Unsustainable standards? Questioning the ethics of sustainable sourcing

By Nathan Gray contact

- Last updated on GMT

Sustainability is big business. But are sustainable standards always the most sustainable solution?
Sustainability is big business. But are sustainable standards always the most sustainable solution?
A growing trend for sustainability certifications and on pack ‘branding’ could mean manufacturers are missing the wider point of sustainability issues and may confuse consumers so much they no longer care.

A greater awareness of global sustainability issues is driving a move towards greater consideration for the environment and ethical issues when sourcing ingredients.  As a result, many companies are moving towards using supply chains and ingredients that meet certain standards set up by certification bodies. While such moves are seen as a positive step in battling deforestation and other global issues such as climate change, this eco branding - in the form of logos and messages on packaging - is big business, and can help to drive big spikes in sales.

While many would argue that this greater focus on the environment and global sustainability issues is a good thing, there is a small but growing suggestion that the plethora of certification standards will ultimately confuse consumers – and may have unintended consequences for the way manufacturers source ingredients.

But are sustainable certifications really the most sustainable ingredient solutions?

Conflicts and trade-offs

With such a wide choice of different sustainability standards, and seemingly much overlap between the issues and products that they cover, making sense of what is truly ‘sustainable’ can be confusing for manufacturers and consumers alike, according to Steve Osborn, principal consultant at The Aurora Ceres Partnership.

Speaking to FoodNavigator, he warned that companies looking to become more sustainable in their ingredients sourcing must take care to fully understand what the potential trade-off might be when moving to a certified sustainable source.

Osborn suggested that the increasing demand for ‘sustainably certified’ ingredients and oils could mean that other – perhaps more sustainable but non-certified – options that are closer to home are overlooked.

He cited an example of a company producing a fair trade chocolate bar in Europe, noting that in order to use a fair trade certification for the whole product – which is made up of component ingredients including cocoa and sugar must be fair trade. Therefore manufacturers also must use fair trade sugar as well as fair trade cocoa.

“But, because of the restrictions on fair trade and its focus on developing countries, you can only get fair trade cane sugar,”​ he noted. “You then have to look at the trade off, and the fact that in order to make a fair trade chocolate bar you have to use fair trade cane sugar. And you are doing that in preference to purchasing beet sugar from the UK or Europe.”

Because of this trade-off, he warns that the overall message of being sustainable and eco-friendly can become lost.

“You have to ship sugar from the other side of the world to meet that sustainability specification, and actually a more holistic sustainability message might be to actually put a locally supplied sugar in to the product,”​ he suggested.

“It’s all very well to have so many sustainability standards, but it’s about how they join up with each other and what the trade-offs between them might be.”

However, Fairtrade International noted that that there is also an option under the Fairtrade Sourcing Program for a company to commit to purchasing Fairtrade cocoa alone.

Consumer confusion
eco-labels
When it comes to eco-labelling and sustainablity standards, are there too many options?

A 2012 report from the International Institute for Management Development and the Ecole Polytechnique de Lausanne suggested that the number of eco­labels seems to be bamboozling consumers and the trade​. ​The study involved canvassing more than 1,000 executives from a range of global food manufacturing firms on their views about eco­labelling - and reported that the process has become so fragmented that it is subject to wide­ranging reappraisal by manufacturers.

At the time Dr Joana Comas Martí, an expert in supply chain environmental management, said: “There’s also a feeling among firms that many eco­label providers launch with good intent but morph into organisations whose desire is to survive rather than serve.

“This raises serious questions about eco­labels’ effectiveness in delivering real outcomes and their potential to help achieve genuine market transformation.”  

Indeed, risk of delivering certification standards that do not have 'real outcomes' and lead to potentially unsustainable trade-offs are a create a danger that eco-labels and 'sustainability branding' could be the downfall of a wider holistic approach to sustainability issues.

“There is [also] a danger of confusing consumers,” said Osborn. “Consumers make a purchase based on what they understand, and the problem with multiple logos is that consumers just get confused. And when the consumer gets confused, they then stop engaging.”

“I don’t think any of them ​[sustainability certifications or standards] are detrimental to the issues, but they are of confusing the customer so that they can’t make a choice.” 

Related topics: Sustainability, Policy

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