Is Eating Oranges Ethical & Sustainable? Here Are the Facts

Is Eating Oranges Ethical & Sustainable? Here Are the Facts

By
Teresa Mersereau

Read Time:24 Minutes

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Oranges are by far the most popular citrus fruit and for good reason. They are suitable for juicing, baking, and general consumption. They also pack a great health punch, with almost 100 grams of vitamin C per orange. But orange production can also consume a lot of resources and require certain growth practices that may be harmful to people or environments. So, we had to ask: Is eating oranges ethical and sustainable?

Eating oranges can be very unethical. Imported oranges, in particular, have reported issues such as wage theft, safety issues, and child labor in their farming. Even domestic ones are often picked by “guest” workers, sometimes with restrictive contracts that some might view as legal exploitation.

Eating oranges is fairly unsustainable. They require harmful pesticides and plastic packaging, and orange farms in Brazil contribute significantly to Amazon rainforest deforestation and wildlife habitat loss. However, domestic oranges are more sustainable, with a long season from October to June.

In this article, we will assess how oranges hold up from both an ethics perspective and a sustainability perspective. Through these two lenses, you will be able to gain a stronger perspective on the overall externalities of the oranges that you eat!

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

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

To understand the ethics and sustainability of oranges, we must assess each of their key factors. The 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 oranges is ethical and/or sustainable.

Here’s How Ethical & Sustainable Eating Oranges Is

The overall ethics and sustainability of oranges is very low. Oranges take part in some practices that are very unethical and unsustainable, such as poor treatment of agricultural workers, deforestation, and pesticide use. 

There are some things that oranges do ethically and sustainably, however. For example, the majority of (in-season) oranges are grown in the US and are generally more sustainable. However, they also engage in some practices that cannot continue without devastating environmental and humanitarian consequences. 

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

Key Assessment FactorsEthics & Sustainability
Social and economic conditions of orangesOranges’ ethical conditions are appallingly poor. Workers are subjected to safety violations, restrictive contracts, and wages far below those required to meet the cost of living. There are also reports of child labor in the Brazilian orange industry. 
Seasonality of orangesOranges’ seasonality is fairly sustainable. Their seasons are long, ranging from October to June. However, oranges consumed in the off-season are imported and relatively unsustainable. 
Land requirements for orangesOranges’ land requirements lessen their sustainability. They have a very high yield yet are typically farmed in a monoculture and take a long time to grow. However, orange farms in Brazil contribute significantly to deforestation in the Amazon rainforest and to the habitat loss of (endangered) wildlife. 
Water footprint of orangesOranges have a moderately sustainable water footprint of about 60 inches of water per year. They require a medium amount of additional irrigation, yet have a high amount of water needed to clear their pesticide residues.
Agrochemical usage for orangesOranges’ agrochemical usage is very unsustainable. They require a lot of pesticides and fertilizers, which are unsustainable pollutants, especially in groundwater and for wildlife.
Carbon footprint of orangesOranges have a moderately sustainable carbon footprint of around 0.3kg (0.66 lbs) CO2e per pound. In particular, the usage of pesticides, mechanical harvesting processes, and low composting rates significantly contribute to the carbon footprint of oranges.
Waste generation of orangesOranges’ waste generation is very unsustainable. This is because they use plastic packaging and have low composting rates for their organic waste, which contribute 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 oranges’ ethics and sustainability.

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

Oranges’ ethical conditions are appallingly poor. Workers are subjected to safety violations, restrictive contracts, and wages far below those required to meet the cost of living. There are also reports of child labor in the Brazilian orange 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 orange industry fares in relation to these ethical questions. 

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

In short, the track record of the orange industry, in Brazil, the US, and beyond, is very bad when it comes to its workers. Wage theft, unfair contracts, child labor, and safety negligence are all examples of this system of exploitation. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Are the Seasonality for Oranges

Oranges’ seasonality is fairly sustainable. Their seasons are long, ranging from October to June. However, oranges consumed in the off-season are imported and relatively unsustainable. 

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 pineapple industry accommodates year-round demand.

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

In short, the most sustainable oranges to eat will be available from October to June. Otherwise, you will be eating oranges that require importing, which means they have a higher carbon footprint and are less sustainable overall. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Are the Land Requirements for Oranges

Oranges’ land requirements lessen their sustainability. They have a very high yield yet are typically farmed in a monoculture and take a long time to grow. However, orange farms in Brazil contribute significantly to deforestation in the Amazon rainforest and to the habitat loss of (endangered) wildlife. 

