent investigations into large vineyards in South Africa by International Labour Organisation (ILO), in 2015, and three Scandinavian public service broadcasters, in 2016, once again highlighted the poor conditions and lack of rights for many labourers.

Workers were found to be living in cramped conditions in cardboard houses, surviving on less than $4 a day and, in some areas, being paid with alcohol.  Workers were also provided with inadequate protection against the pesticides being used, many of which are banned in the west.

This practice is not limited to South Africa and paints a dark reality behind the expensive bottles and clever branding.

ethical wines

Would you like some pesticides with that?

The harmful effects of pesticides aren’t limited to countries outside the EU.  Using 60,000 tonnes of pesticides a year, France is Europe’s biggest user, with 80% of its fungicides used in vineyards.  A documentary from French TV channel France 2, in 2016, found traces of pesticides in hair samples from children schooled near vineyards and reported a link to rising levels of autism and attention deficit disorder.

The pesticide problem may feel far removed from the UK but the EXCELL laboratory in Bordeaux has shown that in a study of 300 French wines, 90% showed traces of chemicals used during production.  Although these were present in trace amounts, the accumulation effect hasn’t been fully investigated.

Organic and fairtrade

There’s a simple way to challenge the problems within the wine industry and that is to drive change through our wallets. To use our purchasing power to shift our consumption to organic and Fairtrade brands.

Switching to organic wines is the ultimate way to protect workers, the environment and yourself from the harmful effects of pesticides.  Organic vineyards must support biodiversity and enhance soil health, whilst minimising the use of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and chemical fertilisers.  They use cover crops to attract natural predators of the pest species and build better soils with composts and manure.  Producers are also restricted on sulphur dioxide levels, great news if you have an allergy to this chemical.  And, of course, the wine must include no genetically modified crops.

Fairtrade or locally supported

As well as buying organic brands, you can further ensure that workers are protected by switching to fairtrade wines.  Already, 27 million litres of fairtrade wine are sold every year, and half of that is to the UK.  28 of the 49 fairtrade certified producers are in South Africa, actively tackling the very real problems mentioned above.  When you buy Fairtrade wine you are ensuring that farmers get a fair price for their crops and that worker rights are protected.  Each organisation must also set up a Fairtrade Premium to help develop their local communities.

As well as supporting developing nations, you can also consider shopping closer to home to cut down on the carbon footprint of your wine.  British winemakers are doing pretty well on the awards front at the moment, particularly when it comes to sparkling wines – if you’re a fan of the bubbles.

best organic wine

Our pick of the best

Fancy trying something new? Meet two of the best ethical wine producers:

Chilean producer Emiliana has vineyards throughout Chile and produces 100% organic and Fairtrade wines.  Emiliana farms use chickens as natural predators for insects and they connect their farms to open spaces to encourage pests to move away.  Emiliana has strong green credentials too, working to actively increase the carbon content in their soil and shifting to renewable energy generation on site.  The Fairtrade Premium is given to a committee made entirely of workers to decide how best to spend the money to benefit their community.

We recommend the Adobe Reserva and Novas Gran Reserva wine as our best buy brands.

The Stellar winery has a large array of brands from Dig This! to Running Duck, Moonlight and their original Stellar wines.  As South Africa’s largest producer of fine organic wines, they source their grapes from a number of independent, Fairtrade-certified farms along the Atlantic coastline.  26% of the company is owned by the workers and a not-for-profit organisation funds development projects on the farms and in local communities.

We highly recommend the Stellar and Moonlight brands.

If you fancy experimenting with a range of different organic and Fairtrade wines, we recommend online retailers Vintage Roots and Vinceremos.  Both stock 100% organic wines but also a range of organic beers, ciders and spirits too.

Check out our full wine report for more information on the wine industry, including vegan brands.

Food & Drink

Top five ethical soft drinks

charitea ethical soft drinks

Have you ever considered just how ethical your favourite soft drinks are?  I’m not a big soft drinks drinker (give me tea any day), so I have to say I haven’t.  Luckily, Georgina Rawes from Ethical Consumer has put together a post for Moral Fibres readers, shedding light on the three issues plaguing the soft drinks industry – sugar, plastic and workers’ rights – and shares her top five ethical soft drinks alternatives.

We simply can’t get enough of our conveniently packaged, sweet soft drinks.  In 2016, in the UK alone, we spent over £17.4 billion on soft drinks, juices and bottled water.  Although soft drinks are the seemingly innocent alternative to alcoholic beverages, there is a lot more going on in the bottle than you might realise.

Despite the elaborate advertising campaigns, soft drinks are simple products.  Essentially, they consist of water, sugar or sweeteners, some fruit extracts and then often additives such as flavour enhancers, caffeine and preservatives.

Our recent soft drinks report explores the issues behind sugar production, packaging and workers’ rights to give a more balanced view of the industry.  And, of course, we reveal our best buy brands, including Fairtrade and organic drinks.

best ethical soft drinks

Floating islands of plastic waste

No one can have missed the latest environmental concern to hit the headlines.  Another island of plastic waste was discovered last year the size of Mexico floating in the Pacific Ocean. A recent Greenpeace report states that plastic bottles and bottle tops are the most common plastic packaging washed up on shorelines.  With only 57% of plastic bottles recycled in the UK, you can bet that landfill sites are being overloaded and that bottles are going to continue to get back into our oceans.

