Ethical vs sustainable vs planet friendly: do you know the difference when it comes to food? | Wisefins

As the negative impacts of industrial agriculture on the environment and society as a whole become more and more obvious, a growing number of conscious consumers are seeking food options that are not only delicious and affordable, but also ethical, sustainable, and planet friendly.

Businesses are also beginning to recognize the importance of catering to this market segment, leading to a rise in eco-friendly and socially responsible food products, as well as an increasing number of restaurants and food providers offering ethical and sustainable food options. However, it’s worth noting that not all businesses that make these claims are actually living up to those standards. This is a phenomenon known as greenwashing, where companies use deceptive marketing tactics to mislead consumers into thinking the products they buy are more environmentally or socially responsible than they actually are.

That’s why it’s crucial for us consumers to understand the unique meanings and implications of terms like ethical, sustainable, and planet-friendly. They may frequently be used interchangeably in advertising, but they each have their own distinct definition and implications for our health, the environment, and society as a whole. By educating ourselves on these concepts, we can develop the critical thinking skills needed to ask the correct questions and make the informed decisions required to ensure our food systems are moving in the right direction.

In this article, we will delve into the differences between ethical, sustainable, and planet-friendly food, and why it is essential to consider these factors when making food choices. We will also examine the impact of food choices on the environment, animal welfare, and human rights, and the benefits of choosing food that aligns with these values. By the end, you will have a better understanding of how to make food choices that are not only delicious and convenient but also have a positive impact on the world around us.



Let’s get to the main question you are probably asking yourself: what is the actual difference between ethical, sustainable, and planet friendly food? While there is sometimes high overlap, and their use in advertising makes the definitions a bit blurry, the long story short is that:

  • Ethical food refers to food that is produced and consumed in a manner that is considerate of its impact on the people, communities and animals involved in its production. This often means fair treatment of workers and focusing on animal welfare. As many see environmental exploitation as a bad thing, “ethical” food production will sometimes also focus on reducing environmental impacts, but not always.
  • Sustainable food refers to food that is produced using practices that allow the long-term use of natural resources. This can include the use of renewable resources, reducing waste, and minimizing carbon emissions. This is not necessarily planet-friendly, as it doesn’t mean doing no harm to the environment: it just means you attempt to do that harm at the same rate or slower than nature heals. Also, while there is an innate concern for future generations, sustainability is not always associated with better treatment of workers or animals in the present.
  • Planet-friendly food refers to food that is produced and consumed in a manner that has a minimal negative impact on the planet.  This can include sustainable agriculture practices, reduced waste and packaging, and support for local food systems. It is the vaguest of the three terms and means the least. It can imply something is sustainable without claiming that outright.

But there is a lot more to say about the topic. Why do our food choices actually matter? What can you do to actually ensure your food has the positive effects it has? What are examples of ethical, sustainable and planet-friendly practices? If you want to find out more, just keep reading!


The impact of farming

Many of our blogs already look at how food production affects the living world. But if you are unfamiliar with the topic, this brief overview will help you understand our focus on the issue:

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimates that agriculture, forestry, and other land-use activities contribute to about a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, with livestock production alone accounting for 14.5% of global emissions. Agriculture is a significant contributor to water pollution, with runoff from fertilizers and pesticides contaminating water sources and leading to toxic algae blooms. Soil degradation is another concern, as intensive farming practices lead to erosion, nutrient depletion, and decreased soil health.

Furthermore, industrial agriculture practices have led to significant deforestation worldwide, as forests are cleared to make way for crops, pastures, and livestock grazing. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), about 17% of the Amazon rainforest has been lost in the last 50 years, with much of the deforestation caused by agriculture. Deforestation not only releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere but also destroys critical habitats for wildlife and indigenous communities.

In addition to environmental concerns, industrial agriculture has been criticized for its impact on human rights and labor practices. The International Labor Organization estimates that almost 50 million people globally are in some form of modern slavery, of which 27.6 are forced to work, many of them in agriculture and food production. This includes forced labor, child labor, and poor working conditions, with low wages and lack of access to basic human rights such as healthcare and education. This phenomenon is, sadly, a worldwide one, from the cocoa plantations of the Ivory Coast, where children are forced to work in grueling conditions, to the UK, where Eastern European workers are paid bellow national minimum wage, forced to live in squalor, and are denied medical care or legal advice.

The treatment of animals in industrial agriculture has also been a major point of contention. Factory farming, where animals are raised in large numbers in confined spaces, is the reason animal products are among the cheapest sources of protein and dominate many people’s diets. Yet this practice has been criticized for its inhumane treatment of animals, which can lead to physical and psychological distress, in addition to its environmental damage.

Finally, industrial agriculture has been accused of having negative impacts on local communities, particularly in developing countries where large agribusinesses may have significant influence. These businesses may exploit labor and land, often displacing local communities in the process. Additionally, the use of pesticides and other chemicals can have health impacts on nearby residents, often without warnings or compensation.

In this grim context, let’s take an in-depth look at the words on our food’s labels.



Ethical food can be defined as food that is produced and consumed in a manner that is considerate of its impact on the environment, animals, and people involved in its production. Ethical food choices often prioritize humane agricultural practices, fair treatment of workers, and animal welfare, with some also focusing on sustainable practices and minimizing environmental impact.

