Consumer Label Confusion: What Lies Behind The Logos?

Few of us would argue with safe working conditions and fair wages as a basic human right, yet the number of high profile scandals involving well know high street brands and their questionable employment practices does not seem to be on the decline. As consumers, we are interested in how the everyday products we buy are produced and traded. We want to make informed purchasing choices. Yet it is virtually impossible for us as consumers to know how our break-time banana or new cotton shirt have been produced, and by whom.

We therefore rely on labels. A multitude of labels are present in our supermarkets and high street stores that aim to act as a signifier of, for example, ‘fair trade’ or ‘single origin’. Whilst it can be seen as a positive development that we as consumers have information about the trading practices of the products in our weekly shopping trolley, it is also confusing.

Because there are so many different types of labels, it is difficult to understand what they mean. Look behind the label and there are important differences; some labels focus on assuring minimum pricing for commodity products such as coffee, tea and cocoa to farmers, others focus on biodiversity conservation and gender equity whilst others look at how products are sourced and shipped to our shelves. As a consumer I find this confusing. What am I buying?

As a researcher I have seen how over the past 5-10 years the increase in the number and type of product labels has resulted in what has become known as a ‘standards market’. Many labels are essentially competing to be adopted by big brands to ensure that their type of label is widely known and used. Those who established the fair trade movement are critical of this development and see this ‘mainstreaming’ of fairly traded products as diluting the ethos of the movement. There are also important questions about whether these big brands that are adopting the labels really reflect the ethos of fair trade.

For many labelling schemes an audit process is used to assure the fair trade credentials of various actors in the supply chain (e.g. farmers, distributors, retailers). This audit process is usually conducted by an independent third party and it is interesting to note how it is usually the farmer that pays for

Source:: The Huffington Post – UK Lifestyle

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