The tasting room of a tea factory in Central Province, Sri Lanka was adorned with pictures of happy women flashing big toothy smiles, harvesting tea as colorful butterflies floated idyllically in the fields. Looking at the pictures and reading the panels, visitors cannot help but feel that the plantation is both protective of the environment and socially conscious.
However, one doesn't need to live in Sri Lanka for a long time to learn that, in reality, most tea estates are far from being either environmentally friendly or socially fair. In fact, it is the contrary: most tea fields in Sri Lanka are vast swaths of heavily sprayed, monocropped land and the tea pickers, the majority of whom are women, are amongst the poorest communities in the country and face great financial struggles to feed and sustain their families. To anyone who has spent some time in Sri Lanka, these panels at the tea factory feel very misleading. When asked about this apparent contradiction, this specific factory justified their claims of environmental sustainability by their recent installation of some rubber trees in the otherwise monocropped tea fields. Their understanding of what constitutes “environmentally sustainable” clearly did not match mine. However, given that most of the visitors ended up buying considerable amounts of tea after the factory visit, it appears that their greenwashing strategy was successfully doing its job. This example from Sri Lanka is only one of the many cases that one can find, both in developed and developing countries, of greenwashing, where companies spend more time and money marketing their sustainable initiatives than they do in actually implementing meaningful changes.
Since the 1980s, and partly as an antidote to greenwashing, an increasing number of certifications schemes have emerged with the aim to regulate products labeled as organic, socially conscious, sustainably produced, etc. These certifications ensure consumers that their products meet certain quality standards and thereby prevent fraudulent or misleading marketing. For example, take the cartoon on my cup coffee this morning which assured me, through a now famous frog, that it was Rainforest Alliance certified. This means that a third party certifying body has ensured that the coffee in my cup was produced following certain standards.
However, how much do we, as consumers, truly know about these certification standards? What are the fundamental differences between, for instance, a Fair Trade certified coffee versus a Rainforest Alliance certified coffee? Certainly there are many more differences and nuances between certification schemes than one would initially expect. With an increasing number of certification schemes, and with standards constantly being modified, it is sometimes difficult as a consumer to choose the product and brand with the certification label that best matches one’s values and needs. Indeed, the amount of information that those labels hide can be truly overwhelming for consumers.
For instance, think about an organic product and how it was produced. You no doubt have a vision of what would constitute organic production. However, does the version of organic production in your mind match the version of organic production that is represented on the label? The answer: maybe not. Certification requirements for “organic” production systems can indeed differ significantly depending on the product you are producing and the country or region where you want to sell your products. Additionally, third-party certification is complex and expensive, and in many occasions beyond the reach of smallholder farmers interested in producing organically.
What if there was a more flexible type of organic certification that on the one hand allowed consumers to have a close look at the certification process and get to know first-hand the producers and on the other hand gave smallholder farmers access to the organic certification process so that they could get better prices for their products at the local market? A new system of alternative organic certifications seems to have found an answer.
Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) were initially conceived in 2004 as a surrogate for third party organic certification but have only recently emerged as a viable alternative in many countries around the globe (a comprehensive list of all PGS systems can be found at the IFOAM site). PGS is based on a set of standards and certification processes that are constructed in a participatory manner by different stakeholders of a specific community or region, such as organic producers, agronomists and consumers. This different approach not only keeps certification costs to a minimum but also provides stakeholders with commonly agreed upon understanding of what constitutes “organic” production.
Clearly, only locally produced products can be certified through a PGS system and most consumers must still rely on third party certification schemes for imported products. However, PGS offers a medium term solution where consumers can take an active role in the certification system and can learn first-hand about the local organic standards by visiting the smallholder producers and, in doing so, promote local smallholder organic cultivation. In practical terms, this means being able to personally judge whether a tea plantation is cultivating in a sustainable way or understanding exactly how the organic carrots I buy every week at the market are produced. PSG means promoting and giving credibility to local organic production and creating trust and a direct relationship with our local organic farmers.