Supporting ethical agriculture practices can help reduce the exploitation and mistreatment of animals in industrial farming, as well as improve working conditions for laborers in the industry – both locally and internationally. In addition, ethical food choices can indirectly help reduce the environmental impact of food production, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, preserving natural resources, and supporting biodiversity. By choosing foods that are produced in an ethical manner, you can ensure that the food you eat aligns with the values and the world you wish to live in.

You need to ask yourself a few questions when your food is presented as ethical to ensure that it is truly making a positive impact. First, where does it come from and how was it produced? Was it grown or raised in a sustainable and responsible manner, with consideration for the well-being of animals and fair wages for the workers involved in its production? Second, are the claims of ethical production backed up by credible sources, such as certifications or independent audits? 

Producers rely on trade-offs between different factors for the “ethical” label, and their main goal is profit – else they go out of business. So, they have to focus on the positives while hiding the negatives under the rug. Free range farming treats animals better, allowing them more space, but still fundamentally exploits them. Similarly, many organic farms have a lesser environmental impact, yet still exploit migrant workers – sometimes more ruthlessly to compete with traditional farms.

Despite these challenges, there are many examples of ethical food production and consumption that prioritize both sustainability and humane treatment of animals and workers. One example is the farm-to-table movement, which emphasizes the importance of locally sourced food produced using sustainable practices. This movement often involves small-scale, community-supported agriculture that supports local farmers and promotes environmental sustainability. Another example is the fair-trade movement, which aims to ensure that workers involved in the production of food products are paid fairly and have access to basic human rights. Fair trade certification requires companies to adhere to strict standards for working conditions and fair wages and has been successful in promoting ethical labor practices in the production of coffee, chocolate, and other food products. 

Remember that as a consumer, you cannot carry the weight of this entire system on your shoulders, and nobody expects you to – but you can still make choices.


Sustainable food can be defined as food that is produced and consumed in a manner that is mindful of the long-term impact on natural resources. This can include using renewable resources, reducing waste, and minimizing carbon emissions. The goal of sustainable food production is to ensure that the natural resources used in food production are replenished and maintained for future generations.

If you want the food you eat to be sustainable, ask yourself: Where was it produced? Was it grown using sustainable practices? Was it transported long distances? Is it packaged in an environmentally friendly way? Can any certificate or independent audit back this all up?

Examples of sustainable food production and consumption practices include whole approaches, such as organic farming, permaculture and regenerative agriculture, or practices that can be included within larger systems. For example, farmers can use crop rotation to maintain soil health, reduce the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, and minimize the negative impact on the environment no matter what their main system is. Consumers can also practice sustainability by reducing food waste, supporting local farmers and food systems, and choosing foods with minimal packaging.

These choices can have a positive impact on the environment both in the short- and long-term by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, preserving natural resources, and supporting biodiversity. Sustainable food production can help to protect the soil, air, and water quality, as well as reduce the negative impact on wildlife and ecosystems. By keeping our environment clean, we also ensure the health of humans, both physical and mental.

Sustainability comes with its own challenges. The main and most concerning one is balancing the need to produce food for a growing global population with the need to preserve natural resources for future generations. Sustainable agriculture practices often require more time and resources than traditional farming methods, which can make them more expensive and less efficient in the short term – but our current farming practices are not viable in the long term. Additionally, there can be a lack of infrastructure and support for sustainable food production, particularly in developing countries, which makes the need for international collaboration obvious.


Planet friendly

Planet-friendly food is a term used to describe food that has a minimal negative impact on the planet. It involves the production and consumption of food in a way that supports the environment and biodiversity. The goal of planet-friendly food production is to reduce waste, support local food systems, and minimize the use of resources in the production of food. However, it is an ill-defined term, with essentially anyone being able to use it – so it requires the most attention and scrutiny.

When it comes to choosing planet-friendly food, consumers should ask themselves questions like: What about this actually is planet friendly? Is the food locally sourced? Was it grown using sustainable practices? Is the packaging minimal or reusable? Was the food transported long distances? Can any independent audit or certification back up these claims?

Examples of planet-friendly food production and consumption practices include supporting local farmers and food systems, reducing food waste, choosing foods with minimal packaging, and supporting regenerative agriculture. Additionally, choosing a plant-based diet can have a significant impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and land use, while also reducing the negative impact on animal welfare.

By making planet-friendly food choices, consumers can help reduce the negative impact of food production on the environment, support local economies, and promote biodiversity. Choosing planet-friendly food can also have positive impacts on human health by reducing exposure to harmful chemicals and promoting a healthier diet.

However, planet-friendly food also faces challenges, such as the availability of affordable, sustainable options and the need to balance the environmental impact of food production with the demand for food. Consumers must also navigate marketing tactics and greenwashing, which can make it difficult to discern which products truly have a minimal negative impact on the planet.



Making informed and conscious food choices is crucial for the well-being of ourselves, the planet we were born on, the people in our communities, and future generations. As consumers, we must scrutinize the claims of advertisers, and seek to support ethical, sustainable, and planet-friendly food production practices. Choosing these types of foods does not mean sacrificing taste, convenience, or affordability. Many of these options can be just as delicious and convenient as their less ethical counterparts. Additionally, by supporting local farmers and producers, consumers can often find more affordable and high-quality food options while also reducing their carbon footprint. By working together to prioritize these values, we can create a healthier and more sustainable food system for everyone.