Lost in Labels: In the Maze of the Environmental Labels: An Opportunity or a Barrier?

Article excerpt

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Shopping 'green' for food in supermarkets can be difficult--deciding between products with labels proclaiming their organic origin, fair trade qualities or low carbon footprint can be confusing. The challenge for food producers seeking to export to international markets can be even more demanding: certification is often too expensive for small exporters.

The international competitiveness of products today depends not only on their price and quality, but also on safety, environmental and ethical aspects. To enter lucrative markets, products need to comply not only with mandatory national requirements set by governments, often based on international safety standards, but also with those set by private and voluntary schemes, labels and marks.

There are currently more than 400 private schemes and their number is growing, says the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Although private standards are not required by law and are considered as 'voluntary', they are actually becoming mandatory if foodstuffs are to find their way to most supermarket shelves in industrial nations.

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The proliferation of private standards stems from rising global concern for sustainable development, supported by the demand for social equity (e.g. worker protection, occupational health and safety, fair trade, ethics) and environmental integrity (e.g. life cycle and green labelling, environmental management and ecological footprint issues).

While ethical and environmental standards can bring benefits for both producers and consumers, their growing number and a lack of harmonization may create a barrier to trade for producers from developing countries, which is the opposite of what free- and fair-trade proponents, and consumers, actually want.

In addition, while getting products organically or fair-trade certified is a plus for exporters from developing countries, complying with even minimum mandatory food safety standards can be challenging. …