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In Search of Standards for Sustainability

April 24, 2008

4 Min Read
In Search of Standards for Sustainability

Last year, Sambazon, a company based in Newport Beach, Calif., imported 600 tons of organic a?ai (pronounced ?ah-sigh-ee?) pulp, made from a purple, grape-size berry that grows on palm trees in the Amazon rain forest. The Brazilian fruit, used as an ingredient in smoothies, is touted by Sambazon as a great source of energy and full of antioxidants, amino acids and essential omega fatty acids. While this exotic fruit, with its blended chocolate and berry flavor, might sound compelling to the urban hipster searching for the next organic trend at the local juice stop, there is a more important movement at work here.

Sambazon says its a?ai business respects the ecology of the Amazon and the native people who harvest the fruit. The company?s products already bear labels certifying that its a?ai is organic and adheres to the rules of fair trade. Now Sambazon wants its products triple-certified, adding a label that verifies that the fruit is sustainable, too—that is, harvested in a way that maintains the health of the Amazonian ecosystem.

?What Sambazon has been able to do is organize local communities into cooperatives. With the help of nongovernmental organizations, we?ve been able to establish an organic-systems plan, forest-management plan and a fair-trade plan,? said the company?s chief executive officer, Ryan Black.

But Sambazon wants to formalize its sustainability certification through the Forest Stewardship Council, an international organization that sets forth criteria for sustainable forestry practices worldwide. Tim Avila, a natural products industry consultant, said it won?t be long before the phenomenon becomes widespread.

?These labels are the new mantra of socially responsible business,? he said.

For now, however, there is no single organization in the United States that certifies a comprehensive array of products as environmentally sustainable, as is the case with organics and fair trade. FSC?s work has so far been confined to the lumber industry, while other groups, like the Climate Neutral Network and the Scientific Certification Systems, have a narrower focus.

Part of the problem is that the term is still ill-defined, said Haven Bourque, a spokeswoman for TransFair USA, which bills itself as the only independent, third-party certifier of fair-trade products in the country. ?Because fair trade encompasses organics and environmental stewardship, sustainability is built into the fair-trade certification model,? she said.

Sustainability advocates might find value in looking to the fair-trade model for how to create a label.

First, the label needs to be unambiguous. Fair-trade principles include paying small farmers, artisans and producers in poor nations a living wage for their goods, ensuring them safe and healthy working conditions, and encouraging them to manage their natural resources wisely.

And having an internationally recognized labeling body, whether governmental or not, is critical. But just putting a label on a product, even if it is widely recognized and respected, doesn?t mean the battle is won.

Neil Blomquist, president and CEO of Spectrum Organic Products Inc., thinks the road ahead is tough for sustainable and fair-trade products. Even taking into account the $50 million in sales his company?s organic line of cooking oils and spreads did last year, and a public commitment to fair-trade practices with suppliers in Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Columbia, Blomquist is skeptical that the fair-trade movement will garner broad appeal any time soon.

?My prediction is that it?s going to be a tough sell in this country. We have a mainstream grocery base that doesn?t even understand organic yet,? he said.

But sustainability advocates say similar doubts were sounded in the early days of the organic revolution. After seeking mainstream acceptability, the organic food movement now wears a certification label from none other than the U. S. Department of Agriculture. Not bad for a food category that just 30 years ago was the province of hippie farmers and granola freaks.

The sustainability and fair-trade movements have already established some important toeholds in the consumer market, advocates say.

Home Depot and IKEA, with encouragement from the World Wildlife Fund, support environmental sustainability by purchasing and using wood and lumber that is deemed to be a product of ecologically responsible forestry practices. Likewise, the Marine Stewardship Council puts its seal of approval on fish products that come from sustainable fisheries.

TransFair USA has fair-trade certified more than 38 million pounds of coffee since the organization was founded in 1998. It also certifies cocoa, tea, chocolate and bananas, which Wild Oats stores started selling in January.

Americans have started to tune in to the message with their wallets, advocates say. Total sales for the North American fair-trade industry jumped 44 percent, from $125 million in 2001 to $180 million in 2002, according to a study sponsored by the Fair Trade Federation.

However, labels and terms can lose meaning and be diluted if their use is not controlled, warned Marceline White with the Fair Trade Federation.

?As the term gets bandied about more and more, we want people to know what it means,? she said.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 3/p. 26, 30

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