Thursday, 31 March 2011

Certification: a plea for harmony

You can’t move in modern supermarkets without the logo of one certification scheme or another jumping out at you. Some are short and sweet: ‘FSC’, ‘MSC’, ‘FLO’. Others are more long-winded: 'United Egg Producers Certified: Produced in Compliance With United Egg Producers' Animal Husbandry Guidelines' being a personal favourite. After decades on the margins, the big brands are beginning to weigh in. Cadbury has very publicly committed to take all its Dairy Milk fair trade. Kraft has pledged to buy up to 30,000 tonnes of Rainforest Alliance coffee by next year. Consumers should be cheering in the aisles. Some are. But many are not.

It seems a tad churlish to criticise social and environmental certification schemes just as they are going mainstream. Yet the sceptics have a point. Well, several actually. For starters, the people such schemes are designed to help – producers and consumers primarily – are being sold short. The former face extra costs from multiple schemes, while the latter are left confused by so many labels. There are conceptual shortfalls too. Certification generally implies a premium. Who should pay it? Producer, buyer or consumer – no one seems clear. Recalcitrants present another sticking point. Certification works where people care. (So the 20% of Brazilian soya that ends up in Europe needs an ethical stamp.) It’s not so effective where people are indifferent (i.e. the 80% or so of Brazilian soya destined for China).

The obvious step – as Rajesh Chhabara points out in Ethical Corporation’s latest issue – is for standards to harmonise. Farmers and consumers would welcome such a move. So too would companies, who must currently turn to a litany of standards to certify their full value chains. Harmonisation is easier said than done. For starters, every certification provider has its own emphasis and priorities (and, to put it frankly, their own turf to protect). Secondly, the issues under consideration are complex and wildly divergent.

At an industry level, however, signs of collaboration are emerging. Take Starbucks. The Seattle-based coffee giant has been working with its own certification scheme since 2004.
That covers 81% of its total coffee bean purchases. The remainder it buys from farmers certified under other schemes such as Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade Foundation. The company is now working with TransFair USA and Fairtrade Labelling Organisations International to explore integrating its approach with that of Fair Trade Certified. It’s not a holistic answer, but it’s a start.

Ultimately, certification is a numbers game. There needs to be enough of it in the market to make it the de facto option of choice. Consumers need to buy it because it’s the only show in town. That works in specific geographies with specific products. Palm oil from Indonesia or hard wood from Bolivia, for instance. In mega-markets, however – which comprise the vast majority of agricultural commodities – certified products remain in the minority. Legislation can help change that. Consider fridges and HFCs. For certification providers to do it alone, however, they must converge and cooperate. As they are, they might win shelf space. They might even nab an entire aisle. But without greater harmonisation, the entire supermarket or shopping mall will always fall out of their reach.

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