Is Eating Apples Ethical & Sustainable? Here Are the Facts

Is Eating Apples Ethical & Sustainable? Here Are the Facts

By
Teresa Mersereau

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Apples are an incredibly popular fruit, with over 4.6 million tons produced every year in the US alone. They are common in many different baked goods, such as pies and tarts, as well as salads and even roasts. In terms of nutrients, they pack a strong punch of protein and fiber, making them a perfect breakfast or snack. But the production of apples can involve some seriously unethical and unsustainable practices. So we had to ask: Is eating apples ethical and sustainable?

Eating apples is fairly ethical compared to many other fruits. They have some minor working hazards, but aren’t associated with any major violations, such as child or forced labor.

Eating apples is significantly unsustainable. The industry participates in everything from the use of plastic packaging to monoculture farming and high pesticide usage. However, their irrigation requirements are low. 

In this article, we will assess both the ethical and sustainability practices of the apple industry. Through these two lenses, you will be able to gain in-depth knowledge of the overall impacts of the apples that you eat!

Here’s How We Assessed the Ethics & Sustainability of Apples

The Sustainability Assessment of Food and Agriculture Systems (SAFA) is one of the ways we measure the externalities of our actions, like the consumption of apples. It is a holistic assessment based on the potential impact of food and agriculture operations on the environment and people. Those impacts are changes in our environment that can have adverse effects on the air, land, water, fish, and wildlife or the inhabitants of the ecosystem.

“Ethical: The discipline concerned with what is morally good and bad and morally right and wrong”

Encyclopedia Britannica

Ethics and sustainability are closely interconnected concepts that share a common objective: the well-being and preservation of our planet, including all its life and future generations.

“Sustainable: The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level | Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”

Oxford Dictionary

Basically, all goods and services you buy—including apples—leave an impact on people, animals, and our environment. And when it comes to food in general—and apples in specific—the following are key factors for their ethics and sustainability:

To understand the overall environmental impact of apples, we must assess each of their key factors. This Sustainability Assessment of Food and Agriculture Systems (SAFA) is a tool developed for assessing the impact of food and agriculture operations on the environment and people. And this tool helps us to evaluate whether eating apples is ethical & sustainable.

Here’s How Ethical & Sustainable Eating Apples Is

The overall ethics & sustainability of apples is moderately bad. They engage in some labor violations such as potential exploitation but overall, their ethics are fairly decent compared to many other fruits. However, they are considerably unsustainable, given that they use monoculture farming methods, a significant amount of pesticides, and packaging that is difficult to recycle.

Apples do have some ethical qualities. For example, the industry doesn’t have major reports of severe worker violations like child or forced labor. They also have some sustainable qualities, such as not needing significant amounts of irrigation and having an economical land yield. However, most of their qualities are very unsustainable. 

So, let’s have a look at the ethics & sustainability impact of each key factor of apples!

Key Assessment FactorsEthics & Sustainability
Social and economic conditions of applesApples’ social and economic conditions are moderately ethical. They don’t have ties to child or forced labor, but there is still some room for exploitation within the US apple industry. 
Seasonality of applesApples’ seasonality is during the late summer and early fall. Outside of this season, they are either stored or imported. 
Land requirements for applesApples’ land requirements are fairly low. However, their use of monoculture farming means that they are less sustainable. 
Water footprint of applesApples have a moderate water requirement of 52 inches per year. Because of where they grow, they don’t need irrigation. So, their environmental impact is moderate at this stage. 
Agrochemical usage for applesApples’ agrochemical usage is high. They use a significant amount of pesticides, as well as nitrogen fertilizer, which is known to be harmful to the environment. 
Carbon footprint of applesApples have a moderate carbon footprint of 0.24kg (0.53lb) of CO2e per pound of apples. This is mainly because they use mechanized processing, plastic packaging, and refrigerated transportation.
Waste generation of applesApples’ waste generation is high. This is mainly because they use plastic packaging, which contributes to unsustainable landfills. 

These are the overall summaries, but there is a lot more to the story. In the next few sections, we will dive deeper into each stage to illustrate to you all the important aspects of apples’ ethics & sustainability.

How Ethical & Sustainable Are the Social and Economic Conditions for Apples

Apples’ social and economic conditions are moderately ethical. They don’t have ties to child or forced labor, but there is still some room for exploitation within the US apple industry. 

Everything we consume was made or harvested by somebody. In past centuries, this was often someone who lived in your community and who you might have even known personally. But through the rise of globalized distribution systems, we have become increasingly alienated from the people who make our food. This leaves a lot of room for exploitation and abuse, both of which are rampant in the food industry. Here, we will look at how the apple industry fares in relation to these ethical questions.

