Product Certifications: Truth or Trap?

By Aislinn Redbond, posted 19/11/21

Sustainable. Vegan. Organic. Fairtrade. Ethical. You name the buzzword.

Just some examples of the various certifications that brands pursue to reassure consumers that their products meet certain standards. Image source here.

Sustainable. Vegan. Organic. Fairtrade. Ethical. You name the buzzword, there’s a little badge or sticker attached to a product to indicate that the brand meets this standard. According to multiple studies, including this recent Deloitte survey, consumers are becoming increasingly conscious of their ‘buying power’: the ability to enact political decisions through their consumption habits. Consumers are becoming more aware of the environmental impact of products and the conditions within which products are grown and/or produced. Consumer activism has therefore spelled a new challenge for brands and corporations as they attempt to engage with (or at least give the appearance of engaging with) issues of social justice. This has led to a rise in greenwashing campaigns to appeal to the environmental activists out there, rainbow-washing during Pride Month, and let us please forget that infamous Pepsi ad where Kendall Jenner was supposed to contribute to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. There seems no limit to what companies will do to continue to appeal to their consumer base, and the rise of product certifications appears to be another avenue for brands to demonstrate their corporate social responsibility in line with consumer demands.

In recent years, various different boards of certification have emerged who supposedly monitor the practices of a company to ensure that they meet the standards demanded of the certification board. Rainforest Alliance is just one example of such a certification. According to Rainforest Alliance’s website, their mission is to ‘protect forests and biodiversity, take action on climate, and promote the rights and improve the livelihoods of rural people.’ Choosing products with the Rainforest Alliance Certified badge would therefore indicate that these products have been produced in environmentally- and socially- sound conditions. However, only a year ago, it emerged that the Rainforest Alliance was in fact certifying pineapple plantations that were far from ethical, engaging in labour exploitation and environmentally-damaging practices. Prior to this scandal, the BBC Panorama produced a special on how FairTrade certifications were prone to corruption and bribery, meaning that many FairTrade products were no more ethical than their non-fairtrade counterparts. This is distressing for consumers who genuinely want to engage in more ethical consumption practices, as it appears that even the most recognisable certifications cannot be trusted.

While it can seem deeply disheartening to learn that many certifications are simply the latest tool in capitalism’s belt to draw in the most ethically-minded consumers, there is some hope for us. Firstly, very much in line with the Shrub Coop ethos, we can recommend reducing consumption in general as a means to avoid falling victim to these certification schemes. Preserving and repairing textile and household items means that we can make what we already own last for years, and there is little more sustainable than shopping in your own home! In terms of food, buying local produce or even growing some of your own is a great way to reduce the carbon footprint of your food bill, and it gives you a greater sense of how the produce is grown (day trip to Craigie’s Farm, anyone?). Finally, do your research on brands and companies, and look into the certifications and claims that they make around corporate social responsibility. Certified B Corporations are generally well-regarded, as companies are required to ‘balance purpose and profit’, meaning they must meet rather stringent standards of practice in order to attain this certification. The premise of certifications is to guide and reassure consumers, and we have to hope that many of them do fulfil that mission, but it is always better to be as informed as possible in order to more wholly engage with consumer activism.

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