Not all food is created equal. Who should set the standards?

Caravela Coffee
Image credit: Caravela Coffee

Last month, The Guardian released an article entitled “Is Fairtrade finished?” explaining that while Fairtrade forever changed the way so many of us shop (for the better), many companies are now sadly leaving the system.

Provenance has been working to help businesses make their supply chain and impact transparent with integrity, but we firmly believe businesses shouldn’t set and check their own homework. See our response and support for a bright future for Fairtrade below…

It’s hot out. It’s the weather for prawns on the BBQ and summer salads. But slaves are catching your seafood and the mafia’s dealing your tomatoes. Our food supply chains are full of social injustice that must be stopped.

As the article recounts, for most of modern history, “trade propelled the colonial project, and exploitation was its very purpose.” But then the latter half of the 20th century brought with it new social movements, resulting in the launch of the first Fairtrade label in Dutch supermarkets in the late 1980s. The movement spread quickly thereafter around the world with profound conviction, benefiting small-scale farmers and empowering shoppers to play a part in changing trade inequalities. 

They made the business case for “good” in very simple terms, and there are many tangible examples where this resulted in commodity producers around the world being in a better position.

Fairtrade, and many of the great certification bodies that have come along since, have ignited massive awareness around the impact of the things we buy. 

But with this ‘wokeness’ comes a natural progression. Both shoppers and businesses are looking for a way to stay on top. Purpose-driven brands and products are hotter than ever. And yet, that doesn’t always mean more customers for the Fairtrade program.

“Companies are losing faith in labels such as Fairtrade – losing faith in their ability to secure the future of farming and the future of commodities that drive corporate profit, but also losing faith that these independent stamps of sustainability carry any value at all any more,” said Trishna Shah, the Euromonitor analyst.

Some companies are taking control of the standards by creating their own “bespoke scheme”, each with its own unique badge, definition and benchmarked criteria for how it will be judged.

“The shelves already crawl with sustainability logos: more than 460 of them on food and beverage packages, and a third of them created over the last 15 years. […] The more labels there are, the less we know about them – about what they stand for, and about how meaningful they are.” – (The Guardian citing Ecolabel Index)

It’s hard not to be cynical about the future this could create. “I think companies are hoping that label fatigue is an enduring trend. They’re hoping that consumers are tired of learning what 30 different labels in one sector mean, and that we’ll all just think: ‘Any claim of sustainability is an improvement over no claim,” said Elizabeth Bennett, a political economist who co-edited the Handbook of Research on Fair Trade in The Guardian’s piece. 

This label saturation, which confuses shoppers, means it’s easier for companies to greenwash. The lack of transparency or evidence around any of it means that we can’t see how the premium is being spent, let alone the actual impact or results.

With the rise of purpose-driven brands and their increasingly large numbers of social and environmental-related claims, standards and ways of assuring what’s honest and factual is more vital than ever. 

Big businesses are committing to bold targets. Unilever announced it will sell off brands that do not positively contribute to the society or planet as they push to meet their sustainability goals. And all this is incredible news, but these standards must be managed impartially – not by the brand themselves. 

Meeting the standards must be set and assured by third parties that can be trusted, which means – certifications must evolve.

And we believe technology can help do this. 

At the V&A using blockchain to confirm fair pay

So much can be done by just making certifications or programs efficient and more transparent. From our work connecting certifiers, their data, the brands themselves and the customers all together, here’s what we think can be actioned now:

  • Businesses must stop setting and marking their own homework. Someone impartial and knowledgeable, like Fairtrade, has to set the standard to ensure it’s truly fair. If a brand wants to raise the bar and go beyond a certification’s requirements – that’s amazing. This needs to be backed up with data, though, coupled with verification from a third-party (person or machine).
  • Certifications can be arduous. The process needs to be more efficient — and technology can help by connecting the different data sources to make this a much smoother process for the businesses and certifiers. 
  • There’s a lot to digest. People can deal with complexity better in digital — so lift these badges off the page and bring to life with data and information people can interrogate.
  • Labels are confusing. There are so many. What do they all mean? Rather than a JPEG, add an experience to scan or enable a click-through and see what exactly the badge/certificate does or show people how it all comes about.
  • It’s not all communicated the same way. A common framework for reporting on impact is needed. Definitions, scope, extent, attribution of claims, commitments and impact reporting should all be defined across the board so that they can easily be compared or benchmarked.

So what can certifications and brands do to evolve?

Add integrity to certifiers through transparency and demand direct visibility of spending. 

The increase in the number of certifications has diluted Fairtrade’s impact, and like most other certifications – the information behind how it all works isn’t visible. This makes for a tremendous opportunity for Fairtrade to innovate again and open up their books so everyone (shoppers and businesses alike) can see how the money is being spent.

Individual businesses looking to work with other standards can also apply this, but they need an impartial third-party involved to check. Together, they can back up their new program with proof from outside the business and then share this impact or results directly with their customers. 

Engage shoppers with information so they can differentiate between greenwashing and credibility. 

Gen Z are more skeptical, but evidence and integrity will be a key component of future differentiation. 

Brands want to have full visibility of their supply chains, yet concerns remain that brands will only ever have their own self-interest in mind. 

If brands are going to take this approach, then let’s make sure the shopper has full visibility of what’s been done and can act as the final judge of what’s good and bad. And again, bring an independent verifier like an NGO to validate everything.

Provenance and Soil Association working on Roam & Relish

Make your third-party certification work harder in the digital world. 

Provenance has worked with organisations and certifiers using technology to preserve the integrity, while increasing how brands and shoppers engage with this information.  

Our past work with the Soil Association serves as proof for the role technology can play in strengthening the relevance of standards bodies, while being useful to the end-customer. With this organic mark, we created an interactive digital experience so shoppers could learn more about what the Soil Association means while helping their organic brands differentiate. 

Provenance with the Soil Association

On the Provenance platform, this verified product information is stored on the blockchain so that certifications and awards can be trusted wherever they’re used. This also gives a single source of truth; the brand, certifier and data are all in one place and can be seen as legitimate at a glance.

This Provenance technology and the movement we’re building around transparency is one that’s very much ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’. Fairtrade and other organisations like them have made massive changes in the global trade system, carving out a path and inspiring not only our business but so many people on our team and the wider Provenance community to do the work we do today. 

…So is Fairtrade finished?

Not on our watch, but – like other certification programs – it must evolve and embrace technology.

We are moving away from the days of badges and marks. The future of certifications: radical transparency with verified impact data.


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