How ethical & sustainable are the social and economic conditions of growing apples?

  • Are farmers paid fair wages to grow apples: Apple pickers in the US still don’t enjoy many of the same benefits of workers who have a 40-hour work week. Despite efforts to gain overtime, many of them are still working a longer than 40-hour work week. However, these wages are still fairly good compared to those for other kinds of fruit pickers. 
  • How safe are the working conditions to grow apples: The main hazard on an apple farm is falling from ladders. These injuries can result in sprains, fractures, and dislocations. These are serious considerations, but not as dangerous as conditions on other fruit farms, which can include chemical hazards.
  • Are there reports of child or forced labor to grow apples: There are no major reports of child or forced labor within the American apple industry. However, these things still exist within the US agricultural industry, so they may still be happening. 
  • What is the wider economic impact on the communities that grow apples: Many apple pickers within the US are migrant workers. This program can help people find work, but it has negative sides as well

In short, apples’ lack of ties to child or forced labor, and generally average pay among agricultural workers means they are fairly ethical overall. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Are the Seasonality for Apples

Apples’ seasonality is during the late summer and early fall. Outside of this season, they are either stored or imported. 

Every fruit has a natural season in which they grow, usually lasting a couple of months, which can range depending on the region. However, international demand for every kind of fruit is year-round. This demand is often met by importing fruits from tropical places which can grow year-round, or by growing them in greenhouses. Both of these methods use more resources and are thus less sustainable than conventional farming. Here, we will look at how the apple industry accommodates year-round demand.

How ethical & sustainable is it to grow apples in-season vs out-of-season?

  • When is the natural season for growing and harvesting apples: Apples are in season typically during the late summer to early fall. Therefore, the most sustainable option is to consume your apples during this time period. 
  • How are apples naturally grown in-season: During the peak season, most apples sold in the US are grown in Washington state. This means that they are much more sustainable during this time because they are domestically produced. 
  • How are apples grown out-of-season: Through the winter, most apples are still Washington apples, but they have been stored. This process requires energy, so is somewhat less sustainable than completely in-season apples. In the spring, apples tend to be imported from places like Argentina, Chile, and even New Zealand

In short, apples’ varied availability between the seasons means that they are much more sustainable in the fall and winter than in the spring and early summer. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Are the Land Requirements for Apples

Apples’ land requirements are fairly low. However, their use of monoculture farming means that they are less sustainable. 

Illustration of global land use for food production
Our World in Data: Global land use for food production

The growth stage has a major impact on fruits’ sustainability. The amount of land used, especially in relation to its expansion, the method with which they are grown, and their effect on surrounding land and wildlife are all important factors. In this section, we will look at the ways in which apples’ land usage affects their sustainability.

How ethical & sustainable are the land requirements for growing apples?

In short, some of apples’ agricultural practices, such as monoculture farming, have a damaging effect on the environment, causing them to be moderately unsustainable. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Water Footprint of Apples

Apples have a moderate water requirement of 52 inches per year. Because of where they grow, they don’t need irrigation. So, their environmental impact is moderate at this stage. 

Water usage is one of the most important factors in a fruit’s sustainability. Practices like irrigation use significant resources and can cause pollution, and as such, factors like the amount of water used, where it is sourced, as well as the way they affect the water sources around them, are all important. Here, we will look at these different angles of apples’ water footprint.

How ethical & sustainable is the water footprint of growing apples?

In short, apples don’t need a significant amount of irrigation, but their pesticide usage means that they are less sustainable. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Agrochemical Usage for Apples

Apples’ agrochemical usage is high. They use a significant amount of pesticides, as well as nitrogen fertilizer, which is known to be harmful to the environment. 

Pesticides and fertilizers are agrochemicals that are very unsustainable and damaging to ecosystems. This is because they require resources to create and can easily run off into groundwater and soil systems. Here, we will look at how sustainable apples’ pesticide and fertilizer rates really are.

How ethical & sustainable is the agrochemical usage of growing apples?

In short, apples’ use of both excessive pesticides as well as nitrogen fertilizer means that they are very unsustainable at this stage. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Carbon Footprint of Apples

Apples have a moderate carbon footprint of 0.24kg (0.53lb) of CO2e per pound of apples. This is mainly because they use mechanized processing, plastic packaging, and refrigerated transportation.

