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A Deep Dive Into Ethical Label Claims

The Washington Post recently published a provocative infographic about ethical chocolate and what those labels on your chocolate bar might mean. Included were three fair trade labels that originally aimed to empower marginalized farming communities in the most socially and economically disadvantaged parts of the world. Rainforest Alliance, a label with some basic social and environmental criteria, though not fair trade, was also included. The infographic “Your ethical chocolate might be only 20 percent ‘ethical’” is a great conversation starter, but begs for a deeper discussion of the complexities of supply chains in a multi-ingredient product and the differences in ethical claims.

My organization, Fair World Project, has for years worked on developing reference guidesonline tools and reports to explain the complexity of certification standards. We, of anyone, understand how hungry consumers and retailers are for information that allows them to make informed decisions to purchase products that fit with their own values. And also how complicated these decisions can be. FWP has watchdogged the Fair Trade industry, insisting on transparency and activating consumers to make certifiers accountable to farmers needs and consumers’ expectations.

A certification label is one tool to help start to tell a story about a product. A Fairtrade America or Small Producer Symbol fair trade label on a bag of coffee assures me that a cooperative of small-scale producers benefited from my purchases. But with the proliferation of fair trade and competing claims made by different labels, the complexities of multi-ingredient products, and the dynamic of various companies adopting fair trade for various reasons ranging from ethical commitment to PR opportunities, it is not always that simple. For those reasons, labels should not be the only tool that someone looks at when making purchasing decisions but it is an important first step.