Symbols and certification schemes

I’m hanging out with my friend Aimée Schreck at the ETH World Food Systems Summer School, discussing symbols and certification schemes for packaged food. Her dissertation examined small-scale banana producers’ experience of the fair trade system. Together we decided some years ago that fair trade was best understood as a gateway drug and that really the consumers ought to be certified, not just the producers.

There are several definitional dimensions, which are rarely synonymous:

  • social movement attempts to create social transformation and ethics
  • organizational attempts to put social movement ethics into practice through independent certification
  • laws and regulations (usually implemented once corporations want to enter the market)
  • associational symbols displayed voluntarily

Some categorical examples of what may be indicated:

  • organic/bio, biodynamic, sustainable
  • fair trade
  • local or national production, country of origin designation
  • small-batch, fait maison, slow food
  • appellation d’origine contrôlée, denominazione di origine controllata
  • non-GMO, paraben-free …

Some implementation challenges:

  • transparency
  • accountability
  • verification
  • trust

An example of the resulting complexity is that fair trade was developed by Global North allies to support Global South peasant producers. But the certification agencies develop an interest in institutional maintenance and development. Like any middle-men they are easily able to take advantage of their position. Meanwhile, as Aimée found in her research, the producers may experience the middle-men as arbitrary (if somewhat less so than their predecessors). As the system becomes institutionalized, the producers may develop methods for evading the details of the criteria. And as the middle-men and producers see the system as just another marketplace to game, the meaningfulness and possibility for trust in the entire universe of indirect symbol schemes is undermined. Consumers may either abandon meaning in cynicism, or abandon indirect trade relationships entirely.