Shift continues to “secretive” in-house sustainability schemes

Food brands are shifting to self-managed sustainability programmes rather than sourcing ingredients from certification schemes likes Fairtrade and the Rainforest Alliance.

The schemes, in which companies are investing billions, are “shrouded in secrecy” and will likely serve to confuse consumers, according to a new analysis of 2,800 chocolate, ground coffee and tea products in 20 countries.

“A nebulous mesh of sustainable claims has emerged on products and online, leaving chocolate, coffee and tea consumers struggling to understand what is fair,” said Oliver Nieberg, an analyst at Lumina Intelligence, which compiled the research.

Companies were found to have committed billions of pounds to their sustainability programmes to ensure they meet the likes of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 12 on responsible consumption and production.

However, there was a “lack of transparency” around issues including farmer income, zero hunger, child labour and price premiums for farmers remains – especially in the self-certified schemes.

Indeed, in 2017 Footprint reported that “big food businesses are looking for a new model of ethical certification” with many of them believing they can do things better themselves. This followed Sainsbury’s decision to replace Fairtrade certification on tea with its own in-house scheme called “Fairly Traded” – a move that sparked a global media storm.

Oxfam suggested it was a potentially regressive step: if the Sainsbury’s initiative “does not meet the rigorous standards of the wider movement it could be less effective in supporting farmers around the world and potentially confusing for consumers”, the charity said.

Similar criticisms were levelled at Cadbury in 2016. In November, the brand’s owner, Mondelēz, announced a new partnership with Fairtrade, in which the latter won’t certify the products but will rather become a “partner” for the company’s internal Cocoa Life sustainable sourcing programme.

In its “long read” last week, the Guardian wondered whether “fair trade is finished” amidst this “corporate capture” of sustainability certifications. Trishna Shah, an analyst with Euromonitor, said the great energies of food corporations are being lavished upon their own, bespoke schemes – each with its own little logo, its own definition of fairness, its own explanatory literature on a web page somewhere.

Nieberg at Lumina appears to have similar reservations. “The spearhead of sustainability of the last 30 years – sourcing certified volumes – is fighting to prove its worth as companies shift to self-managed sustainability programmes,” he said. “These company programmes could be impactful but are often shrouded in secrecy.”

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