This is a positive step. Consumers have become acutely aware of their purchasing decisions and the power of their vote at the register, while the downstream affects are now being noticed.
However, as marketing teams clap their hands with glee at the opportunity to affix an easily recognisable symbol of ethical compliance to their product, the challenge of selling a complex ethical story on the limited space of a label or shelf flyer is definitely less appealing. Marketing requires time and costs money. Certification simplifies this process.
While there is no doubting the integrity of the highest quality certifications, some questions must now be asked. Have the underlying goals and ideals that certifiers’ graphics were designed to represent been lost? In the scramble for products carrying certification, has the opportunity for those purchasing to engage in ethical investment become too risky a proposition?
In short, is it too much effort to be ethical when it’s not easily marketable?
Take CMG’s Island Life brand, which sources natural products exclusively from Papua New Guinea. To date, it does not wear the widely desirable badges of certification. Yet it is being developed with ethical treatment of people and the environment as its founding cornerstone.
New Ireland Province in Papua New Guinea is a remote region in which the people live a mainly subsistence life. The region is currently known for logging and palm oil. This provides profits to individuals outside the locale and the environmental impacts are well known.
Island Life seeks to provide organic, single origin products in a way that supports the local community. Coconut oil will be the start. A purpose-built processing facility in Namatanai will ensure value adding is done in the community. There are a number of approaches that could be taken in order to ensure the type of certification that buyers seek, but as the ultimate goal of this project is to ensure a sustainable process that benefits the community not just the end purchaser, the pathway is somewhat more arduous.
The challenge is that while certification standards can be enforced upon supply chains, building these processes in a manner that supports the community is more challenging. Exemplifying this is organic certification.
The social collective of growers in Papua New Guinea are without the documentation required to support an organic certification application. However, it is possible to grow coconuts for several generations in untreated soil without chemicals using only rainfall without a site plan.
To highlight the potential issue another way, it may not be possible to use a vehicle solely to transport organic crops in an economically challenged area at the outset of the project. Vehicles are limited resources.
Island Life is still working with the community to set the processes in place required to meet the stringent requirements of certification. It is the long way round to develop collaborative approaches working with the community. Yet sales will benefit the community and add to the ethical products that are already available.
No company would vote for suspending the opportunity and equity available to communities such as New Ireland while awaiting certification, yet how do those sourcing raw materials approach such products when alternatives are available?
On the one hand, certification bodies offer a level of certainty in the standards that are in place and ensure a finished product that meets the goal. This makes both sourcing and marketing a far easier proposition.
On the other, if a small artisanal farmer is unable to contribute to a collective project due to the unfortunate positioning of a logging facility, is it ethical to exclude them from the community? Is that captured in an organic certification?
The ultimate goal of Island Life is to achieve the necessary certifications to support the ethical approach in a marketable manner. Many products prior to this have walked the long road to certification, faced with the challenge of marketability as they go along.
As companies chase the elusive logo that symbolises their ethical position, it is important to ensure no short cuts are taken to reach the goal. Ethics require effort, even before anyone notices.
- A nutritionist, Rachel McDonald is technical and innovations manager at Complementary Medicines Group, and marketing and communications consultant for the Omega 3 Centre.