What on Earth are environmental certifications?
Certifications related to the environment cropped up in fairly recent history, with the first one–– called the “Blue Angel” certification–– being introduced in the 1970s. With the environmentalism first swelling up across the globe–– and consciousness growing about the effect of human activity on climate change–– the need for certification became clear. Consumers and industries alike saw the creation of certifications as a way to implement standards and quantify buzzwords of the day like “organic,” “natural,” “Earth-friendly,” and the likes. Since then, a plethora–– thousands–– of certifications which focus on many different aspects of climate change and sustainability have been established.
What makes up a good certification?
We believe that the mark of a good certification involves two key factors: rigour and reliability. To understand what we mean by this, we’ll take a look at one of the most popular and widely recognisable environmental certifications today. We have all seen the Fairtrade Certified stamp on products as we’ve strolled through markets and grocery stores, that distinct mark of blue and green. The Fairtrade certification, according to their website, is dependent on three pillars: economic, social, and environmental. Economic means they focus on the wages that farmers receive, guaranteeing that all receive a Fair Trade premium; social encompasses fair working conditions and rights for these farmers; and environmental focuses on the agriculture itself, ensuring the prohibition of things like GMOs and harmful toxins. Clear cut objectives, importantly, are backed up by audits–– every product bearing the Fairtrade stamp undergoes stringent audits. Both the producer and the trader undergo a series of audits–– onsite and some unannounced–– which check if they are adhering to the Fairtrade standards. Clearly, the Fairtrade Certification has proven itself to be much more than a label–– something intrinsic to a certification’s rigour and thus its quality.
The other side of qualifications: reliability. This aspect of a certification boils down to one question: do consumers trust the certification? With growing awareness about the impact of human activity on the climate crisis mixed with the boom in access to information over the past two decades, consumers are more informed than ever when it comes to making purchasing decisions. As reported by Food and Beverage Insider, consumers have grown increasingly more sceptical about manufacturer claims about their products’ degree of sustainability. Another report found that 81% of consumers say brand “transparency” is among their top priorities when choosing products at a grocery store. It comes as no surprise, then, that many consumers are more likely to buy products that have the stamp of a recognisable ecolabel; it acts as a stamp of verification and legitimacy. Take Fairtrade–– 32% of consumers said that they are more likely to purchase a product that is Fairtrade Certified.
Yet, we have to recognise that their value does not start on the consumer side. What do we mean by this? Although environmental certifications have a large impact on buying trends and the green market, the sole fact that they are in demand (because consumers are more likely to buy products that bear reliable ecolabels) should not be the sole motivation for businesses to seek them out. When we speak about consumer behaviour and psychology in relation to environmental certifications, it becomes easy to view them as a commodity, as opposed to something that validates a product and a company’s perceptible commitment to the environment. The commodification of environmental certifications has prompted a wave of “fake” green stamps being created over the past few years–– one tactic of greenwashing. In 2011, for example, the United States’ Federal Trade Commission busted a certification called “Tested Green” for using unqualified “experts” that would falsely endorse products as sustainable for the purpose of boosting their market value. Other stamps on the current market boast ambiguous attributes like “100% organic” and “100% environmentally friendly.”
Why should I care?
In addition to the positive social, economic, and, of course, environmental impacts that genuine certifications encourage, they also serve as a source of motivation. Certifications have been proven to improve businesses and company standards overall. This is due in large part to the fact that the best certifications provide strict guidelines for companies to adhere to, which works as a framework for them to continuously maintain sustainable practices. For example, one of the most prominent certifications–– B Corp–– requires companies that seek their certification to continuously provide quantifiable metrics of impact in the distinct areas of social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability.
Companies are reaping the benefits of certifications like this one; it was recently reported that companies who follow the B Corp business model are growing much faster than traditional businesses. Having standardised and sincere certifications, then, clearly have the added benefit of being a source of inspiration.
What more can be done?
Now that we’ve explored certifications inside and out, it’s important for us to consider how we can make the world of ecolabels a better place. For this, we’ll make one key recommendation: increasing accessibility. As beneficial as genuine certifications are–– for a business, for consumers, and for the environment–– many come with a fee. Even if companies follow the guidelines of a given certification to a tee, they must pay money in order to place that stamp on their products. Some certifications in the United States have been reported to cost businesses millions of dollars each year to account for a variety of costs, including consultancy, auditing, and renewal expenses. The issue with this arises when we consider the hundreds of companies out there who do follow the standards of rigorous certifications–– pledging themselves and their products towards fighting against climate change–– who cannot afford the costs of certification. Running a sustainable business can get expensive, and getting certified can thus become deprioritised.