Brendan May examines the trade-offs in judging corporate green claims and explains why certification is the best guide for consumers

Whatever else it may be accused of, the environmental movement could never be said to be depriving consumers of choice. A simple walk around a supermarket will expose you to a plethora of “eco” labels, and there is certainly rather a lot of green advertising around. Companies have cottoned on to the fact that people are concerned about the future of the planet, and are falling over each other to promote their green credentials.

Green claims can take many different forms. Some are quasi-governmental, in that a government has set a framework with which the product complies. Some are part of self-certified initiatives, where a company has devised its own environmental management system. Some claims are made on the basis of the company working in partnership with an outside organisation, such as an environmental charity. And there are associations, or “roundtable” initiatives, where a number of companies in the same sector get together to try to create higher standards for their industry.

Independent standards

There are also a handful of non-profit organisations that set standards for particular products, which are then independently audited to see whether the standards have been met. These organisations include the Marine Stewardship Council for seafood, the Forest Stewardship Council for wood and paper, the Rainforest Alliance for products such as coffee, tea and cocoa and the Soil Association for organic products.

Having worked closely with a number of these independent certification and labelling programmes in the past decade, I am in no doubt that the amount of work that goes into creating truly stringent credible consumer propositions is unrivalled by any other green claims system.

This does not mean that from time to time a fishery, forest, tea plantation or farm will not be certified amid criticism from one or more interest group. However, there are appeals processes in place, and the best global eco-labels and standard-setters now sit in the Iseal Alliance – effectively the trade body that represents the mutual interests of the likes of FSC, Rainforest Alliance and MSC. Its members all adhere to a code of practice that sets them apart from far less stringent schemes.

But this does not mean that all products without one of these certifications are green disaster areas. There are many products for which no credible certification label exists. There are others that may meet the required standards but have chosen not to be audited against them.

Even if you buy a product that is certified by one of the better labels, there are still difficult choices to be made. For example, if you want to eat mass-market sustainable seafood, such as fish fingers, in Europe, the chances are it will come from Alaska, New Zealand or some other far-flung place. There are many trade-offs in the quest for more sustainable consumption.

Another potential area of confusion lies in the perception that big business must be bad business. Take an icon of global big business: McDonald’s. Despite the corporation’s negative image in some quarters, there are few companies in the world that have done as much on the green agenda in recent years.

The company has systematically embraced a number of radical changes, and in doing so has applied pressure on others to follow suit. Its milk in the UK is organic. Its coffee is Rainforest Alliance-certified. The seafood in the filet-o-fish is from sustainable sources.

Celebrity unsustainability

Meanwhile, an institution that is tiny in comparison and offers a far healthier and more glamorous menu than McDonald’s happily continues to serve its celebrity customers bluefin tuna, a species as near to extinction as the white rhinoceros. That institution is Robert De Niro’s Nobu restaurant in Mayfair. It is a bizarre truth that if you want to eat a piece of sustainable fish, you’re better off rushing to a fast food outlet than booking a table at the swankiest restaurants.

If we embrace the credible green products flooding into the marketplace, and reject the bogus ones, the rewards could be rich and widely shared. We can help the farmer who grew the product, the company that marketed it, the campaigner who stood up for change, the shareholder who made a profit, and the consumer who slept with a clear conscience.

A longer version of this article first appeared in Greenpeace Business Magazine, and it is abridged from a lecture given at Gresham College, London, in November 2009.

Brendan May is a contributing editor to Ethical Corporation, and recently founded the Robertsbridge Group.

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