Sustainability/environmental certification: saint or sinner?


Source: Carbonfast2014

The use of sustainability/environmental certifications has grown significantly in recent years. They supposed to assist farmers and producers, and also to provide consumers with an understanding of where their product (e.g. tea, coffee, chocolate, etc.) has come from, and that it has been grown, produced and sold according to set standards.

However, with the bewildering number of certification schemes in existence, the question that arises is whether or not they’re adequately doing what they’re meant to.

Certification schemes vary, but usually fall into either the form of Voluntary Sustainability Standards, in which an independent third party certifies coffee growers (Rainforest Alliance, Fair Trade, and organic certifications), or a self-assessment, in which a retailer sets its own standards (e.g. Starbucks’ C.A.F.E. Practices and Nespresso AAA).

With the growing movement towards healthy, ‘sustainable’ living and customer demands for this from retailers, having a certification label on a product helps to ‘meet’ these demands. Often with the sense that as the product has a certification label is ‘doing what it says on the tin’, consumers will purchase it.

However, there is much debate about whether or not small holder farmers and producers (and around 80 – 90% of the farmers and producers globally fall into this category), are actually benefitting. For example, Root Capital notes that if demand for non-certified coffee is low, buyers will purchase less certified coffee than farmers have grown. The farmers must sell their coffee at lower prices even if it meets certification standards. However, as the costs of certification are higher than non-certified coffee, the farmers’ net income falls.

In addition, schemes focus on different factors. This can often lead to farmers and producers having to acquire a number of different cerifitications.

More and more large retailers are also setting up their own schemes. For example, in 2016, Mondelez International stopped using Fairtrade certified cocoa for its flag ship Cadbury Diary Milk brand. Moyee Coffee have developed FairChain which utilises Blockchain technology.

There are some other key considerations, such as the need to address poverty, workers rights, climate change impacts, and the rights of female farmers and producers.

The graphic below shows the spread of poverty, globally. The key areas, of Sub-Sharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America also happen to be key areas from which teas and coffees are produced.


Source: Farming First

The building of partnerships has been crucial to addressing climate change impacts that are affecting many farmers globally, and poverty. For example, links between funders, argonomists and farmers in Uganda have led to increased yields. Recently, Ethical Trade received funding from the Modern Slavery Innovation Fund (MSIF), to support migrant workers in Malaysia and also to consult on the ETI Access2Remedy Principles for migrants.

While there is often a focus on the farmers and producers, on the side of the retailers, a demonstration of standards is also important. For example, in March 2019, Teapigs announced that they had achieved a Gold Recycling standard.

Without doubt sustainability/environmental certification is important and does play a key role in the lives of millions of farmers and producers. Indeed, where there is demand and they are enforced effectively, certification schemes can lead to higher incomes, particularly when global prices are low.  

However, the most fundamental issue surely has to be that the small holder farmers and producers should not only be adequately compensated for their produce, but also that they should be able to improve their livelihoods. They should also not be ‘burdened’ with having to pay sometimes ‘huge’ joining and monitoring fees, and be unhindered in having to meet ‘unrealistic’ targets, as is often the case with many of the global certification schemes. It is important also to go beyond the label, to support wider initiatives, and also to encourage the retailers to also demonstrate that they are meeting set standards.

We would be keen to hear your views on the above. Drop us a comment in the box below.

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Right, off to get a cuppa….



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