24. Organic and Fair Trade Certifications
Certifications such as organic and fair trade are great ways to quickly inform consumers that a product they want to buy was made at a high environmental and ethical standard and give producers meeting those standards an edge in the market… that is, if the certifications use proper, well-enforced criteria, producers can actually obtain the certification, and consumers actually know what the labels mean. Today, we break down some of the challenges facing certification schemes, as well as some specific issues with organic and fair trade, and ponder how these programs could improve. With special guest Dr. Graeme Auld: Professor in the School of Public Policy and Administration at Carleton University in Canada and author of Constructing Private Governance: The Rise and Evolution of Forest, Coffee, and Fisheries Certification.
My understanding of certifications has consisted of a slow evolution over time. A few years ago, I was a consumer who accepted certifications at face value, trusting that a certification with the word “eco” in it or a label with some green leaves on it meant that the product had high environmental standards. However, over time, and throughout my education, this understanding evolved.
I first learned more about the fair trade certification in a class I took on sustainable development, and I began to realize some of the flaws not only with that certification but also with the entire concept of certifications. I now see the evaluating certifications as a delicate balance, as it’s important to be skeptical of their promises, but it’s not worth it to slip into cynicism. I was excited to write this episode to help inform other people about the pros and cons of certifications and to elaborate on walking the line between healthy skepticism and unhealthy cynicism. I hope you enjoy listening!
Until recently, I was actually really skeptical of certifications like organic and fair trade, and never would have factored them into my purchasing decisions at the grocery store. I was vaguely aware that they weren’t as reliable as they seemed, but primarily cared more about price. In the past few months, I’ve learned a bit that has made me change my tune. One, a large swath of consumers do claim to factor environmental and ethical standards into their purchasing decisions. And two, when there are environmental and ethical issues around the world that have yet to be eradicated, certifications pose a sort of free market mechanism to provide consumers information and give producers who are doing the right thing a competitive edge. Once I mentally framed it like that, I started to see how the idea of certifications has a ton of potential.
But my initial instinct to be skeptical wasn’t wrong either—they face a lot of issues! Exploring a few of those issues and talking to Graeme about his take on them was such an interesting experience for me. My favorite environmental issues to discuss are those where there isn’t a clear “good vs. bad” but rather a set of pros and cons to decipher and try to reconcile. And perhaps certifications won’t solve every problem in the world, but that’s not the point. Accomplishing the goal of getting consumers information and giving responsible producers a competitive edge is absolutely achievable, and with some tweaks, certifications might be a way to do it.
I hope you enjoy today’s episode, and more importantly, I hope you think critically about it. If you do want to be a more responsible shopper, critical thinking is the #1 thing I can advocate. There will likely be some environmental and ethical issues with any product you want to purchase, and through critical thinking, you can minimize your personal impact. Actually eliminating all those issues will take a much more comprehensive global policy effort on each issue, which is why The Sweaty Penguin has a lot more episodes to come!