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    Lost in labels


    International Trade Forum - Issue 1-2/2008 

    © Giles Kershaw 

    In the maze of the environmental labels: an opportunity or a barrier?

    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.

    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.

    In some cases there is an overlap between private and mandatory national sanitary and phytosanitary requirements, and private certification requirements can be even more constraining then the official ones.

    Policy makers, trade development agencies and NGOs can play an important role in helping developing-country producers comply with both mandatory and private standards by:

    • working to harmonize standards and develop equivalence schemes, at the national, regional and international levels
    • providing information about standards and supporting producers in choosing the scheme that best suits them and their customers
    • offering capacity-building to improve the production process to comply with the minimum legal requirements to enter developed markets in the first place, and then helping producers implement the necessary private schemes and obtain the required certificates
    • maximizing private-public cooperation to make the certification process more accessible to small producers and, where applicable, developing financial mechanisms that will allow exporters to finance the certification process
    • representing the interests and concerns of producers in private standards bodies.

    This table maps some of the most common voluntary standards and private labels that producers may need to comply with in order to reach developed-country shopping baskets. It is not comprehensive but does indicate the labelling maze that exporters from developing countries have to deal with

    Contributors: Audrey Villinger, Ludovica Ghizzoni, ITCFor more information see ITC's Export Quality Management web page atwww.intracen.org/eqm