Whether you are a farmer, manufacturer, exporter, retailer or consumer you have undoubtedly been faced at some point with a decision regarding the many different ethical or environmental certifications. The growth of certification has followed the growth in centralized distribution and global trade of products. As the sheer number and variety of products available to consumer multiply, companies and consumer advocacy groups are using an ever increasing number of certifications – and their requisite symbols – as tools to differentiate products on the shelf and, through their intended implementation, affect positive changes in the lives and environments of the producers.
Historically certifications have been driven by consumer groups searching for a product that meets certain standards of production. Supply follows demand – so once there is a demand created, producers need to be found who will opt to comply with the standards, either for ethical or economic reasons.
Individual certifications exist within a global socio-economic context that is rapidly changing. Movements that begin with a specific cause and have grown rapidly find it increasingly difficult – or costly – to maintain their initial standards. As an intermediary between links in a potentially lengthy supply chain, certifications need to maintain minutely detailed rules and records. Even defining what you wish to enforce or promote may take years! As any ecologist will tell you, rapid growth is unstable, and as certain certifications gain popularity (and profitability) standards are adjusted, fees are hiked, and consequently new certifications arise as central groups of consumer or producer advocates fraction in their attempt to maintain their original values in a new socio-economic context.
Many of the current debates around certifications focus on the labels of finished products, and the dilemma of the well-intended shopper faced with a befuddling array of different symbols at the grocery store. How can they know which product has the best impact on the world? But the increased number of certifications presents producers with even more difficult decisions – often costly and risky. The cost – both in time and money – for different certifications needs to be weighed by each producer against the potential market. Sometimes this means a double risk – first if you are certified whether you will make the associated costs back through the difference in sales, and once you have promised a certificated product to a client, whether your production will meet the certification rigors. Depending on whether your market is international, national, or direct to your consumer your choices for certification vary. Not certifying at all is sometimes the best economic option – which is why a rise or fall in certifications doesn’t accurately represent an actual rise or fall in certain farming or trading practices.
In response to changing standards in widely recognized certifications such as organic and fair trade, peer-based alternatives and producer driven initiatives such as the Certified Naturally Grown and the new Simbolo de los Pequeños Productores are arising. In a market historically driven by consumer advocates rather than producers themselves, these certifications may be conduits for empowering change. However, the growing list of certifications that producers are faced with begs the question, are certifications still the best means for enacting social, environmental and economic change through trade?