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Navigating the World of Certifications

Hello all! Kyla here :)

Last week we talked about resolutions; those we make on New Years on any topic, and those we make in order to be more environmentally conscious, at any time.

In a continuation of this, I’d like to talk about a place where many of us get stuck when we start thinking about ways to: Navigating the world of certifications.

GMO Free.

Certified organic.

Fair Trade.

RSPO certified.

The labels out there aren’t limitless, but they are numerous. I’m sure you’ve seen them cluttered on the more responsible jars in the store, cramming to fit in that small space. Third-party certifications have become an industry unto themselves, linking conscious consumers to responsible brands — at least, that’s the dream.

The idea behind these certifications is simple: informing people about which products follow their social and/or environmental guidelines. Consumers are supposed to be incentivized to buy these products, even with the higher price tag it brings. In this way, certification is supposed to boost product sales, and therefore encourage other companies to adopt better social/environmental policies and get the same certification.

Whatever the motive: informing the public, boosting sales, or increasing social/environmental responsibility, it’s no question that both the number of certification options and number of companies that have been certified in some form.

Proponents of these third party certification systems agree that they promote greater social and environmental responsibility of companies.

Critics say that they are little more than marketing schemes; greenwashing programs with loose regulations that don’t even do all that much. There always seems to be more information to this end. RAN, Rainforest Action Network, keeps a steadfast eye on the RSPO, which certifies 'responsible' palm oil. However, RAN argues that it does not enforce responsible or sustainable measures, even allowing for deforestation in many cases. This is not the only criticism of these sorts of organizations, which certainly puts doubts into my mind as to their validity and trustworthiness.

Some risks with certification programs include a lack of transparency. Not all certification groups publish how each company they certify meet their requirements. Fair Trade certification, for those who read up on it, have a bit of a reputation in this regard. Their transparency is often called into question. Furthermore, as is a problem will all these programs, they don't work directly with producers. Instead of cutting out the middle man, large companies are still employed, which continues to enforce the typical capitalist bureaucracy that gives big dollars to everyone but the farmers (source).

This lack of full transparency means that, in order to consumers to really be responsible in the way that these labels promise, they would have to do the extra leg work of fully researching the product in question themselves. And doesn't that defeat the whole purpose of these third parties in the first place?!

Some certification programs, such as B Corp, don’t have this issue.

Certified B Corporation is a label that marks businesses that meet the “highest standards of verified social and environmental performance.” While it is impressive to note the way that they incentivize these transitions, the most promising thing about this certification program is its level of transparency. Everything about it is published online, including the requirements of being certified and an in-depth analysis of how every certified business ranked in the assessments, which are re-conducted annually. Furthermore, their B Impact Assessment, which measures a business’s social and environmental responsibility via hundreds of indices, is available without charge, so any business can see how they rank, even if they don’t want to pursue the certification itself.

Like any industry, it’s a mixed bag, but the costs of misleading consumers here are high, as with any ‘green’ initiative. That is why transparency within the organization is important. Everyday people don’t have time to double check and cross-reference every product they find in the store — even those of us that spend our lives thinking about these things can’t do that (although I do my best regarding palm oil). While companies themselves could serve as the middleman, and some do, many don’t have the time, resources, or trust of the people to do so in a reliable way. That’s why these third party organizations are so important. When they do their job right, they can steer us in the right direction, letting us use our Rupiah, Yen, or Dollars the way we want. With so much advertising — the misleading, false, and wildly inaccurate — we need a fully transparent impartial third party we can trust. Unfortunately, not all organizations can rise to the occasion. It’s tricky vetting out who we can trust (perhaps I’ll write a comprehensive info-packet for another blog!), but it’s no question that these certification programs fill an important niche, informing and empowering consumers.

Do you look for certification labels when you go to the grocery store? Let me know in the comments!

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