As plastics are churned up and broken down in the ocean they former small pieces, microplastics, which can enter the food chains causing catastrophic issues.  This ‘invisible’ plastic is also making its way into drinking water.  You can read more about the plastic bottle problem in our latest bottled water report.  With no clear policies from major soft drinks companies on how they are planning to tackle the plastic problem, it makes sense to look for alternative packaging.

Glass bottle production requires half the minerals and fossil fuels needed to make plastic, 17 times less water and creates five times fewer greenhouse gas emissions.  Glass can be endlessly recycled and we’re hitting rates of 68% here in the UK.  Aluminium cans are also a more appealing alternative to plastic.  Recycling an aluminium can only requires 8% of the energy to produce a new one, whilst plastic recycling uses 70%.

Sugar – a sticky problem

Sugar is quickly becoming public health enemy number one.  It is being blamed for the increase in type 2 diabetes and heart disease, and it’s linked to tooth decay and obesity in children.  In fact, soft drinks have been labelled as the single biggest source of added sugar in children’s diet.

In an attempt to reduce our intake of sugary drinks, the government is planning to introduce a sugar tax of up to 24p/litre on drinks that contain over 8g sugar/100 ml.  It sounds like a solid plan – these public health issues cost the NHS billions each year and it’s clear that sugar is harming our health.  However, Coca-Cola doesn’t agree and has been working against the sugar tax since it’s conception, as well as lobbying against EU regulations restricting the advertising of sugary foods to children.

Water use

But it’s not just the health issues that should concern us.  It takes between 170 and 310 litres of water to make your average 500ml bottle of fizzy pop.  Alarmingly, only 5% is used in drink manufacturing, with the remaining 95% being used to grow ingredients, the largest of which is sugar.  This goes for sweeteners too, as sugar is often used in the production of these additives.

European sugar beet uses less water in production than sugar cane grown further afield, often in water-stressed communities.  It takes companies with robust supply chain management and environmental policies to reduce their impact on the grower communities.  Sadly, many of the supermarket own brands and large brands such as PepsiCo, Nestlé SA and Coca-Cola have inadequate policies to address and manage these issues, brands which control the vast majority of the soft drink market.

Where does your money go?

coca cola unethical

If the plastic problem isn’t enough to turn you away from the big brands, then supply chain issues will surely sway you. Consistently, we see big brands such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé SA and the supermarkets demonstrating a lack of control within their supply chains.

Unfair working conditions in developing countries, a lack of robust environmental reporting and weak targets to address sustainability issues are just some of the issues that result from this.  As these companies increase their profits, we see further injustice, farmers paid poor wages and water-stressed communities put under more pressure.

For more information, see our company profiles on Coca-Cola  Nestlé SA, and our supermarket report.

Isn’t it time to support the companies who put ethics before profits?

We’ve picked some of the best ethical soft drinks brands…

Check out our top five soft drinks brands, full of fizz and fairness:


Lemon-aid soft drinks uk

With a range of juicy flavours, this twist on a traditional drink is made with good intentions.  Fairtrade and organic, Lemonaid is produced with sound ethical and environmental principles.  Even better, 5p from every sale goes towards their foundation to fund social projects in growing communities.  €2Million and counting so far…


charitea ethical soft drinks

The sister brand to Lemonaid, ChariTea produces a range of tea inspired and infused ethical soft drinks in a range of exciting flavours.  Like LemonAid the products are Fairtrade and organic and are only available in glass bottles.  Sales also fund the foundation to enable social change in grower communities.  Both Lemonaid and ChariTea products are available to purchase online at Ethical Superstore*.

Gingerella Ginger Ale

gingerella ginger beer uk

‘Taste the justice’ is the mantra and we certainly think that Gingerella delivers on that promise.  Produced by Karma Cola, Gingerella packs a punch for a clean, crisp taste with a kick.  Available only in glass bottles or aluminium cans, Gingerella is Fairtrade and organic, delivering a fair wage and working conditions for Sri Lankan farmers.  Gingerella and sister brands Lemony Lemonade and Karma Cola are available online at Waitrose.

Luscombe Soft Drinks

ethical soft drinks uk

With a range of 26 ethical soft drinks, juices and mixers, Luscombe offers great organic variety and even includes wild elderflowers.  All beverages are packaged in glass bottles.

Whole Earth Soft Drinks

whole earth organic soft drinks

For a widely available can of pop, Whole Earth offers a range of thirst-quenching options from orange and lemon to apple, elderflower and cranberry.  All their ethical soft drinks are certified organic and are competitively priced.

Of course, for an option that’s friendliest on your wallet, and the environment, we’d always recommend a reusable bottle filled with good old tap water for instant refreshment on the go.  But for that January pick me up and alcohol-free substitute you can’t beat a bit of fizz with added kindness.