Only As Good As the Paper It’s Written On

Ambling through the grocery store on any given day, I encounter a blizzard of certifications and pledges on the sides of packages from toilet paper to cheese. Humanely farmed. Environmentally friendly. Sustainable forests. Carbon neutral. Natural. All-natural. Free farmed. Fair trade. Very few of these labels have any sort of accountability behind them; you can slap almost anything you like on the side of a package and it’s considered fair game, with a very few exceptions. The ‘organic’ label, for instance, is tightly regulated, and products carrying that label also need to have organic certification.

These certifications appeal to consumers with concerns about the environment, about labour issues, about animal welfare. You can vote with your pocketbook to support them, thereby bringing more income to a corporation, of course, but it’s for a good cause, so it seems worth it. The consumer may dither for a moment between one toilet paper brand and another, trying to decide if the extra cost for a high percentage of recycled content mixed with sustainably-harvested wood is worth it. Some consumers may take the plunge, purchasing a more or less identical, but higher priced, product because they want to do the right thing. Or because they want to signal that that they are doing the right thing in a society where environmental responsibility has become a form of class signaling.

These certifications, though, are only as good as the accountability behind them, and that accountability is highly variable. Most consumers do not research the organisation behind the label, assured by the friendly seal and official-looking language. When they do, they can encounter considerable surprises. Much of this research is not very hard to do, but it requires an extra step people may not be willing to pursue, especially when they are tired and just want to eat their all-natural edamame in peace.

The first question that should be asked of any certification is how companies obtain it. Do they do so simply by filing a declaration? If so, a company can make any claim it wants to achieve the seal of approval, and there’s no one to say otherwise. Companies may be put through something that vaguely resembles a rigorous process, where they may need to provide some documentation, could even need to tolerate an inspector. It’s quite common, though, for a company to never receive an inspection after being awarded a certification, which means that their claims of environmental responsibility may not necessarily be true.

Other organisations adopt a more rigorous approach. They inspect applicants for their labels, review documentation, and have ethical codes that member companies need to follow if they want to retain the label. They can hold surprise inspections and may process complaints or questions from members of the public. Some of these may trigger investigations into companies using the label that do not appear to abide by the rules. The certifying organization can yank approval, and disallow use of the label. Censuring could also just include a warning, mandating that the company shape up within a set period of time or the organisation will take the certification away.

Very few labels have the kind of rigorous standards applied to the ‘organic’ label, backed by government agencies that have the power to levy serious consequences when it is misused. And even this label is not problem-free. Industrial and corporate organic products may follow the letter of the law, but often fail to capture the spirit of organic farming. Small farms may not be able to afford the certification process, and produce functionally organic products that do not carry the label, or refuse to apply for certification because of the problems they’ve identified with organic labeling.

The label is often set dressing. Some companies do take it seriously, but with no external accountability, there’s no way to know. Consumers could ask to review records that document how and why the company got the label, and what kinds of standards it needs to adhere to, but they don’t. Very few people review the technical and standards documentation behind organisational labeling and some labels don’t have any sort of backing organisation. A company can slap a ‘no antibiotics’ label on any food product it wants, even though some must legally be produced without the use of prophylactic antibiotics, so it’s hardly a point of pride to follow the law!

Distance from suppliers can make accountability challenging by adding layers between the consumer and the producer. Producers make claims of sustainability because they make them look good, and because they want to attract more customers, and because they know this is what is trendy right now. Whether they actually back the claims with concrete actions is harder to determine, and sometimes functionally impossible. If a certifying organisation provides minimal information on its procedures and accountability, consumers may have no way of knowing what a company is really doing at its production facilities.

And the ethical consumer, concerned about the environmental and social impacts of things like food production, may turn to the labeled food if the alternative has no statement at all about sustainability. Something is better than nothing, even if the consumer is not quite sure what that something is, surely. And thus, the cycle continues, where companies operate in the knowledge that consumers will buy credentialed products without finding out what the credential really means, and learning more about what stands behind it.

Tighter food labeling regulations are clearly necessary, along with the support to back them up. Organisations like the USDA and FDA are in a position to enforce labeling laws, but don’t have the power to do so if there’s no law. And thanks to the mix of regulated and non-regulated labels that are not clearly distinguished, consumers may not be able to tell at a glance if a label is backed by rigorous third party accountability, or not.