Updated: Jan 21, 2021
Many brands are being dishonest when it comes to doing good. Time to call them out.
There's a spectrum - hiding bad ingredients on labels, omitting or obfuscating, meaningless self-certification schemes, claimed sainthood.
A plethora of ethical consumption apps threaten to make it worse.
What's in your cornflakes?
I have a confession to make. I don't read labels. I've never read labels. Somehow I've just assumed that I knew what was in the product, or how it was made.
Which puts me to shame because it turns out I'm not omniscient after all.
We've - better late than never - embarked on a quest to rid palm oil from our lives. Palm oil is bad for a whole host of reasons - rainforests, Orangutans, health. And it's everywhere - it's wormed its way into our foodstuffs over decades - getting rid of it is no small task.
Which is where the labels come in.
It should be easy to spot what's got palm oil in and what hasn't. But it's not.
Some products list it as an ingredient - Nutella (main ingredients: sugar, palm oil....somewhere down the list 'nuts') - others do not. Some of the naughty people are using 'alternative' names such as the innocent sounding "vegetable oil" or the not-at-all encouraging "sodium kernelate".
Rootling out palm oil has become an obsession - and I'm flabbergasted by how very hard it is. To help me I've got the Giki app and subscribed to Ethical Consumer, but so far all they have done is to reinforce how very little I know and how very hard it is to know what's right.
So far we've worked out that a lot of what we had in our food cupboard, and until now thought was OK, is not. Peanut butter, cereals, some brands of 'butter' (yes butter)...
The ethical apps have helped a bit - but they also raise a whole host of other questions - where was it made, is it recyclable (really), do the parent company operate in dodgy places - which are both worrying and not-at-all easy to answer through a simple tick box exercise.
Next problem - when "outdoor bred" means "mostly indoors"
A long time ago I worked with farmers on marketing-y type issues. Many of them were keen on pursuing "organic" as in it could mean higher prices and margins.
But "organic" then, and still today, means a host of different things. Most people - me included - do not have a proper understanding of what "organic" actually means. We have a vague, uninformed view, that "organic" means good, probably means no chemicals, probably means nice life, probably means healthy. But it hardly ever means all or even some of this stuff. As shorthand "organic" is a very non-specific and unsatisfactory shorthand term. It means very different things in different categories. Standards vary wildly across different jurisdictions. It's not simple.
'Organic' chicken can live indoors pretty much its entire life but still be labelled 'organic'. There are massive differences between the US and the UK (as the latter is about to find out if the much vaunted 'cheap food for everyone' post Brexit trade deal ever gets done). For example: in the USA, there are currently no federal regulations to control or safeguard the welfare of animals used in agriculture. At all.
Decoding labels today requires a knowledge of what's not on the label. Phrases mislead - take pigs for example.....pigs that are "outdoor bred" actually don't live outdoors, they're born outside and then raised inside. "Outdoor reared" means half their life outside (but not necessarily with access to pasture). It does not mean outdoor reared.
Using different names is misleading. Using phrases like 'outdoor bred' is..well....dishonest.
Marking their own homework - self-certification schemes
A while back Green & Blacks was bought by Cadbury, which in turn was bought by Kraft. A small brand with high ethical standards and a strong commitment to a fair supply chain bought up by food giants used to controlling their supply chains from a cost perspective.
For a while Craig Sams managed to get them to stick to the high fairtrade standards that were at the heart of the brand, but at some point 'fairtrade' - i.e. an externally audited standard - became an inconvenience for Kraft. Instead they decided they would create their own - self-certified - scheme: Cocoa Life. For most of the range...but not for all. So now Green and Black's has two ethical badges - but are they as good as each other? And if they were...why would they need both?
Kraft's not the only one to seek self certification. Sainsbury have also introduced a confusing 'Fairly Traded' self certified brand that replaces the independently audited fairtrade scheme. They got some stick for it - quite right too.
Do I trust Sainsbury enough to believe that their own scheme is as rigorous as the original Faitrade scheme? Of course not - even a cursory glance at their record shows that Sainsbury is not be trusted at all when it comes to doing good.
A notch worse than suspect self certification schemes are the brands that make a big deal about being good, about doing good, without actually doing good.
There's an ever growing market of time-poor well heeled 'ethical consumers' who feel reflected virtue by shopping from a host of brands that are parading their 'good' credentials.
A batch of poorly researched and undercooked ethical apps are making things worse - swallowing the bollocks and giving these brands ethical ratings they do not always deserve.
Most people - like me - either don't read the labels properly or don't have the time and ability to do their own research. We are more than willing to go with what the app says - but if the app hasn't done its homework or is incomplete they can create confusion. CoGo for example is a great idea but launched way too soon with (at best) very patchy data. These apps need to be very good from day one.
So the apps - rather than make it easier can end up making it worse.
And working out whether a brand is really doing good or not is far from easy.
Take for example Tom's Shoes. Many people seem to love the 'giving away shoes' story. But stop for a moment and think. Does it actually help these communities to foist free shoes on them? Does "giving away" shoes constrain the ability of local shoemakers to develop and grow? Does what looks like a nice thing to do (through our western consumerist eyes) actually screw up the very people Tom's purports to help?
Or Naadam - the "sustainable cashmere" brand started by a couple of mates. Now first of all "sustainable cashmere" is a very, very hard thing. Even the smartest, most forward practitioners admit that they are a very, very long way from achieving sustainability in cashmere.
But not Naadam. They claim "real sustainability" and superficially it's a great story but....
....when you look at what they actually do to pursue sustainability it's really not very much. There's no rigour or auditing - it seems more hope than strategy.
Perhaps the most worrying aspect is the puff around Naadam park - a park with gazebos and a soccer pitch for the nomadic community they work with. Naadam are so pleased with this they've entered it for an ethical award.
Nomadic herders don't want - or need - gazebos and soccer pitches. They need funds for their kids to go to school. They need help in managing pastures. They need help in getting further up the value chain and realising more stable livelihoods.
Fake good is no good
Doing good is hard, really hard. Working out what is really needed to make a difference involves detailed and ongoing research and monitoring. There are endless tradeoffs to be made. What's right one year is not the next. There are very direct contradictions between social and environmental good.
Doing good is not - and never can be - a marketing campaign. It's hard, hard work and needs to be built into the operating system of the brand. The brands that are trying hard don't make a song and dance about it - it's serious business. What Kering are trying to do with cashmere is an example of a brand that understands - and is humble about - just how hard it really is. Kering wouldn't build gazebos and soccer pitches. There are others - like Patagonia - but the most impressive and progressive brands tend not to be mega-sized (check out Veja for trainers). It's hard to be good when you're big - take a closer look at Unilever. Their scale compels them to do things that are 'not good'.
Working out what's right cannot be done through badges. Apps that oversimplify what is a very complex field aren't helping. Brands that rush to claim "good" or "sustainable" credentials are using "good" as a marketing tactic. It's fake good.
I like all (not quite all) these brands I've mentioned here. They are in some way or another trying to do the right thing. But they've all turned doing good into a marketing thing. Inventing badges or schemes. Coming up with bullshit like gazebos and soccer pitches.
They of all people should know it's not that simple. We as consumers should know it's not that simple.
We all need to work a lot harder at understanding what is - really - good. And then do it.