IS iT organic, when it's labelled organic?
Is it fair trade, when it's labelled Fairtrade?
Is it sustainable, when it's labelled sustainable?
The terms organic, Fairtrade, sustainability, UTZ, Rainforest Alliance, etc. have an ever greater importance for the trade and the consumers of the 21st century. Therefore, the market holds a number of logos and seals, which are designed to help the consumers with their purchase decisions. Logos and seals convey safety to the consumer, but the so labelled products often do not meet the idealistic expectations and ideas.
State authorities also award national and European organic labels. The basis for awarding these state seals is compliance with the European Regulation for Organic Agriculture, compliance with which is monitored by accredited certification bodies on behalf of the European Union.
Social certifications such as Fairtrade or sustainability certifications such as Rainforest Alliance are internationally active, purely private-sector organisations that are neither state-controlled nor independently monitored by third parties.
For the consumer, the EU control system for organic agriculture sounds plausible and credible. So do the procedures for the private social and sustainability certifications and their respective seals.
One who faces the daily practice and the impact in particular in developing countries, but also in Europe and other developed countries, sees the big gap between ambition and reality. The contents of the private and state certifications and the compliance with them are often more illusion and wishful thinking than reality.
The reasons for the deficiencies in the certification process are varied, and they dilute their practical content.
Missing advice accompanied by the lack of understanding and knowledge about organic farming, as well as inadequate EU laws, controls and standards are the reason that conventionally produced products can access the European market as certified organic products.
Even the best quality management cannot always guarantee that an organic product really comes from organic farming.
The on-site inspection activities in developing countries and emerging economies, which are carried out by private EU third country control bodies, lack of effective surveillance by the authorities. The control standards are, as experience teaches, often insufficient and too bureaucratic. Also, the expectation of a hierarchical structure to elevate an inspector to an elevated, effective position is not present in many countries of the Global South.
In practical terms, this means that although organic products grow on organic farmland, it is mainly the prescribed documentation that is checked and not the field or the practical production process.
This leads to poor inspection quality. So, it happens again and again that organic certificates are issued for companies which do not practice organic farming, but only make it believe by documentation of something, that is not implemented in practice.
In the market today, the consumer wants inexpensive to cheap products. Moreover, the trade often suggests that one gets a lot of good for nothing.
The export prices, which can be realised in average by the producers, often do not cover the additional costs for the investments in ecological production and social sustainability, because trade and consumers don't want to pay the additional expenses.
A consistent transition to real, genuine and sustainable social ecological farming without outside help is hardly financially viable for producers.
Still, consumers live with the imagination that they improve the lives of tea farmers in Asia or Africa when buying organic products labelled with sustainability seals such as Fairtrade, UTZ, Rainforest Alliance, etc.
Often people imagine organic products to be traded more fair than conventional products. One could deduce that consumers understood that organic production can only survive through sustainable production and a fair support by the market as a whole.
The EU with its organic control system and the private certification bodies bear responsibility towards the consumers. The uncertainties in the implementation of the sustainable, eco-social idea are so varied, that this can only be achieved by an intensive collaboration in form of development partnerships between the producers and responsible-minded and supporting trade enterprises.
This also requires a higher level of responsibility and support from European traders and consumers, which is crucial for the honesty of such projects.
There is probably still a long way to go before such sustainable certification systems will have a real positive impact on farmers and producers. Consumers and trade need to be more honest and understand that this is about people and not just about successful marketing.
Nevertheless, the existence of such systems is positive because they contribute to sustainable awareness-raising and can contribute to real sustainable development in the future.
Updated 29 November 2022