Is Eating Apples Ethical & Sustainable? Here Are the Facts
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Hey fellow impactful ninja ?
You may have noticed that Impactful Ninja is all about providing helpful information to make a positive impact on the world and society. And that we love to link back to where we found all the information for each of our posts.
Most of these links are informational-based for you to check out their primary sources with one click.
But some of these links are so-called "affiliate links" to products that we recommend.
First and foremost, because we believe that they add value to you. For example, when we wrote a post about the environmental impact of long showers, we came across an EPA recommendation to use WaterSense showerheads. So we linked to where you can find them. Or, for many of our posts, we also link to our favorite books on that topic so that you can get a much more holistic overview than one single blog post could provide.
And when there is an affiliate program for these products, we sign up for it. For example, as Amazon Associates, we earn from qualifying purchases.
First, and most importantly, we still only recommend products that we believe add value for you.
When you buy something through one of our affiliate links, we may earn a small commission - but at no additional costs to you.
And when you buy something through a link that is not an affiliate link, we won’t receive any commission but we’ll still be happy to have helped you.
When we find products that we believe add value to you and the seller has an affiliate program, we sign up for it.
When you buy something through one of our affiliate links, we may earn a small commission (at no extra costs to you).
And at this point in time, all money is reinvested in sharing the most helpful content with you. This includes all operating costs for running this site and the content creation itself.
You may have noticed by the way Impactful Ninja is operated that money is not the driving factor behind it. It is a passion project of mine and I love to share helpful information with you to make a positive impact on the world and society. However, it's a project in that I invest a lot of time and also quite some money.
Eventually, my dream is to one day turn this passion project into my full-time job and provide even more helpful information. But that's still a long time to go.
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:
- Social and economic conditions: The ethics of food crucially depends on the social and economic conditions of the farmers who grow them. Especially on fair labor practices, including fair wages and safe working conditions.
- Seasonality: Eating seasonally is a lever of sustainability. The two key reasons are that seasonal food is more likely grown in their “natural growing season” without using greenhouses, and also more likely to be grown locally.
- Land requirements: Large parts of the world that were once covered by forests and wildlands are now used for agriculture. 10 million hectares of forest are destroyed annually and 50% of the world’s habitable land is now used for agriculture. This loss of natural habitat has been the main driver for reducing the world’s biodiversity.
- Water footprint: 70% of global freshwater is now used for agricultural purposes. By assessing the water footprint of a particular food, we can determine how our limited freshwater resources are being consumed and polluted.
- Pesticide and fertilizer usage: Pesticides and fertilizers provide a range of agricultural benefits. However, numerous studies link pesticides and fertilizers to serious effects on human health, along with disruptions to vital ecosystems and the spread of aquatic dead zones.
- Carbon footprint: The carbon footprint is one of the ways we measure the effects of our human-induced global climate change. Today, food production accounts for over a quarter (26%) of global greenhouse gas emissions.
- Waste generation: Food and its packaging account for almost 45% of the materials landfilled in the US alone. And packaging sent to landfills, especially when made from plastics, does not degrade quickly or, in some cases, at all.
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 Factors
|Ethics & Sustainability
|Social and economic conditions of 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.
|Seasonality of apples
|Apples’ seasonality is during the late summer and early fall. Outside of this season, they are either stored or imported.
|Land requirements for apples
|Apples’ land requirements are fairly low. However, their use of monoculture farming means that they are less sustainable.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|Waste generation of apples
|Apples’ 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.
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?
- What is the land usage of apples: Apples yield around 40–50 tons per hectare. This is a moderately high yield among fruits. For example, strawberries yield up to 25 tons per hectare, and bananas up to 100.
- Where and how are apples grown: Most apples in the world are grown in the US, where they primarily grow on trees in orchards. Apple trees have been found to sequester carbon very well. Carbon sequestration is the process of capturing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in the ground. This lowers apples’ carbon footprint and improves their sustainability.
- Are apples grown in monocultures or polycultures: Apples are primarily grown in monoculture farms, which contain only one crop per area. Monocultures are not only less productive agriculturally, leading to lower yields per hectare, but also very damaging to the environment.