Illustration of global greenhouse gas emissions from food production
Our World in Data: Global greenhouse gas emissions from food production

Carbon footprint is one aspect of the overall sustainability of a fruit. It essentially measures how much carbon or other greenhouse gasses the production of fruits emits into the atmosphere. Emissions from product manufacturing, irrigation, transportation fuel, and landfills all add up to create the overall carbon footprint of a fruit. Let’s see how the carbon footprint of apples contributes to their overall sustainability.

How ethical & sustainable is the carbon footprint of apples?

  • What is the overall carbon footprint of apples: The overall carbon footprint of apples is 0.24kg (0.53lb) of CO2e per pound of apples. This means that for every pound of apples produced, 0.24kg of carbon is released into the atmosphere, which is around the same as driving a car for just over ½ a mile. This is an average carbon footprint among fruits. 
  • What are the main contributors to the carbon footprint of apples: The main factors that contribute to the overall carbon footprint of apples are high fertilizer and pesticide use during the growing process, energy-intensive cold storage, and fuel used by harvesting machines.
  • Which life-cycle stage of apples has the highest carbon footprint: The life cycle stage of apples that has the highest carbon footprint is harvesting, processing, and packaging. This is because they use mechanical harvesting techniques, refrigeration, and plastic packaging. 

In short, apples may have an average carbon footprint, but there are still some significant aspects to their life cycle that emit a significant amount of carbon. 

Related: Check out our full article on “What Is the Carbon Footprint of Apples? A Life-Cycle Analysis” to find out all about the carbon footprint of apples and how each stage of their life-cycle contributes to it (plus, what you can do to reduce your carbon footprint when shopping for apples).

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Waste Generation of Apples

Apples’ waste generation is high. This is mainly because they use plastic packaging, which contributes to unsustainable landfills. 

When fruit waste, either in the form of packaging or organic materials, is disposed of, it can cause a lot of problems. Whether it’s damaging wildlife, getting into oceans, emitting methane, or dissolving into microplastics that contaminate groundwater, all these materials have their part to play. The sheer amount of waste we produce is reaching a crisis point and won’t be able to continue much longer. In this section, we will look at how sustainable apples’ waste generation is.

How ethical & sustainable is the waste generation of apples?

In short, apples’ use of plastic packaging, as well as their lower composting rates, mean that they are very unsustainable at this stage. 

What Have Been Historical Ethics & Sustainability Issues Connected to the Apple Industry

The apple industry has historically caused moderate damage to the environment and workers. This is mainly because of their cases of worker endangerment and historical use of pesticides and nitrogen fertilizer. 

All fruits have had a complex road toward global distribution. They originate in one part of the world and often travel far to end up in your local supermarket. From farm to table, some of our favorite fruits have used unsustainable practices. Whether it’s exploiting labor, deforestation to meet demand, water pollution, or disruption of wildlife, most fruits have left a path of destruction. Many of these effects are still felt today or have even increased. Let’s see how apples have fared throughout history.

What have been the key ethical & sustainable issues of the apple industry?

  • Has labor been exploited because of apple production: There have been several instances of labor violations within the apple industry. One major incident was when a farm violated Covid-19 restrictions, resulting in two workers passing away from the illness. Violations like this are indicative that the apple industry is capable of prioritizing profits over people. 
  • How much land has been lost because of apple production: Apples use a significant amount of land in the US but have not particularly been associated with deforestation. In this sense, they don’t have as negative a track record as some other fruits. 
  • Which wildlife species have been negatively impacted or displaced because of apple production: Pesticides are incredibly damaging to wildlife and biodiversity. Apples have a long history of pesticide usage and so they have participated significantly in this damage. 
  • Have water sources and soil been contaminated because of apple production: Nitrogen fertilizer is particularly damaging to waterways. The widespread use of nitrogen fertilizer within the apple industry has damaged water sources for this reason.

In short, apples’ labor violation, as well as their use of nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides has historically been unsustainable. 

How Can You Reduce Your Environmental Impact and Offset Your Personal Carbon Footprint

There are a few things you can do to make your apple consumption more ethical and sustainable, while still enjoying them. You can also consider offsetting your personal and apple-related carbon emissions, which work to remove carbon emissions elsewhere that are then attributed to you. Here, we will walk you through how to accomplish both of these things.

