A Matter of Trust: Are Product Certifications Letting us Down?
As consumers in recent times became more aware of their impact on the environment, it has become increasingly important to easily be able to identify “sustainable” products in order to make smart, ethical choices. This has lead to an abundance of certifications and schemes. Determining their trustworthiness is no easy feat; how do we really know that the relevant practices are sufficiently stringent, and not just a case of greenwashing? (Unsubstantiated claims to convey environmental “friendliness”, where this may not be the case.)
The market for product certification is highly fragmented (Ecovia, 2013). Examples include:
FSC - Forestry Stewardship Council
MSC - Marine Stewardship Council
Der Grüne Punkt (Green dot)
PEFC - Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification
Rainforest Alliance Certified
Green Palm [Sustainable Palm Oil]
Australian Certified Organic
Furthermore, while some rely on external auditing, others are undertaken in-house. Examples of the latter include the “Nestle Cocoa Plan” and the “Lindt Sustainability" program. On its face, external oversight would appear to be preferable as these entities have an interest in maintaining their reputations. Some argue, however, that internally managed systems can be controlled more effectively, respond to evolving consumer demand, and are an example of organisations taking the initiative rather than “outsourcing” corporate social responsibility. However, with the profit motive always in play, how does the consumer know standards are not being eroded in the name of so-called efficiency? How do we compare true sustainability values?
There are some concerning signs. Yale University, for instance, reports on the Forestry Steward Council (FSC), which has arguably failed to halt deforestation broadly-speaking and in some cases may provide cover for irresponsible logging, thereby misleading consumers (Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, 2018). Numerous examples are cited. A FSC International representative remains that control systems are “robust, solid and continually being developed”, but clearly there are significant issues. Arguably, the industry-driven PEFC certification has put pressure on FSC to loosen standards in order to “compete”.
In the area of sustainable seafood, perhaps the most well-known (and certainly the most widely adopted) certification is MSC (Marine Stewardship Council). For the caring consumer of fish, this would appear to be the best option at your local supermarket. Yet, on closer examination, we find numerous examples where the certification is retained despite known, prolonged overfishing of myriad species (Sverige Radio, 2016). It is claimed that this is appropriate given agreements to “move towards sustainability” in relevant catchment areas. But, with a problem as acute as overfishing (the UN estimates 90% of fish stocks are overfished [The Guardian, 2016]) how long is a reasonable transitionary period? At what point does the certification lose its credibility altogether?
There is no simple solution to the sustainability certification problem. The overarching issues is trust: trust that standards are not being undermined, trust that natural resources are being managed within the Earth’s carrying capacity, and trust that well-intentioned organisations are not being co-opted by commercial interests. We all need to keep the pressure on: through the products we buy and choose not to buy. Your trust is a valuable thing and, once betrayed, certification organisations ought to have a heck of a challenge in front of them in order to earn it back.
Ecovia Intelligence, 2013. "Proliferation of Food Eco-Labels to Continue". Accessed 23.02.18. http://www.ecoviaint.com/r0801/
Sverige Radio, 2016. "MSC and Certified Overfishing". Accessed 23.02.18. http://sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=1316&artikel=6591469
The Guardian (Neslen, A.) 2016. "Global Fish Production Approaching Sustainable Limit, UN Warns". Accessed 23.02.18. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jul/07/global-fish-production-approaching-sustainable-limit-un-warns
Yale Environment 360 (Conniff, R.) 2018. "Greenwashed Timber: How Sustainable Forest Certification Has Failed". Accessed 23.02.18. https://e360.yale.edu/features/greenwashed-timber-how-sustainable-forest-certification-has-failed