The impact of our modern society’s reckless consumption patterns on the environment and society are stark; and international leaders have had no choice but to tackle these issues head-on. Currently, the most spoken about event is Rio+20 which convenes governments, businesses and civil society to discuss the emerging “green economy”. Indeed, our societies are consuming more than the planet can afford to provide for in the long-term and this is not less true for South Africa where an emerging trend of labels claiming ‘sustainability” is redefining the market place.
As the strongest economy in the continent with a growing middle-class in its urban centres, South Africa is not surprisingly the largest market for “ethical” products in the continent. Indeed, the exponential growth of Fairtrade sales in South Africa, since its introduction in 2009, point to an increasing appetite for this type of label. Nevertheless, opinions abound whether or not they are the solution for challenges of environmentally sound, transparent and “fair” businesses.
The recent debate “We Need Ethical Labels” broadcasted on SAfm’s AM Live on 25 May 2012, convened by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Fairtrade Africa, confirms a significant level of interest in the subject and calls for deepening public engagement to assess what is the best approach to tackling the real challenges of sustainable production and consumption in the country.
The debate, which was a contest rather than a discussion, engaged the audience in the auditorium as well as the thousands of listeners directly, by allowing them to ask questions and to vote either in favour or against the statement “we need ethical labels in SA” via SMS. In the panel, six speakers, three in favour and three against squared-off on whether social and environmental labelling is helping or hindering efforts to reduce the negative environmental and social impacts of producing food in South Africa.
In favour of the statement were Tom McLaughlin of Woolworths’ sustainability programme; Jonathan Robinson, funder and owner of Bean There Fair Trade Coffee and Noel Oettle, Fairtrade Africa’s board member and Manager at the Environmental Monitoring Group. Those against it included Professor Linus Opara of the University of Stellenbosch; David Donde, founder and owner of Truth CoffeeCult and Jonathan Cherry, founder of Cherryflava Media. The first team highlighted the growing need for mechanisms that support sustainable practices that are credible and effectively back the claims they make, and drew on evidence-based arguments based particularly on their experience with Fairtrade. The second focused mainly on the challenges of farmers who are unable to afford certification and audit costs, the potentially negative impact on food security and the danger of ‘green’ washing.
While all arguments raised a strong response from the audience and the debate panelists, it was clear, if only by the resounding 72% of the vote going to the team in support of the motion, that it is precisely in order to avoid green washing and to ensure that more and more farmers benefit from these certification programmes that credible sustainable and ethical labels are strongly needed. The key task of course is to ensure that there is accountability and traceability on the claims that are being made.
Ultimately however, as stated by Fairtrade Label South Africa’s Executive Director Boudewijn Goossens “in the long term, we should not need ethical labels of any sort!” Indeed, the principles of fairness and eco-consciousness in the market place should be embedded in the rules of trade however, much is needed to get there and currently labels that support ethical and sustainable practices are the best tool available to consumers.
A radio-broadcasted debate was clearly an effective format in getting the discussion started. However, greater public engagement is needed in order to interrogate the current labels in the market place and to assess what is the best way to align with the reality of the South African market and the continent at large.