Photo credit to Logan Case. An example of an environmental tagline. The Equal Exchange labels in the background, a form of fair trade.

Rolling down the aisles of any grocery store, packages are plastered with so many labels: Organic, non-GMO, Fair Trade, gluten-free, 100% natural ingredients, No added preservatives! It can become dizzying to an unaided eye. Especially so because, amid those that are actually a service to one’s health and the environment, there are those that mean absolutely nothing. Head-scratchers such as 100% real beef that raise more questions than answers. When every package is screaming at us, assuring us that their product is superior, is it worth filtering through the multitude of labels and tag-lines? How can corporations stick to their environmental pledges, and ultimately, do our consumer choices actually make a difference?

Let’s look at one of those labels. It looks like a blue-green world made of little people. It’s the WFTO (World Fair Trade Organization) and this is its definition: “Fair Trade is a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers.” Basically, it’s an organization that ensures small businesses receive fair prices in competing with the exploitatively low prices of big business.

Megan Whisnand, an environmental science teacher at Franklin, supports Fair Trade practices. “Supporting communities in these developing countries, individuals gain some economic stability, helping them gain skills to better themselves and practices that are better for the environment.” There is an exhaustive list of these labels and their significance, but the important point here is the systemic nature of fair-trade agreements. By strengthening small producers with sustainable practices, the whole chain of production becomes more sustainable. Connecting local producers to local markets also reduces the carbon footprint of long-distance travel.

As a for-profit company, it would appear to be a costly endeavour to follow sustainable practices. When the competition relies on cheap overseas labor, it buys from cheaply produced factory farms. How can these companies compete when when they follow responsible, sustainable practices such as paying a fair price from local farmers or investing in renewable energy? They can compete because they’ve found a niche in the market. Enough people are willing to put their money where their morals are. “the more economically profitable it can be for companies to be environmentally friendly, the more companies will do that,” says Whisnand. According to a study conducted by Research Gate, 34% of corporations have a sustainable plan, but the figure is predicted to rise to 54% by by 2021. Those package labels, the marker of sustainable practices, add value to their brand. Like any other market trend, its powered by the movement and choices of consumers.

One popular example of a business committed to its sustainable jargon is the Yerba Mate tea company, Guayaki. They follow what they call a Regenerative business model. Practices included in this model include carbon-neutral shipping, use of fair trade ingredients, and a portion of the profits going into rainforest restoration as well as employees having incentives to cut down on their carbon footprint. This is all great, but what happens when ownership changes and suddenly these environmental and social commitments are seen as superfluous? This is where the institution of a Benefit Corporation (B-corp) is needed. It’s still a for-profit company, competing in the global market, but the difference is that it’s held to standards that ensure its environmental and social goals are met. Often monitored by a third party requiring an in-depth report that provides transparency.

Effective sustainable practices have to be systemic, meaning the whole chain of production is held accountable. It would be cynical to believe that the only reason companies are advertising an environmentally-friendly agenda is to capitalize on market trends. Whether corporations implement these environmental practices because they feel morally compelled to do so or because it’s economically profitable, the outcome is the same. So again, it falls on the shoulders of the consumer. With our purchases, we decide if sustainability is a passing trend or the new norm.

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