- How does the growing of apples affect soil fertility and erosion: Apple trees naturally have a positive relationship with soil. However, monocultures in general tend to promote soil erosion because they limit biodiversity, which is one of the best defenses against soil erosion. Therefore, though apple trees, in theory, can be good for soil, they can also be unsustainable through monoculture practices.
- How does the apple industry affect the loss of habitable land: The apple industry takes up a staggering amount of land in the US—around 100,000 hectares. That’s around ⅓ the size of Rhode Island! It is the second-largest crop in the US, after grapes, meaning that it takes up a significant amount of land compared to other fruits.
- How does the apple industry affect wildlife and biodiversity: Monocultures are very damaging to biodiversity. They limit the growth of many important soil microbes and deplete pollinators of the diverse nutrients they need to thrive. Therefore, apples’ use of monoculture farming is very unsustainable.
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?
- What is the overall water usage of apples: Apples require around 52 inches of water per year. This is a very average water requirement compared to other fruits, making them moderately sustainable.
- What is the green water footprint of apples: The green water footprint is the amount of water from precipitation stored in the soil and used by plants for growth. Most apples in the US are grown in Washington state—around 60%. Washington gets between 70–100 inches of rainfall per year. This is well over the required water for apples and so they have a very low green water footprint.
- What is the blue water footprint of apples: The blue water footprint is the amount of water sourced from surface (such as rivers or lakes) or groundwater resources. Since Washington state gets more than enough rain to satisfy apples’ water requirements, they don’t need significant irrigation. Thus, their blue water footprint is small.
- What is the gray water footprint of apples: The gray water footprint is the amount of freshwater required to clean up water pollution to meet certain quality standards. Essentially, it’s the amount of water needed to make polluted water clean enough to be safe and healthy for humans and the environment. Apples have very high pesticide usage. This means that a lot of water is needed to clean up their pesticide residue and as such, they have a high gray water footprint.
- How does the apple industry affect freshwater and ocean pollution: Pesticides are some of the worst polluters to waterways. They can run off into rivers and lakes and even poison aquatic life. The fact that apples use a significant amount of pesticides means their impact on freshwater is very negative.
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?
- What is the pesticide usage of apples: Apples have a very bad track record when it comes to pesticides, often appearing among the highest on fruit pesticide rankings. Pesticides can cause many kinds of environmental damage, including poisoning surrounding wildlife, and leakages getting into soil and groundwater. As a result, apples’ negative impact through pesticide use is high.
- What is the fertilizer usage of apples: Apples primarily use nitrogen fertilizer. Nitrogen fertilizer is one of the most harmful fertilizers out there. Generally, it causes pollution through chemical runoff, among other problems. The fact that apples use nitrogen fertilizer is a very unsustainable part of apples’ life cycle.
- Are there any known issues connected to the agrochemical usage for apples: Nitrogen fertilizer runoff has been associated with the promotion of invasive algae growth. This algae is harmful to wildlife in waterways and can spread widely. Therefore, the damage caused to water and biodiversity is high for apples through their nitrogen fertilizer use.
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.
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.
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?
- What is the packaging of apples: Apples are often packaged in plastic trays to get to the consumer. Plastic has devastating consequences on the environment, such as affecting ocean life, emitting greenhouse gasses in its creation, and creating toxic microplastics that get into groundwater and food. The fact that apples use plastic in their packaging means that they are very unsustainable at this stage.
- How is the packaging of apples disposed of: Plastic has a low recycling rate of around 9%. This means that the majority of apples’ packaging is going to landfills. Landfills have very unsustainable qualities, including chemical runoff and greenhouse gas emissions.
- How are apples disposed of: Apple cores can theoretically be composted. However, only about 4% of compostable materials are actually composted, meaning that most simply go to landfills. Besides landfills’ general harmful qualities, throwing food waste in landfills generates methane, which is a particularly harmful greenhouse gas.
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:
- 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.
- 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!
- 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:
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:
- This includes GHG emissions from producing the products that we use and foods that we eat (e.g., power plants, factories or farms, and landfills)
- GHG emissions from fuel that we burn directly or indirectly (e.g., logistics and transportation, cooling or heating facilities),
- as well as the GHG emissions attributed to how we consume these products and foods.
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.
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!
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- United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): Climate Change Terms
- Impactful Ninja: Best Charities That Advance Ethics Worldwide
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