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It is time to label labels unsustainable

April 19, 2010

Photo credit: The Rocketeer via Creative Commons license through Flickr.

From Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle to Rowan Jacobsen’s Fruitless Fall, cultural historians have proven that the American food supply chain consistently finds itself in peril.  Despite these historical lessons, most consumers in US stores purchase their food with little thought as to how the food arrived on their grocery store shelves.

Due to recent media attention, many Americans have placed an increased emphasis on organic certification and the overall quality of natural ingredients in their food.  However, this cultural “shift” in purchasing should not be considered a permanent or broad-based movement for non-manufactured ingredients or organically made products.

Rather, even today produce is often farmed by workers who lack the legal protections afforded to the rest of the American workforce and subsequently work in difficult working conditions with minimal pay.  Sometimes food products derived from animals that are raised in unsanitary conditions and slaughtered in an inhumane manner find their way to the kitchen table.  Complicating matters, imported food products that lack a clear chain of custody have been found to contain byproducts, pesticides, and other chemicals whose effects on the human body and the ecosystem are unknown and sometimes – even worse – very much known to be harmful.

In the meantime, what was once a cottage industry for likeminded consumers, the certification industry has blossomed.  From Fair Trade to Direct Trade, the Forest Stewardship Council to private-label green “certifications,” American consumers can visit a super-market and not only just select various types of oatmeal and paper towels, but also choose from several differently labeled and certified products.

Yet, retailers are confused. How do you explain to customers what the different labels and certifications mean when you yourself don’t know? And food suppliers themselves are missing an opportunity. How can suppliers cost-effectively prove to retailers and end-users that their products were grown or raised in a socially and environmentally responsible manner? And customers, at least those who are paying attention, will likely soon become label-fatigued.

Counter-intuitively, the current path of sustainable labeling is… unsustainable.

There are many obstacles to make this organization a success. Yet, given that consumers lack easy access to understandable information about the impact of their purchases, perhaps it is time to force certification coherence into the marketplace.

Wal-Mart, of all companies, has stepped up to the plate. It may be hard to erase some of the stigma attached to the world’s largest retailer. For years, the company acted with seeming disregard for its employees and the environment. But, times have changed. In one of the most widely anticipated moves in the sustainability field, Wal-Mart is developing a Sustainability Index for its products that take into account the entire supply chain. Here’s a great video that offers general points (no numbers or other specifics) about the program.

Will Wal-Mart’s Sustainability Index be a success? Who knows.

But should we rely simply on Wal-Mart or are other voices needed? In developing the initiative, Wal-Mart created a Sustainable Consortium – an alliance with the University of Arizona & Arkansas. Members of the Consortium include  many important retailers, suppliers, and academics.

Notice anything missing? Yep… trade unions, environmental NGOs, social advocacy organizations, human rights organizations, etc.  Are their voices being heard? Who knows.

In all likelihood, unless your a conspiracy theorist, the sustainability index will have looked at many of the issues these organizations would want to address – especially since academics are involved. However, on their site, the Consortium merely states that it intends to extend 10% of formal membership to NGOs at some point in the “near future.”

To be fair, it does say that they are currently “in discussions.” But by not having such groups publicly involved, the Consortium is missing an opportunity. Not only is it missing a chance to ensure its index is as inclusive as practical, but it has provided an open spot for criticism.  And if the Consortium’s Index isn’t inclusive – it could wind up providing what consumers need least: more label competition.

Someone should remind the Consortium (and Wal-Mart) that among the various subject under the umbrella of sustainability and corporate social responsibility include stakeholder engagement.

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The author is the president of Do Well Do Good – a CSR & philanthropy consulting firm based in Chicago. (c) 2010.

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