‘Label shopping’: Is the certification scheme model broken?

Voluntary certification schemes have fiercely denied claims from a new report that that are providing cover for companies that are "destroying the planet", raising questions of whether the abundance of certification offers is watering-down sustainability efforts.

A new report published this week by the Changing Markets Foundation accuses certain voluntary certification schemes of “losing their way”, with their contributions to creating a more ethical and sustainable world “minute”.

The report claims that key markets such as seafood, textiles and palm oil were suffering from “label shopping”, with customers becoming increasingly confused by the numerous certification schemes that companies can use to highlight their efforts to source using sustainable practices.

“Certification schemes are failing the environment and consumers, who increasingly want to make ethical and sustainable choices,” Changing Markets’ campaigns director Nusa Urbancic said.

“It’s time for a serious rethink about how we achieve sustainability because the current system is broken.”

The market for ethical products has grown to more than £81bn in the UK in 2017, according to the report, with businesses and consumers able to choose from a global ecolabel directory of more than 460 schemes across 25 sectors.

Gone fishing

Specifically, the report calls for the abolition of Friends of the Sea (FOS), citing a lack of transparency, stakeholder involvement and NGO approval, while alleging that the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is “causing active damage” by striving to meet its target of increasing the proportion of all wild caught fish which is MSC-certified from 12% presently to 20% by 2020, and 30% by 2030 – a claim which MSC’s communications officer James Simpson refuted as “unvalidated”.

“Overall, the report cherry-picks and ignores the wealth of positive evidence both for the impact of the MSC programme and the strength of MSC assessments,” Simpson said. “Nearly all MSC certified fisheries are required to make an improvement as part of their certification and 90% of those improvements are completed within five years of certification.”

Research from ClientEarth found that the overwhelming majority of seafood products in UK supermarkets are now responsibly sourced and labelled consistently in line with industry guidelines, with the likes of Aldi and Sainsbury’s topping the list of MSC-sourced items.

MSC and FOS certified more than nine million metric tonnes of fish in 2015. The report highlights the conflicting statistics that the percentage of global seafood production now certified has increase by almost 14% in a decade, despite almost 90% of global fish stocks either fully fished or overfished.

In response, FOS has dismissed the claims of the reports, with a spokesperson claiming there is “no record of FOS certified fisheries being at odds with national legislation,” highlighting that previous links to overexploited fisheries in 2012 have since been “terminated”.

“More updated benchmarks have concluded that FOS standards are among best performing,” the spokesperson said. “In fact, several fisheries which have been certified by other major schemes, have not obtained FOS certification, such as: the Mexican tuna fishery setting nets on dolphins; the South African and Namibian bottom trawling fishery for hake; the Indian bottom trawling shrimp fishery.”

Palm oil problems

The report also analysed certification schemes for palm oil – an item commonly found in UK supermarket products that is also the cause of mass-scale deforestation in areas like Indonesia.

In specific reference to the RSPO – the largest palm oil scheme, certifying around 19% of global palm oil production – the report claims that the organisation has “not put a stop to deforestation, peatland draining or human rights violations”.

RSPO has attempted to steer its environmental standards to palm oil suppliers in the past. The IOI Group, for example, has committed to address deforestation issues that saw its contract suspended by Unilever, and has since been reinstated by the RSPO in August 2016, promising to deliver a “comprehensive plan of remediation”. 

In response to the report, the RSPO acknowledged that the allegations were “not uncommon” in its sector and was committed to improving the transparency and implementation of its action plan.

“We are aware of the “shortcomings” highlighted in the report and while we have systems in place to ensure that RSPO certified plantations abide to the standards set by the RSPO, we acknowledge that every system can be improved,” a spokesperson said. “We wish to reiterate that with the help of our stakeholders, we have been working to address many of these shortcomings within the RSPO system.

“The report also highlights that RSPO standards have “some strong and well-defined requirements on social and environmental issues, including human rights, child access to education and the rights of women and Indigenous people”. We welcome a dialogue with Changing Markets Foundation and look forward to their contribution such as in the public consultation review of the RSPO Principles & Criteria.”

Toxic textiles

The final area analysed by the report is the textile industry. The report claims the sector still lacks transparency and high-profile cases have emerged over the last 12 months linking fashion brands to extreme cases of water pollution, toxic chemical spills and human rights abuses.

The report is critical of the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), claiming it has led to more farmers switching to genetically-modified (GM) cotton that subsequently increases the use of chemicals and “undermines the uptake of organic cotton”.

A BCI spokesperson defended the use of GM seeds, claiming that many farmers had no alternative and excluding GM use would stop millions of farmers and communities globally from receiving support. The Initiative also reiterated its support for organic cotton.

“BCI supports organic cotton’s efforts to promote robust and environmentally sustainable practices, and we encourage brands to look at a portfolio of more sustainable cotton – including organic, Fairtrade, Cotton Made in Africa and other standards – in implementing their sourcing strategies. There is no factual evidence that demonstrates organic farmers are switching to BCI.

“Less than 20% of the world’s cotton is grown more sustainably. There is ample space in the market for all cotton sustainability standards and certifications to grow, and we actively support all such growth.”

There are over 100 voluntary schemes and green labels for textiles, one of which is the MADE-BY initiative, which seeks to work with the fashion industry to improve the environmental and social conditions that retailers and suppliers work in. It has previously worked with the likes of H&M, New Look and Ted Baker to either strengthen or develop sustainability strategies.

According to the report, the MADE-BY programme “suffers from incompleteness, allowing brands to pick and choose the areas on which they are assessed”. Former MADE BY representatives have highlighted the importance of brands taking care when using certification standards, but the organisation claims the report “misunderstood” its approach.

“We are not and do not pretend to be a certification standard or label,” Made By’s head of sustainable product Holly Browne said. “Brands and retailers of all sizes choose to work with us because we are independent; we give neutral, non-biased advice and act as a critical friend to help brands understand the role they can play in making the industry better for people and planet. We believe that all brands should be given a chance to make a difference, no matter where they are starting from, and we are currently developing additional tools that can take our support for industry change to scale in practical, cost effective ways.

“We are happy to explain the purpose and value of MODE Tracker to all those that are committed to helping sustainable fashion become common practice.”

Evidently the sheer amount of certification or advice-based firms available for selection has led to unintended consequences that have confused businesses, consumers and NGOs alike.

The report’s calls to abolish certain standards does little to promote the role that certification has in enabling a sustainable future. However, its calls for certification schemes to be more aligned with requirements and be more selective about membership, with high entry requirements, does offer a much-needed road to improvement.

Matt Mace

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