Part 3: Certification and Competition: Which certification should we back?

As discussed by Ian Agnew of the Lorna Young Foundation, the certification of coffee has become increasingly prominent in the last 10 years. However, the wide spread use and variety of these certification systems raise some important and often difficult questions: Are these schemes producing the effects that they claim? How can consumer, producers and others make sense of the options available?  Which certification option should I be choosing? In the final part of this article, Dr. Alastair M. Smith looks at how we as consumers can better understand the options available.

Certification and Competition: Which certification should we back?

With such an explosion of governance and certification options many people – either as a consumer, a coffee farmer, a political decision maker or a business person – will be wondering which option will maximise their contribution to social justice and sustainable development. Unfortunately, while there has been ongoing criticism and defence of fair trade governance and certification, there is limited evidence for people to make an informed judgement.

Although there are individual case studies which can be used to support both views, there is a lack of more widely representative evidence on the subject. For example, a recent study compared Fairtrade-organic certified producers, with organic and conventional farmers and found that conventional farmers had higher incomes. However, while the media produced articles such as ‘Fair-trade coffee certification does not benefit the poor in Nicaragua’, due to the methodology used, a conclusion like this was impossible to support.  Significant differences in outcomes have been found depending on the national context and also the product and type of supply chain. Furthermore, while there has been a lot of interest on the effects of FLO Fairtrade certification, little research has been carried out into the outcomes of WFTO and Fair For Life governance, or ethical trade schemes such as those run by Rainforest Alliance and Utz. While these can be judged as more and less appropriate on the basis of principles, some research suggests that while a fair trade approach might be better at returning more income to farmers, private standards are better at increasing quality. If we can be certain about anything however it is that any claims about Fairtrade, fair trade, ethical trade or Rainforest Alliance etc, are almost certainly going to be inaccurate.

Despite this lack of evidence to evaluate different certification systems, people are beginning to have strong preferences for certain approaches. For example, through the adoption of Fairtrade Towns and schools, in places FLO certification is being used over others including that of the WFTO and Rainforest Alliance. While evidence that this is not universally the case goes against  the extreme view that countries like the UK are gripped by ‘Fairtrade absolutism’, the feeling behind this suggestion does seem to make sense.

Indeed, there is currently widespread concern among other organisations that genuinely beneficial initiatives are in danger of missing out in this ‘age of certification’. For example, Cafédirect and Divine Chocolate carry the same Fairtrade certification as supermarket own products, but do much more to empower farmers to take control of their own businesses. Despite having no certification at all, the Good African company roasts and packages coffee in Uganda to maximise the income to the community/country that produces the coffee. While this principle was one of the founding ideas of the current fair trade movement, without certification, this approach to pro-development trade might be in danger of losing money to products which actually offer much less.

In summary, while not a new idea, certification is certainly becoming an increasingly well-known response to the problems of liberalised commodity markets. Unfortunately, however, there is not enough current evidence to make statements about whether the ‘age of certification’ will lead to widespread benefits for the developing world; or if some certifications can be legitimately claimed to deliver better outcomes than others. What can be concluded is that if individuals genuinely care about social justice outcomes, it will be essential to develop an open minded and critical understanding of all the options available.

Please do let us know your thoughts!

Bibliography

FLO 2009. Generic Fairtrade Standards for Hired Labour.

Murray, D. and Reynolds, L. 2000. Alternative trade in bananas: Obstacles and opportunities for progressive social change in the global economy. Agriculture and Human Values 17(1), pp. 65-74.

Raynolds, L. T., Murray, D. and Heller, A. 2007. Regulating sustainability in the coffee sector: A comparative analysis of third-party environmental and social certification initiatives. Agriculture and Human Values 24(2), pp. 147-163.

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