Is Eating Figs Ethical & Sustainable? Here Are the Facts

Is Eating Figs Ethical & Sustainable? Here Are the Facts

By
Teresa Mersereau

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Figs are a sweet, squishy fruit popular in Italian cuisine. They are also becoming increasingly popular in the US, with the fresh fig market valued at around $1.5 billion. However, there can be some very unethical and unsustainable aspects of the fig industry. So, we had to ask: Is eating figs ethical and sustainable?

Eating figs is somewhat ethical. Workers are generally paid a fair wage and there is no evidence of child labor within the industry. However, working hours can vary significantly and workers are often exposed to hazards such as wildfire smoke and unsafe environmental temperatures.

Eating figs is fairly sustainable. On the one hand, they require a significant amount of irrigation and have a moderate carbon footprint. However, their carbon sequestering properties and low pesticide use mean they are more sustainable than many other fruits.

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

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

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 figs. 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 figs—leave an impact on people, animals, and our environment. And when it comes to food in general—and figs in specific—the following are key factors for their ethics and sustainability:

To understand the overall environmental impact of figs, 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 figs is ethical & sustainable.

Here’s How Ethical & Sustainable Eating Figs Is

The overall ethics & sustainability of figs is high. Their only unsustainable qualities are high irrigation needs amongst US-grown figs and a moderately high carbon footprint. The industry also has very few reports of ethical issues. 

Figs are very sustainable and potentially ethical fruits. Fig plants sequester carbon very well, provide habitats and food for wildlife, and have even been used to restore rainforests. However, there are still a few unsustainable practices within the industry that you need to be aware of. Working conditions can also be improved.

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

Key Assessment FactorsEthics & Sustainability
Social and economic conditions of figsFigs’ social and economic conditions are fair compared to other fruits. Their farming location in California means they may fall under many of the same ethical concerns as other California agriculture, such as poor working conditions. However, there are no reports of harmful child labor practices on fig farms. 
Seasonality of figsFigs’ seasonality is between May and November. They are more sustainable to buy in the US during this time because they are often locally grown. Out-of-season, figs are usually imported from Turkey. This requires longer travel distances which means higher fuel usage and thus a higher carbon footprint.
Land requirements for figsFigs’ land requirements are somewhat high. However, their benefits for wildlife and biodiversity, such as habitat creation, means that they are fairly sustainable at this stage.
Water footprint of figsFigs have a high water requirement of 50–75 inches of water per year. Considering that they grow in dry regions, figs require a significant amount of irrigation which can be fairly unsustainable. 
Agrochemical usage for figsFigs’ agrochemical use is low, especially on small, local farms. However, larger farms sometimes use certain fertilizers that can be harmful to the environment, notably nitrogen fertilizer.
Carbon footprint of figsFigs have a moderate carbon footprint of 0.3kg (0.68lb) of CO2e per pound of figs. This is mainly because of their high irrigation requirements, mechanized harvesting processes, refrigerated trucking, and plastic packaging. 
Waste generation of figsFigs’ waste generation is fairly high. This is exacerbated by the fact that their waste has low composting rates and they are often packaged in plastic which is difficult to recycle. 

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 figs’ ethics & sustainability.

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

Figs’ social and economic conditions are fair compared to other fruits. Their farming location in California means they may fall under many of the same ethical concerns as other California agriculture, such as poor working conditions. However, there are no reports of harmful child labor practices on fig farms. 

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 fig industry fares in relation to these ethical questions.

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

In short, the fig industry is linked to some poor working conditions, making them slightly unethical. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Are the Seasonality for Figs

Figs’ seasonality is between May and November. They are more sustainable to buy in the US during this time because they are often locally grown. Out-of-season, figs are usually imported from Turkey. This requires longer travel distances which means higher fuel usage and thus a higher carbon footprint.

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 fig industry accommodates year-round demand.

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

  • When is the natural season for growing and harvesting figs: Figs have a long season in the US, being available generally from May until November. This means that you will be able to find the most widely-available domestic figs during this time.
  • How are figs naturally grown in-season: During their season, most figs in the US are grown in California and Texas. This means that they will need to be transported smaller distances and are thus more sustainable than out-of-season figs.
  • How are figs grown out-of-season: Out-of-season, much of the US imports figs from Turkey. So, they have to be shipped across the ocean, which comes with high emissions. Thus they are far less sustainable than in-season figs. 

In short, figs are much more sustainable during their US season, since they use less emissions for transportation. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Are the Land Requirements for Figs

Figs’ land requirements are somewhat high. However, their benefits for wildlife and biodiversity, such as habitat creation, means that they are fairly sustainable at this stage.

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 figs’ land usage affects their sustainability.

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

In short, figs are actually fairly sustainable when it comes to land. Though they use a significant amount of land, they bring considerable benefits to it.

