18 November 2019

Many medals make a muddle

When a packet of coffee is adorned with more seals than Henry VIII’s divorce request, one would assume all is well and jolly. But the research of Ceren Pekdemir, assistant professor of Governance for Sustainable Development, suggests it’s a lot more complicated than that.

Ceren Pekdemir
Ceren Pekdemir (ICIS)

Certifiably confusing

“The truth is that the extra price that comes with some labels profits big brands, while many of the producers are still classified as working poor.” Decorating products thusly to make them more desirable is referred to as greenwashing – the same principle as the uplifting commercials implying that Shell is a cross between a dolphin sanctuary and an allotment garden...

Businesses opaquely establishing their own labels and awarding them to their products is obviously problematic. Organisations like the ISEAL alliance are a kind of meta-label that certifies sustainability standards, lest consumers lose confidence in the concept of labels. (At the time of writing, there was no certificate for the certificates of the certificates – but there are watchdogs watchdogging the bodies that award the certificates.)

That might sound like a Russian doll of labels exploding in a hall of mirrors, but, while it is confusing and even though the inflation of labels is part of a corporate obfuscation strategy, that doesn’t mean we should become cynical about the concept as a whole. “It’s important to say that the independently awarded labels do make a difference.”

Legislating luscious leaves

Pekdemir has also researched organic regulations. The green leaf, an EU label, certifies that a product is for instance GMO-free (Genetically Modified Organisms) and that there are restrictions on pesticide use. “Above all, it makes a huge difference to animal welfare.” But the case is more complicated, since the standards might be so strict they hamper innovation.

“Organic” has gone from movement – largely in response to industrialised farming – to product. Its philosophy – not being alienated from one’s food, biodiversity, crop rotation, etc. – does not lend itself well to upscaling. But that is what’s happening now that it has become more lucrative and the big supermarket chains are muscling their way in."

“The green leaf was introduced once consumer confidence was threatened by mislabelling.” While one can argue about lobbying at EU level, it is a great example of a truly independent label covering an entire trading block – producers worldwide have to meet its standards to receive the label. Pekdemir’s research into navigating fragmentation and cohesion of standards suggests that it’s less neat than that.

“Standards harmonised around the world might not necessarily be desirable. There are clearly variations in local agricultural circumstances, whether ecological, social or economic. Consider the example of the use of pig manure as raw material for the production of organic fertilizer. This is not allowed and considered Haram under Islamic law, so the organic standard from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Standard for Organic Agriculture excludes this. It might be more prudent to certify methods that are equivalent rather than identical.”

Becoming caring customers

Her research into the intricacies of international trade has also had a very personal impact. “I certainly think twice before buying something. I am more aware and I ask shop owners how things are produced – even if they don’t know, it sends a signal that people care about this.” One can find fault with customers gleefully accepting that a shirt costs €3…

“We should become aware and care enough to question those prices. If you factor in the costs for the material, production, shipping, staff and rent… – something has to give.” One is left to wonder whether the consumer should be the one responsible for upholding human rights, public health and international antitrust laws. “But the individual has some power to pressure governments and businesses to act – as a voter, activist or consumer.”

A good example of how this sort of commitment can spread from individuals outwards was UM’s Green Impact Challenge. “I participated together with some other people from the institute. We asked the caterers why the products were wrapped in so much plastic and whether they have vegan options…  While the suppliers may not have expanded their offer just because our group asked, clearly suppliers expand their offer to cater to our changed behaviour.”

Labels aren’t the solution but a tool for caring citizens. “Just be critical and inquire. Websites like ecolabelindex.com can inform you on different labels. If you see the “Beter Leven Keurmerk” on meat packaging, take a minute to visit the website to understand what the difference in amount of stars really means in terms of quality of life for animals. If you want to know which high street fashion stores continue to pay workers sub-poverty wages, you can for instance have a look at the website of the Clean Clothes Campaign.

Ceren Pekdemir is an assistant professor, coordinator for Sustainable Education within the Sustainable UM 2030 Agenda, lecturer in the Master programme Sustainability Science, Policy and Society, and a representative of the Academic Union (VAWO) for the Local Consultative Body at Maastricht University. She specialises in governance, global civil society, and partnerships for sustainable development. 

By: Florian Raith