Which certification system would be reliable and attractive?

2015 06 12

What should the certification system be like that would guarantee equal treatment and sufficient livelihood to farmers, and would simultaneously be reliable and attractive for the consumers? Certified products are constantly being added to the range of products available in shops, whereas certification is facing new challenges. This clearly needs to be improved, especially when it comes to the direct impact on communities where raw material is being grown or processed. The quality and reliability of the audits checking the functioning of the certification system must also be guaranteed.

Different certification systems are built on different principles. There are organic certificates that focus on the reduction of the use of toxic chemicals and artificial fertilizers, on the preservation of biodiversity or on some other environmental aspect. On the other hand, there are certificates that aim to introduce better cultivation practices for bigger yields and higher quality raw material. But there are also certification systems that mainly focus on the person – the farmer or worker in a plantation in a developing country, struggling in poverty. When we speak about responsible and sustainable consumption, we have to keep both social and environmental aspects in mind.

The oldest and best-known form of alternative trade is fair trade. A certification system has been created to manage it better and guarantee reliability, and there is a respective label for labelling fair trade products – the Fairtrade mark. Fair trade also uses other labels and a brief introduction to these can be found in the article “Fair trade labels”.

Each system is based on certain principles, and in order to understand how the system functions, one needs to be familiar with these principles. This is often the key factor in reliability. The crisis of confidence is mostly not connected with the functioning of the systems or with different problems or failures, rather it is related to the presumptions the consumers have due to the level of awareness.

What does the consumer expect?

For the consumer, it is important that the labelling system of consumer goods and food provides information on the product, while being reliable. All the certification systems function according to the standards that are the basis for these systems and that are usually laid out on the website of each certification system. Several organisations compile information materials on the comparison of systems, and often, independent research institutions also publish reports on very profound studies. Many organisations introduce these during their information campaigns.

At the same time, misconceptions and confusing statements are often spreading among consumers, misleading them and undermining trust towards the labels. For example, there are rumours spreading about organic products still being fertilised and poisoned but it is done secretly, because no plant would be able to grow without agrochemicals. Or there are stories about certified agricultural producers selling the goods from conventional producers instead of their own goods. At the same time, the certification systems have organised their internal audits in a way to exclude such practices.

In terms of trust, the cases of misinterpretation of adequate information can be even more dangerous. According to one of the popular misconceptions, the price difference between a conventional product of a certain category and the product that is somewhat more expensive than this conventional product and that bears the Fairtrade mark is the amount which is being paid to the farmer in a developing country. In reality, the pricing of products is a considerably more complicated process, and as far as fair trade is concerned, then the wages being paid to the farmers in developing countries are agreed upon during the procurement process of the raw material, irrespective of what the final price in a shop will be. The price that they are being paid is mostly higher than the price paid for products of conventional trade. Here, the main thing is that the buying-in price of the raw material is agreed upon while considering the needs of the farmers and their communities. In conclusion, this share might not always be considerably bigger in percentages than the share of raw material of conventional products, and this piece of knowledge does not match with the formed presumption and causes disappointment. A consumer rushing along his fast pace of life does not have the time to immerse himself in the details of the distribution of profit, and unfortunately, the reputation of a certification system is therefore being damaged.

Although adequate information is currently easily available even when you are standing in front of a shelf in a shop and looking for this information on a competent website while using your phablet, the consumers are often being haunted by rumours and conceptions that are actually not based on the principles of the systems.

Where are the bottlenecks in communication?

Certification systems are not extensively marketing themselves. They focus on the functioning of the production process and verification mechanism. In other words, it is more important for them to improve and widen the impact of the system, not advertise it. Different organisations engage in marketing and they are not financially dependent on a certification system but take it on due to a sense of mission, and look for necessary resources from other sources or even volunteer to do that.

Each system is being analysed and they are often criticised as well. The results of analyses highlight very positive aspects but inevitably, negative aspects or failures are often discovered as well. It is of no surprise to anyone that negative discoveries stick out and spread more – their “news value” is simply bigger. When a system is functioning well, when people profit from it and when it preserves nature, then it seems there is nothing to talk about it – whereas problems stir up a lot of debates.

For example, Fairtrade, UTZ Certified and Rainforest Alliance which certify cocoa are very big movements, and the challenges that spring up for them during their activities are a completely natural part of the process. They provide useful information and experience for improving the systems. Constructive criticism always helps to make things better. It is also important to understand that problems occurring in some plantations cannot be attributed to the whole system – which is still very often being done.

What can we do about it?

A certification system is obliged to come up with standards which take several stakeholders of a trading relationship into account. In addition to that, the system will also have to exercise control over the activities of all stakeholders. But the consumer has to be aware of how the systems function. The labels on products can then also serve their main purpose – helping the consumers to recognise and find the products on the shelves that match their beliefs and view of the world. This is also how the reliability of systems stems from understanding how they function, creating an attractive image of the labels which in turn helps the consumer to make informed purchasing decisions.