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Handy labels

16 June, 2023

No one likes being labelled. It means your complex personality is being reduced to a single trait, or that your unique identity is being generalised. But when it comes to objects and things, we love labels. They certify the truth, they reassure, they give credibility. So, what about “harvested by hand”, which you may see on supermarket products such as Spanish courgettes or Chinese sugar snap peas.  Does it reassure you, or make you wonder how those hands were actually treated?  

A recent article in the Financial Times was critical of the practice. The article looks at a variety of attributes that could make the sustainability-supporting consumer uneasy. There are questions of additionality – first, harvesting this type of product might not be doable by any machine, in which case it has always been, and will always be, harvested by humans. Perhaps machinery is unaffordable, meaning the economics don’t stack up to do it any way other than manually. And then there is the human dimension. Manual agricultural labour can be repetitive, dangerous, badly paid and precarious; if we don’t know how the people harvesting the products are being treated, then we can’t assume that “harvested by hand” is the blissful, agrarian dream we are being encouraged to view it as. Acknowledging the role of workers in getting food to our table is one thing, but using it as reassurance to consumers that may or may not be misplaced is quite another.  

We’ve long been encouraged to “look behind the label” when it comes to the clothes we buy. We should pay the same attention to these kinds of labels on food, and other products. The focus on greenwashing has (rightly) brought closer levels of scrutiny on green claims tied to products and services; it’s time to do the same to social claims. Some are simply marketing tricks that value your money, not your values. 

By Flora Gicquel

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