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Ethics Through Whose Eyes? Dealing with Label and Certification Proliferation


    Consumer Conscience: How Environment and Ethics are Influencing Exports

    8 - 11 October 2008, Montreux, Switzerland

    SESSION SUMMARY: Friday, 10 October 2008                print icon   Printer-friendly version  


    Ethics Through Whose Eyes? Dealing with Label and Certification Proliferation

    Sunil Joseph, General Manager, PDS Organic Spices, India
    Bernhard Herold, Coordinator, Fair Wear Foundation, Switzerland
    Chris Sellers, Chief Executive Officer, Agentrics, USA
    Daniele Giovannucci, Co-founder, Committee on Sustainability Assessment, USA 

    With the number of ethical standards and labels expanding rapidly, producers need better and more access to information if they are to tap into the market for ethical goods.

    This was a key point to emerge from this session, which explored the challenges and opportunities presented by the proliferation of labelling and certification schemes linked to ethics and the environment.

    A number of participants and panellists also called for more coherence among various standards, particularly as the growth in the number of standards is continuing. There are now about 250 different eco-labels labels on the market, dealing only with food products, said Daniele Giovannucci, session moderator. Since 1995, more private international food-related standards have emerged than in the previous five decades combined. This proliferation reflects increased concern among consumers about ethical issues, such as environmental sustainability and labour standards. Moreover, after the food safety scandals of recent years, labelling schemes have sought to increase the trust consumers have in what they buy, he reported.

    From the point of view of companies, labelling can help differentiate from competitors and reduce the risk that one of their products will raise ethical or health concerns. Chris Sellers, whose company links up retailers with suppliers, said that ethics and corporate social responsibility are "increasingly coming into the equation" in the attributes company buyers consider when looking at a product.

    The plethora of labelling schemes causes confusion, the session heard. "From the consumer perspective, the proliferation of labels makes it difficult to know what these labels mean," said Bernhard Herold, whose foundation helps to promote good labour practices among makers of clothing, but does not operate a labelling scheme.

    There is also uncertainty among producers about the various labels. Moreover, they can face heavy costs, both direct and indirect, in attempting to comply with private and public standards. "Many smallholders are being paralysed by multiple certification procedures," said one forum participant, Anne MacCaig, Chief Executive of Cafédirect in the UK. "We are kidding ourselves if we think this is a sustainable way to operate," she added.

    However, the growing interest in ethical labels and standards also offers considerable market opportunities, panellists said. Sunil Joseph, whose organization helps organic spice producers in India export internationally, said small producers could plug into a variety of schemes. The different, and sometimes unclear, food standards applied by various governments were more of a problem for small farmers than private standards, Joseph said.

    For producers to take advantage of such opportunities they need more knowledge about how certification procedures work as well as better understanding of the actual costs and benefits of joining labelling schemes. Producers are often at a disadvantage because they lack information about access to markets through labelling.

    Intermediary bodies, such as international and non-governmental organizations, can play an important role in reducing this disadvantage. In addition, developing countries should be brought into the standard-setting process.

    Panellists advocated some harmonization, or coherence, among various schemes, as well as more clarity in their requirements. This would make it easier for farmers and companies to adopt ethical standards and for consumers to understand them. "These labels must be understandable," Sellers said.