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Water Footprint of Figs

Figs have a high water requirement of 50–75 inches of water per year. Considering that they grow in dry regions, figs require a significant amount of irrigation which can be fairly unsustainable. 

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 figs’ water footprint.

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

In short, figs’ use of considerable irrigation lowers their sustainability. However, their low pesticide use reduces their potential for a larger impact.

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Agrochemical Usage for Figs

Figs’ agrochemical use is low, especially on small, local farms. However, larger farms sometimes use certain fertilizers that can be harmful to the environment, notably nitrogen fertilizer.

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 figs’ pesticide and fertilizer rates really are.

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

In short, figs’ minimal pesticide and fertilizer use, despite the inclusion of nitrogen fertilizer, means their agrochemical footprint is fairly low overall.

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Carbon Footprint of Figs

Figs have a moderate carbon footprint of 0.3kg (0.68lb) of CO2e per pound of figs. This is mainly because of their high irrigation requirements, mechanized harvesting processes, refrigerated trucking, and plastic packaging. 

Illustration of 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 figs contributes to their overall sustainability.

How ethical & sustainable is the carbon footprint of figs?

In short, figs have a fairly average carbon footprint amongst fruits. Their emissions mainly come from their irrigation requirements, plastic packaging, and refrigeration needs.

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

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Waste Generation of Figs

Figs’ waste generation is fairly high. This is exacerbated by the fact that their waste has low composting rates and they are often packaged in plastic which is difficult to recycle. 

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 figs’ waste generation is.

How ethical & sustainable is the waste generation of figs?

In short, the disposal of figs is very unsustainable. The low composting rates of food waste and low recycling rates of plastic mean most fig waste ends up in landfills. 

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

The fig industry has historically had a minimal impact on people and the environment. They have not contributed majorly to land loss or water pollution. 

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 racked up some serious damage along the way. Whether it’s exploiting labor, deforestation to meet demand, water pollution, or disruption of wildlife, most fruits have left a path of destruction. Let’s see how figs have fared throughout history.

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

  • Has labor been exploited because of fig production: There have been many labor disputes on California farms over things like wages, overtime, and hours. However, fig farms have not been specifically named in these reports. 
  • How much land has been lost because of fig production: Figs have a low land yield, so their land use is high. However, figs are not as popularly farmed as more common fruits like oranges and apples. Global fig farming only amounts to around 1 million tons a year, whereas oranges are valued at 50 million tons a year and apples at around 76 million tons. Therefore, they have not had as much of a historical burden on land use as other fruits. 
  • Which wildlife species have been negatively impacted or displaced because of fig production: Since fig trees make excellent habitats for wildlife by providing food sources and pollination, they have had some positive impacts over the years. They also have had historically low pesticide rates which has helped them to minimize their negative impact on wildlife. 
  • Have water sources and soil been contaminated because of fig production: The fact that fig trees have used small amounts of pesticides and fertilizer means that their impact on water sources has been low. However, the small amount of nitrogen fertilizer they use may have had some impacts on waterways

In short, figs have historically had very little impact on people and the environment. Their low pesticide and fertilizer rates, and positive relationship with wildlife have resulted in a small negative impact on the environment. 

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

There are a few things you can do to make your fig consumption more ethical and sustainable, while still enjoying them. You can also consider offsetting your personal and fig-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 Figs More Ethically & Sustainably

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

  1. Buy in-season figs: One of the more unsustainable components of figs is that they are typically imported out-of-season. To avoid the unsustainable emissions from these shipments, try to limit your fig consumption to between May and November. 
  2. Avoid plastic packaging: Both at the manufacturing stage and the disposal stage, plastic packaging is very unsustainable. Buy figs with alternative or biodegradable packaging, or no packaging at all, to make your fig consumption significantly more sustainable. 
  3. Compost and recycle: If it isn’t possible to avoid plastic packaging altogether, then you should make the effort to recycle or reuse it as much as possible. Likewise, you should try to compost your fig waste. If your city doesn’t have a composting system, then you can consider building one yourself

Following some of these methods can really help you to make your fig-eating more sustainable. 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 fig 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 fig agriculture, towards a more sustainable future.

In the table below are some of the best charities that work in the areas where fig 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 fig 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 figs!

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 figs:

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 figs. 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 figs – 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 figs, 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 2023 List” to find the best carbon offset providers for your personal carbon emissions and those associated to, e.g., eating figs.

Final Thoughts

Figs are one of the most sustainable fruits out there, with few known ethical issues. Their impacts on land and water sources are very low, mainly because of their minimal pesticide and fertilizer rates, as well as their positive relationship with surrounding wildlife. However, they do require higher amounts of irrigation when grown in the US, and their carbon footprint is moderate. But with some reduction methods, such as cutting down on packaging and even potentially growing your own figs, you can become a much more responsible fig consumer!

Stay impactful,

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