Which Logo Indicates What, Anyway?

By: Frank van der Linde Worldwide, there are hundreds of certification schemes and other initiatives promoting the sustainability of food. That is good news for increased sustainability within the food industry. There is a potential pitfall, though.

More than one billion people worldwide suffer from extreme hunger. Fortunately, more and more people are aware of this and will not stand for it. The movement towards sustainability has the wind in its sails.

The number of different sustainability initiatives is still increasing. Besides well-known certification labels such as Fair Trade Original and Rainforest Alliance, there are also what are known as multi-stakeholder initiatives, in which companies and NGOs meet to consider criteria for making an entire sector more sustainable. The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil is a good example of such an initiative. A similar development can be seen around specific themes, for which codes are being developed such as the SA 8000, which concerns workers’ rights. And then there are companies that choose to start their own sustainability initiatives. The coffee giant Starbucks, for instance, started the Starbucks Shared Planet programme.

All of these sustainability labels, codes, programmes, certification schemes and roundtables contribute their share to increased sustainability of the food industry. That is very beneficial for our climate, for the billions that work in agriculture and for the poorer countries, as fairer trade allows them to develop in a sustainable way.

However, the multitude of initiatives can also be confusing. Consumers complain that they can’t see the trees for the wood. As it stands, nobody knows which logo means what anymore, with the consequence that some concerned consumers might throw in the towel altogether. Obviously it would be terrible if these good intentions end up overshooting the mark in such a way.

In Fairfood International’s lobbying conversations with food and beverage companies, the latter often point out that entrepreneurs also have difficulties finding their way amongst the crowd of sustainability initiatives. They want to be told clearly what is expected of them, and what they can do to fulfill these expectations. This is why Fairfood acts as an intermediary between the food and beverage industry and the different sustainability solutions on offer. In some cases pointing the way to a certification scheme or code of conduct, in others, giving examples of corporate initiatives that worked out well. In this way, companies that want to make an effort in their Corporate Social Responsibility will find the right partners and so achieve tangible results quickly. The responsibility for undertaking sustainability initiatives lies with the companies themselves. Fortunately, more and more companies are willing to contribute to a structural solution for extreme hunger and poverty in this way.

Frank van der Linde is the director of Fairfood International, a non-profit campaign and lobby organization which encourages the food industry to increase the sustainability of their products.

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3 responses

  1. The endless certifications can certainly be misleading and that is only the beginning of the confusion. It only gets more difficult when you try to weigh the value of a company’s certifications vs. the importance of an article about the company’s responsibility (or any other resource or opinion about corporate responsibility). Consumers, employees and investors have little chance to find all of those resources, let alone understand them.

    It is nice to see companies, industries and organizations making a push to find and publish some commonly-understood information to help.

    I think there is an additional need to open up all these certifications, news items, rankings and any other resource to conversations and discussions. That way, stakeholders can decide which resources they trust and which companies are being socially responsible.

    David Rostan
    Founder, SocialYell

  2. I don’t think it’s not quite true that nobody knows which logo means what anymore. More consumers know about and trust, say, the Fairtrade label more than a vague first-party claim. Comprehensive multi-stakeholder standard-setting processes and an independent third-party certification process are essential criteria for credible standards systems. They are required in the ISEAL Codes of Good Practice. Only seven international labels have so far demonstrated compliance: Fairtrade, FSC, MSC, Rainforest Alliance, SA8000, UTZ Certified and the Union for Ethical Biotrade – and these only cover a handful of commodities. Clearly, we need more credible standards systems – and less vague, unverifiable claims.

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