Is purchasing eco-labelled products a concrete, accessible entry point for the average Joe?
I received a great question via LinkedIn from Bronte North, a researcher in Australia. Bronte is looking at ways for the average consumer to find “greener” products in the mainstream online consumer channels they already use, such as Amazon, Ebay, online retailers, etc. Bronte asked, “I know that eco-labels are not going to solve all our environmental problems, but would you concede that purchasing eco-labelled products is a concrete, accessible entry point for the average Joe (who probably isn’t going to research deeply or compromise on price/performance/availability) to send a positive market signal to retailers and create some consumer trust?”
Bronte had read Beyond Certification and while she agreed with its basic premise, she found herself in a quandary – how does the average consumer negotiate this stuff?
I found Bronte’s question intriguing so with Bronte’s permission, I decided to respond with a blog post.
The short answer to Bronte’s question is: “It’s tough!”
I just can’t bring myself to advocate that consumers search for ecolabels. That just reinforces the status quo, business as usual approach that in my view urgently needs to change. The trouble I have with ecolabels is that some of them are OK, especially when done well. But they can also be highly misleading, promoting for example the idea of sustainability when workers are so disgustingly exploited. Or promoting the idea of Fair Trade when small-scale certified producers are mired in poverty. Or suggesting sustainable production when there is deforestation. The exception proves the rule and when there are so many cases where a variety of ecolabels are shown up as greenwashing nonsense, how can you have confidence in any of them?
But…what do I do myself when I go shopping? I buy bio, ecolabelled organic products at the supermarket whenever I can, whenever they’re available. I buy FSC certified paper for our home printer. I buy FSC certified charcoal for my BBQ. Tears rolling down my face, I find that I can’t help myself. I always buy knowing there’s a big risk that I’m being duped, that the truth could be very different from what the label suggests. It’s not a great feeling but one part of the answer to Bronte’s question is, “Yes, go ahead and choose eco-labelled products first”.
But…(there are a lot of ‘buts’ in this thorny issue), what might we do in the longer term to rid ourselves of that ‘sick in the guts’ feeling and instead buy with joy, even with certainty that your purchase drives better behaviour where it matters – in the fields, forests, factories, mines etc. where raw materials are produced and processed into products.
Bronte came up with one suggestion. She mentioned ethical consumer guides, for example the Shop Ethical guide in Australia. I think these are a great and approach the whole question of what to buy with sufficient, but not too much, cynicism to dig behind labels and product marketing spin. If you’re an online consumer, accessing such sites is easy and a great way to start. Like everything, they can have their biases so be careful. Bronte’s question was for the ‘average Joe’ so if you find you’re being told to buy all sorts of odd things that aren’t available or just seem weird, then perhaps pause.
Longer term though, we have to come back to Bronte’s initial question about how to create consumer trust. If consumers are voting with their wallets and using info from ethical consumer sites, online or even traditional retailers will get the message. Here in Switzerland I’ve seen the amount of ‘bio’ products in the local supermarkets rise exponentially over the last years. Likewise, there are gluten free and increasingly vegan certified products popping up everywhere.
I find myself going back to something that was said by Alan Knight, one of the founders of the FSC, quite some time ago. Alan noted that when people go into a store to buy a product, they trust that the store has done the homework to make sure the product is safe. When they buy a fan, they don’t look for a label saying “This product is safe”, they’re trusting that the store has made sure that when they get it home and plug it in, they’ll not be electrocuted. Alan argued we needed to find the same level of confidence when buying wood or other natural resource based goods. We needed to be able to trust that the retailer had implemented a basic set of good values to ensure that the products they offered were sourced responsibly.
I think we’re still a very long way away from that but it’s the right ideal, it’s where we should be pushing retailers to go. Going back to Beyond Certification, we should be asking retailers not just whether a product is certified, but the bigger question of what their values are with respect to human rights, to environmental stewardship, to pollution etc. We need retailers to be stating these things right up front so we can decide whether to even walk through the door into their store or not, or to visit their online site.
There are precious few examples of retailers who are really putting their values out there. Marks and Spencer in the UK is one though they too rely heavily on eco-labels to prove they’re acting according to their values. There are others, but let’s push for more and let’s push them to go beyond the narrow confines of eco-label standards. Often, it’s the smaller retailers who really operate from a strong values base and who really dig deep in their supply chain to truly understand what’s happening out there. See if you can find and support those folk. You certainly don’t have to only buy from big brands.
To illustrate this, some months back, I asked the people at Sainsbury’s – another ethical UK retailer – via Twitter where the cotton came from for all the jeans they were selling in vast numbers and they responded to tell me that 50% of the cotton was sustainably certified under the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) and that the rest would be certified by 2020. For the ‘average Joe’, that sounds like ‘you’re good to go, buy with a free conscience’ but I pressed further. I know that BCI certified cotton is sourced under a complex Mass Balance system (try explaining that to the average Joe) that means that actually, folk don’t know where the cotton comes from. I pushed back, pointing out to Sainsbury’s that they hadn’t answered my question. I wanted to know where the cotton came from because I wanted to be sure it wasn’t sourced using slave and child labour in Uzbekistan, a real issue for the textile industry. Many months later and I’m still awaiting a reply. That doesn’t mean Sainsbury’s jeans are tainted by slave labour. It just means they shouldn’t be pushing ecolabels that don’t 100% ensure that they’re not.
That undermines trust and is just one example where an ethical retailer, because Sainsbury’s certainly are amongst the good guys, suffers an over-reliance on ecolabels to project a responsible image and tell the average Joe, “you can buy from us with confidence”. Well, in many cases, no you can’t.
So we come back to Bronte’s question. Yes, buy ecolabels but understand that by doing so, there’s a real risk that you’ll be having a negative affect on someone’s life or the environment somewhere. Understand that there’s a good chance you’re being duped and that you’re just reinforcing a system that’s been set up to promote business as usual with a green tinge. If you’re OK with that, carry on.
Do visit ethical consumer websites because from my experience, the information there is posted by people who really do care and who dig really deep to work out the truth. But do, whenever you can find a moment, write to these retailers and ask them to outline in clear terms what they feel about the issues that are important to you. For the average Joe looking for a bargain that’s probably not going to happen, but it doesn’t take many people writing letters, emails or especially posting questions on Facebook to capture a brand’s attention. Challenge them on their reliance on ecolabels and ask them to tell you how they can be certain that their products are really responsibly sourced.
In a perfect world, we’d all buy local and get to know our suppliers by visiting them ourselves. I know of a number of growers doing great things who aren’t certified; they can’t afford it or refuse to pay to prove they’re good while folk using poisons, for example, are considered OK business as usual. Try and support them. Not easy and in a global online retail market, very difficult to find such producers. But if you really want to ensure you’re not just giving glee to some smart marketing team because they’ve duped you, go further, ask tough questions and don’t believe the first thing they tell you in response. If it’s to tell you the product is sustainably certified under some ecolabel, smell bullshit.