How trustworthy are sustainability certifications for commodities as regards risks of deforestation and human rights violations?

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We at ArtOn Café have already discussed the efficiency of some labels for food products, notably the Nutri-Score label, and we are now focusing on sustainability certifications.

Sustainability certifications

Some food products have printed on their package a symbol certifying the sustainability of the production chain. Sustainability certifications, in fact, aim at safeguarding forests, and protecting the rights of the local people and farmers, in order to prevent the phenomenon known as land grabbing (Strinati & Dongo, 2021).

However, products showcasing these labels can sometimes still be connected to deforestation and human rights abuse (Rosoman, 2021), since a certification is not always enough to solve problems such as deforestation, soil degradation and the modification of ecosystems (Greenpeace International, 2021).

Businessman holding the world in the palm of hands. Concept for global business, 3d illustration

There are numerous sustainability certifications, but we at ArtOn Café will now focus mainly on the FairTrade certification, as it is the one most concerned with commodities such as coffee, tea and cocoa.

Fairtrade and sustainability

Fairtrade defines itself as an international organization aimed at improving the living and working conditions of farmers in developing countries and limiting the environmental footprint of production and trade activities. It operates mainly by ensuring that a set of standards are met, so that farmers and workers can obtain a more stable revenue to build a better future (FairTrade Italia, n.d.).

In this perspective, Fairtrade represents an international brand for fair trade, mainly concerning products such as coffee, tea and cocoa (FairTrade Italia, n.d.).

Fairtrade logo. Source: (FairTrade Italia, n.d.)

Fairtrade, whose power structure seems quite balanced, is considered one of the best fair-trade systems currently operating. In fact, Fairtrade is the only one of such systems that ensures a minimum price for farmers. In addition to this, farmers receive an extra sum intended to be invested in trade or community projects (Strinati & Dongo, 2021).

More specifically, the minimum price corresponds to the price that the farmers receive for their products, which is never lower than the market price and which is not subject to the variations of stock exchange speculation. This minimum price is calculated by Fairtrade, in collaboration with the farmers, so as to cover the costs that are necessary to guarantee the sustainability of the production and supply chain. However, if the market price is higher than the minimum price established by Fairtrade, farmers are paid according to the market price (FairTrade Italia, n.d.).

Rwanda 05 10 2016 Women farmers tend harvesting coffee cherries and coffee crops in their cooperative coffee farms in the Lake Kivu region of Rwanda

Despite this promising and positive introduction, there are also downsides. In fact, some researchers have shown conflicting results concerning the effects of this system on the basic goods. Moreover, the experts have underlined the need for improved working conditions and more precise working standards in the small farms, as well as the need for plans to fight child labour (Strinati & Dongo, 2021).

Fairtrade coffee

Coffee is one of the most popular drinks worldwide, yet coffee producers face numerous challenges, concerning for example the harsh working conditions and climate change. Fairtrade aims to respond to these situations and therefore it supports farmers and promotes the safeguarding of the environment and of the rights of the local workers and people.

Koperasi Baithul Qiradh Baburrayyan (KBQB), Indonesia. Jumiran is a member of the cooperative. He owns 1 ha and produces around 4,200 Kg cherry per year
Source: (Fairtrade International, n.d.)

For example, Fairtrade is committed to offering farmers some economic stability to help them deal with the extremely volatile coffee prices, notably by way of the minimum price (Fairtrade International, n.d.), an economic tool already discussed in the previous paragraph.

Coffee producers are also given the Fairtrade Premium, an extra sum intended to be invested in the business or in projects for the local community, depending on the choices of the individual farmer. The aim is to improve both productivity and quality. Moreover, Fairtrade helps farmers to create cooperatives and associations, so that they can be more effective when they ask for better trading conditions and reach wider markets (Fairtrade International, n.d.).

Greenpeace and the assessment of the effectiveness of the sustainability certifications

Greenpeace, which fights environmental crimes and promotes more sustainable solutions (Greenpeace, n.d.), has analysed the effectiveness of the sustainability certifications in fighting deforestation and the destruction of ecosystems worldwide.

More precisely, Greenpeace has published a report assessing the effectiveness of the land-based commodities sustainability certifications, notably as regards the fight against deforestation, ecosystem modification and the violation of human rights. The main aim of this report published by Greenpeace is to inform governments, political leaders and companies about the role that such certifications may play in the food chain and the reforms that could be introduced to tackle problems such as biodiversity reduction and climate crisis (Greenpeace International, 2021).

Planet Earth covered with grass and city skyline. Sustainability and eco-friendly approach. Some elements of this image were provided by NASA

According to Greenpeace, sustainability certifications seem a somewhat weak tool to fight deforestation and the destruction of ecosystems. Even though some certifications require strict standards, a lack of control and insufficient transparency and traceability turn even the strictest certifications into untrustworthy tools (Greenpeace International, 2021).

The companies which, despite their sustainability certification, are involved in the destruction of forests and ecosystems are still too numerous. Paradoxically, certifications might actually provoke more negative effects of the production chain on the environment, since – by improving the image of the commodities endangering forests and ecosystems – they may result in a rise in demand (Greenpeace International, 2021). Basically, certifications risk ending up in greenwashing and hiding – without solving – the environmental problem.

Man made fires to clear the land for cattle or crops. Daniel Beltra/Greenpeace
Source: (Rosoman, 2021)

Sustainability certifications: just smoke and mirrors?

Considering the data presented in the Greenpeace report it might be natural to think that it is not worth buying products with a sustainability certification. However, some certification systems still have positive effects, at least on the local area. Sometimes labels and certifications can be used by the consumer as guidelines. But being environmentally conscious when doing your shopping is not enough: consumers and communities should encourage political leaders to introduce policies in order to safeguard the planet, the environment and the population (Rosoman, 2021).


Fairtrade International. (n.d.). Coffee. Retrieved July 10, 2021, from Products website:

FairTrade Italia. (n.d.). Cos’è Fairtrade. Retrieved July 10, 2021, from FairTrade Italia website:

Greenpeace. (n.d.). Greenpeace. Retrieved July 10, 2021, from Il nostro pianeta merita una voce website:

Greenpeace International. (2021). Destruction: Certified. Retrieved July 10, 2021, from Publications website:

Rosoman, G. (2021). That “certified” label? Not what you think it means. Retrieved July 10, 2021, from Stories website:

Strinati, M., & Dongo, D. (2021, May). Olio di palma, soia, legno, caffè, cacao. A che serve la certificazione di sostenibilità? Rapporto di Greenpeace. GIFT – Great Italian Food Trade. Retrieved fromè-cacao-a-che-serve-la-certificazione-di-sostenibilità-rapporto-di-greenpeace

Picture credits: when not otherwise specified, the pictures were purchased by the ArtOn Café Director