How Can You Shop for Apples More Ethically & Sustainably

In this section, we give you a short list of ways you can consume apples in a more sustainable way. This list is designed to target the most unsustainable parts of apples’ life-cycle:

  1. Buy apples in fall and winter: Apples are in season and store-able from the late summer until the winter. By spring they are typically imported, meaning that they are less sustainable. So, you should ensure you buy your apples when they are in season, or shortly after. 
  2. Compost your apple cores: Food waste in landfills is one of the most unsustainable parts of apples’ life cycle. If you make sure to compost all the apple cores that you use, you can make them more sustainable. If your city doesn’t offer a composting system, then you can consider making your own!
  3. Buy organic apples: Apples’ use of pesticides and nitrogen fertilizers is very unsustainable. Organic farms generally avoid high amounts of chemical pesticides and nitrogen fertilizers and so they are good to support if you want to reduce your pesticide and fertilizer impact.

Following some of these methods can really help you to cut down on your environmental impact of eating apples. None of these will completely eradicate the negative impacts, since there are always effects that may be outside of your control. But some reduction is always better than nothing!

Which Organizations Can You Support to Help Promote Ethics & Sustainability

While apple production engages in some very unsustainable practices, there are also some organizations that help you change the parts of these processes that would otherwise be outside of your control. These organizations are working hard to prevent and reverse damage to the environment caused by industries like apple agriculture, towards a more sustainable future.

In the table below are some of the best charities that work in the areas where apple production are very unsustainable—and beyond:

Overall ethics & sustainabilityBest charities that advance ethics worldwide
Best charities that promote sustainability
Social and economic impactBest charities that help farmers
SeasonalityBest charities that fight to protect our environment
Land requirementsBest charities for reforestation
Best wildlife conservation charities
Best charities for protecting the Amazon rainforest
Water footprintBest charities that fight for clean water
Best charities that help conserve our rivers
Best charities to save our oceans
Agrochemical usageBest charities for helping farm animals
Carbon footprintBest charities for climate change
Best carbon offsets for individuals
Waste generationBest charities that fight to reduce food waste
Best charities that fight to end plastic pollution
Best charities that promote recycling

Though it is helpful to boost the sustainability of your personal apple consumption, supporting these organizations takes your positive impact a step further. You will be reaching far beyond your own consumption impacts and helping to build a better world for everyone!

How Can You Offset Your Personal Carbon Footprint

The carbon footprint is a key part of how sustainable we live. And it is one of the ways we measure the effects of our human-induced global climate change. Yes, even from eating apples!

“Carbon footprint: the amount of greenhouse gasses and specifically carbon dioxide emitted by something (such as a person’s activities or a product’s manufacture and transport) during a given period”

Merriam Webster

Basically, it is the amount of carbon emitted by you as an individual or an organization providing you with goods and services – including apples:

Illustration of carbon emissions from food
Our World in Data: Emissions from food alone would take us past 1.5°C or 2°C this century

Carbon offsets are reductions in carbon emissions that are used to compensate for carbon emissions occurring elsewhere – for example for the carbon emissions that are associated with apples. They are measured in tons of CO2 equivalents and are bought and sold through international brokers, online retailers, and trading platforms on what is known as the global carbon offset market. 

“Carbon Offset: a way for a company or person to reduce the level of carbon dioxide for which they are responsible by paying money to a company that works to reduce the total amount produced in the world, for example by planting trees”

Oxford Dictionary

In terms of apples – and indeed all food types – there will always be a carbon footprint, because of the resources it takes to get your food from farms to the place where you’ll eventually eat them. And while there are ways to reduce your carbon footprint when shopping for apples, carbon offsets would be a way to reduce your CO2e emissions all the way down to net zero (or even to become climate positive).

However, when you purchase carbon offsets, it’s important that they actually make a difference in offsetting (aka reducing) total carbon emissions. To achieve that, the following are key criteria:

  • Carbon offset projects have to be effective (different projects have different effectiveness rates)
  • Carbon offset projects have to be additional
  • Carbon offset projects have to be permanent
  • The claims from carbon offset projects have to be verifiable

To find the best carbon offsets for you personally, check out our full guide on the best carbon offsets for individuals, where you’ll also learn more about how these carbon offset projects work, what their respective offsetting costs are, and what your best way would be to offset your own carbon emissions.

Related: Check out our full guide on “What Are the Best Carbon Offsets for Individuals: Complete 2024 List” to find the best carbon offset providers for your personal carbon emissions and those associated to, e.g., eating apples.

Final Thoughts

There are many areas where apples could improve in terms of their ethics and sustainability. For example, they have had instances of endangering workers’ health, as well as use of monoculture farming, nitrogen fertilizers, and plastic packaging. However, if you make key decisions when buying apples, you can help to make your apple consumption more ethical and sustainable. Another important component is to support organizations that tackle the bigger issues caused by agriculture. Through these methods, you can really help make apple farming more ethical and sustainable!

Stay impactful,

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