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

Growing oranges has a lot of variables that contribute to their relative sustainability. Some of these variables include the amount of land they use, the way in which they grow, and the amount of time they take to grow. In this section, we will evaluate the relative sustainability of oranges’ land usage. 

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

In short, oranges’ use of Amazon rainforest land means they contribute majorly to habitat loss and land destruction. Despite their ability to sequester carbon, they are still a fairly unsustainable fruit. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Water Footprint of Oranges

Oranges have a moderately sustainable water footprint of about 60 inches of water per year. They require a medium amount of additional irrigation, yet have a high amount of water needed to clear their pesticide residues.

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 oranges’ water footprint.

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

In short, oranges have moderate irrigation requirements, depending on where they are grown, as well as high pesticide use, which makes them fairly unsustainable from a water perspective. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Agrochemical Usage for Oranges

Oranges’ agrochemical usage is very unsustainable. They require a lot of pesticides and fertilizers, which are unsustainable pollutants, especially in groundwater and for wildlife.

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 oranges’ pesticide and fertilizer rates really are.

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

In short, the pesticides and fertilizers used by oranges are very unsustainable, especially through their effect on groundwater, which is then harmful to wildlife and soil.

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Carbon Footprint of Oranges

Oranges have a moderately sustainable carbon footprint of around 0.3kg (0.66 lbs) CO2e per pound. In particular, the usage of pesticides, mechanical harvesting processes, and low composting rates significantly contribute to the carbon footprint of oranges.

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 oranges contributes to their overall sustainability.

How ethical & sustainable is the carbon footprint of oranges?

In short, oranges have a fairly average carbon footprint. Mechanization and pesticides, especially, emit significant amounts of carbon during the orange production process. 

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

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Waste Generation of Oranges

Oranges’ waste generation is very unsustainable. This is because they use plastic packaging and have low composting rates for their organic waste, which contribute 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 oranges’ waste generation is.

How ethical & sustainable is the waste generation of oranges?

In short, oranges have low recycling rates among plastic and low composting rates among food waste. Both oranges and their packaging generally end up in incredibly unsustainable landfills.

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

Oranges have partaken in some very unsustainable farming practices over the years. These include the destruction of the Amazon, damage to aquatic life from pesticides, and wildlife habitat loss.

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 oranges have fared throughout history.

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

In short, the unsustainable practices used by orange farming have caused some serious damage to the rainforest, as well as participated in extreme exploitation, such as child labor.

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

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

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

  1. Buy oranges in season: Oranges that are grown in their proper season are more likely to be domestically produced, which is good for several reasons. Mostly, it reduces travel times, which cuts down on carbon footprint and other resources. Abstaining from oranges between June and November, and especially between July and September, can help you to make sure they are coming from more local sources. 
  2. Buy from larger farms: This may sound counterintuitive, but larger orange farms actually might be more ethical. Smaller farms may seem idyllic, but they are audited less often than larger farms, meaning that there is more room for misconduct. Some have found that smaller farms are more likely to engage in wage theft, unsafe conditions, and even abuse. So, while supporting corporations might not seem like the right thing to do, it might actually result in the most harm-reduction. 
  3. Buy organic oranges: Pesticides are a major driver of oranges’ unsustainability, causing a significant amount of environmental damage. 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 footprint. Pesticide poisoning is also a major safety hazard for agricultural workers, so supporting organic farms means that one big safety risk is being reduced. 

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

In the table below are some of the best charities that work in the areas where orange 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 increase the sustainability of your personal oranges 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 oranges!

“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 oranges:

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 oranges. 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 oranges—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 oranges, 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 with, e.g., eating oranges.

Final Thoughts

Orange production is clearly heading toward a breaking point. Many of the practices that they are engaging with are not able to continue, either because resources will run out, the ecological breakdown, or the human cost. Fortunately, there are lots of people out there working to promote ethics and sustainability in the orange industry. You, too, can follow steps, such as supporting organic orange farms, to try and make your personal orange consumption more sustainable. Hopefully, thanks to these efforts, oranges will be headed toward a more sustainable future!

Stay impactful,

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