It was with the intent of trying to bring legitimacy to brands’ sustainability declarations that a new market was created, dedicated to independent certification. Where that legitimacy lies, however, is something that it is still yet to be found.
Sustainable. Organic. Vegan. Green. Fair tarde. Responsible. This list could carry on for many more lines, because there seem to be no limits for the vocabulary that can be used to refer to a (we apologize for the repetition) sustainable product. Actually, some limits do exist: those of human creativity - we have just proved that. However, when it comes to legal limits… Let us just say that they must be under development. Due to the lack of legislation for controlling the words written in labels, websites, social media, etc., used to define alleged eco-conscious products, each brand has the possibility to shape the meaning of these concepts in the way that fits their products better. We can further explain it with an example: what does it take to classify a formula on a Beauty product as organic? Does its composition need to have 60, 70, 80% of its ingredientes from organic origin? We do not know, because there are no consistent or cross-sectional rules that define the criteria needed to justify each classification. For several products, several compositions. But always the same label.
Nonetheless, this will probably not be new for the majority. Environmental skepticism is a growing phenomenon, precisely because consumers are aware of the disadvantage they have at this game of information played by brands. To believe or not to believe? In an utopian society, this question would never exist; however, in the real world, we knew that the market was ready to create a new type of business. Not the one of sustainability, but the one of trust. We needed a confirmation, a safety net, something that could whisper in our ears “it is alright”. Because, deep down, we all lose with distrust: brands lose because they do not sell their products, consumers lose because they feel guilty, and the environment loses. The environment always loses. But among all these losses, there had to be someone who could find a way to profit. And so begins the story of how trust became a trade currency, creating what we know today as sustainability certifications.
And what is a sustainability certification? Nothing more than the answer to all of the problems that we raised in the previous paragraphs. At least, allegedly. These are labels, created by independent entities, dedicated to verify sustainability informations that reach consumers through brands. In a way, certifications work as a third party that does what in the ideal world would be covered by legislation: by establishing their own evaluation criteria, they allow the meaning behind sustainability concepts to become consistent. Therefore, and returning to the previous example, by having a company dedicated to certify organic compositions that establishes, for instance, that for a Beauty product to be labelled as such needs to have, at least, 70% of its ingredients from organic origin, automatically consumers will know that any product with that certification will follow those same rules. Simple, right? So simple that it could seem utopian for some people. There is no denying that sustainability certifications have come to fulfil a void in the green industry, namely by creating an answer to many of the problems that have been raised for decades. However, we have been realists from the beginning and that is exactly how we will remain. And any good realist would have to question if anything can represent only a solution, without ever creating its own problems. That is why we lifted the veil, trying to understand what could be the other side of sustainability certifications, a side that indeed showed to be a true B side.
One of the factors that boosts consumer distrust in brands’ sustainability declarations is the idea that brands are running a business and, as a consequence, profit will always be one of their biggest priorities. Following that logic, we cannot ignore how sustainability certifications can basically be inserted into the same category as other companies. Even though there are, in fact, some independent entities that identify as non-profit organisations, most of the enterprises behind certifications have also their own monetary issues to manage. In our example, that could be verified through how the company that wants their Beauty product to be certified has to pay a certain amount to the company that is certifying it in order to associate its label with the product. With this in mind, we are not trying to say that a certification is only trustworthy when it is not associated with economic motives - as we said, we prioritise the facts and that would be an utopian idea. Nonetheless, it is important to have in mind that, like in any other business, there is always the risk for profit to surpass the company’s values. And when it comes to companies that base their profitability on their believes, this problem reaches different proportions.
If this idea has not been promoted enough, we say it once again: sustainability is much more than simply protecting Nature. This concept performs on all areas that can compromise the well-being of a generation, from the conservation of resources to social prosperity, even including the economic progress itself. Therefore, it is not possible to classify a product as sustainable when it does not fulfil every single requirement that is a part of the sustainability concept. It is a challenge, of course, but we should not say that a certain make-up product is sustainable due to its mineral composition, if those same minerals have been extracted in poor countries with child labor. The same happens with other industries: in the Fashion industry, organic cotton is regularly associated with forced labor; in the food industry, we see natural products being associated with intensive agriculture, which can heavily harm communities that were already not prosperous before. Certifying the organic composition of a product will not mean that this is a sustainable product on all fronts. And when it comes to sustainability, no front can be more important than the others.
In an issue where we chose not to comment, we must look at all of these thoughts not like sentences characterised by their periods but as loose ideas that deserve to be turned into questions. Because, sometimes, the most sustainable action we can take is to question. Question brands, certifications, or even the people that surround us. And it was with that in mind that this text was born, representing our own step forward. That is why we chose to question: who certifies certifications?
Translated from the original part of the No Comments issue of Vogue Portugal, from November 2021.