Are eco-labels worth the sticky paper they’re printed on?
Interesting article in the Guardian yesterday about the drop off in FairTrade sales. Some of this decline is due to squeezed consumer wallets, but there were plenty of coffee and chocolate producers who believe that they go way beyond the guaranteed price of FairTrade and that some of the movements’ ambitions are misguided:
“When you get to the bottom of it, [the Fairtrade scheme] is kind of neo-imperialistic,” [says chef Olivier Roellinger] “It’s something we impose on them.” He’s thinking particularly of the pressure for producers to form groups, usually co-operatives, in order to join. “Can you imagine what British farmers would say if their American customers came to them and said: well, I’m only going to trade with you guys if you get together and I can buy from all of you at the same time?”
We have seen this kind of complaint about many others or labels – the inclusion of homeopathy for animals in the Soil Association organic standard is another worrying example.
The advantage of any eco-label is they present an easy way for consumers and buyers to ensure they are getting minimum standards of performance against (hopefully) objective criteria. The original EU energy label (right) transformed the market, but the EU unfortunately blotted its copybook by adding extra levels (A+, A++ etc) instead of tightening the criteria on the original A-G rankings. This removed the driver for producers to want to avoid slipping down the scale.
The questions for any eco-label to answer are:
- Who sets the criteria?
- Are those criteria scientifically/objectively robust?
- Do those criteria move with the times to keep pressure on the holders?
- Are those criteria sufficiently ambitious for the label to mean something? I have been told by a representative of a major corporation that they actively lobby to water down any standard in their sector.
- Are there any potential side effects of the label?
- Are the criteria flexible enough to allow breakthrough innovation?
- What level of administration is required to meet the criteria and is this justified?
My advice for producers on eco-labels is to adopt them if you see a clear benefit for your organisation (ie if the customer wants them), but don’t feel obliged to do so if they don’t work for you.