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The Metro Vancouver Food Eco-Certification Breakfast Showdown.

March 4th, 2010 · 2 Comments

OK, it wasn’t called that. But as my second green business shmooze in 12 hours, (see Power Plant event blog, below) I was bleary stumbling into this 7:30am Metro Vancouver Sustainability Breakfast on food certification. Balancing a cup of BCIT coffee, 2 preservative-laced danishes and a Happy Planet juice, I took notes as best I could from the three very qualified and interesting speakers. So if you are confused about competing eco logos, curious about what ‘Fair Trade’ really means, or just care slightly about what stuff down your gullet, grab your own cuppa joe and read on.

oceanwiseMike McDermid, Program Manager for OceanWise, started the set, with the erudite, likeable delivery of a favourite biology teacher. Unfortunately, the data he brought to the table was, to say the least, distressing. To start, 90% of all big fish in the ocean are gone, and we’re shoveling the last 10% into the boat as fast as we can. Quoting from a 2006 study led by a Nova Scotia biologist named Boris Worm (no, I didn’t make that up) Mike further let us know that by 2048 there could be a complete collapse of all fisheries. Everything. No anchovies for pizza, even. So the case was made for the need to change the way we consume fish.
There are two ways to do this. Through Regulatory Reform (slow and bureaucratic) and Market Transformation (sounds way cooler, for sure). The OceanWise program is a form of the latter, designed to ‘drive demand for sustainable seafood’ from the consumer on down through the supply chain. Apparently, it’s working. From humble beginnings with a few restaurants in 2005, OceanWise has grown to over 300 partner businesses in 2700 locations across Canada. Perhaps most telling, the fish wholesalers who wouldn’t return Mike’s calls at the beginning of the program are now eager to get on board. It appears the voting wallets of educated fish munchers have some real bite.
The Green Briefs Two-Bits: One of the key components to the success of OceanWise has been the support of the Celebrity Chef set. This is ‘Influencer Marketing’ at its best, and promoters of other worthy programs should take note. Their clean design and association with the Vancouver Aquarium have also given this program a fin up. However, as I noted in an earlier blog on OceanWise, I think they still need to do some more promotion work at the restaurant table level. The story is so compelling, it should be discussed over every seafood meal.

coabcBrad Reid, President of the Certified Organic Association of BC took the podium next. “At this time of day I’m usually talking to a few thousand chickens.” he began, as he described the grassroots origins of the COABC. This organization grew from the lifestyles of the farmers and growers involved – “Overage hippies looking for a cause” as Brad describes them – and now represents 80% of the organic farmers in BC. What’s more, the COABC also administers the BC Organic Logo on behalf of the Provincial Government.
bccoBrad showed a few of the most common logos currently in place on organic goods in BC stores – the USDA symbol, the Canada Organic symbol and the BC Organic label – and described the challenges of both educating consumers about their choices, and educating farmers about what consumers want these days. He also introduced the concept of a less bureaucratic form of labeling that would allow smaller producers, urban farmers and gardeners to brand their organics without the onerous certification costs associated with existing third-party verified standards. Called CVO – Community Verified Organic, this level of certification would be an open approach that would depend on consumer and/or community enforcement to make it work.
Green Briefs Deep Thoughts: A few questions crossed my mind about Brad’s presentation. Firstly, there may be confusion for consumers between the ‘BC Organic’ label and the COABC name. Adding CVO to the mix will require even more education. The brand designer in me would love to see a more logical name-tree hierarchy between the three levels so shoppers could envision it as different facets of the same system. Secondly, the local advantage of BC Organics should be played up way more. Once carbon footprint from shipping is included in the decision, it really should be perceived as the gold standard and support a higher value as a result.

ethicalbeanLast up was Lloyd Bernhardt, President of Ethical Bean Fair Trade Organic Coffee. If Lloyd’s word-per-minute count is any indication, he is obviously as dedicated to the testing of his product as he is to as the principles behind it. Having just returned from a World Coffee Conference in Guatemala, he offered a rich overview of the Fair Trade process, blended with a few of its more colourful character flaws and a refreshing aftertaste of its success. (The complex layers of the system as he described it are already leaving my addled brain, so if you are reading this, Lloyd, please feel free to step in.)
Start with the fact that it takes some 3500 beans to make up one pound of coffee. That’s a lot of fingers doing a lot of work. Fingers traditionally attached to workers completely at the mercy of the coffee commodity market. To address this, Ethical Bean is certified by TransFair Canada. To qualify, coffee producers have to meet a variety of criteria that focus on a range of areas including labour standards, sustainable farming, governance, and democratic participation.
logo_fairtrade_certified_smallProducers report their sales of products to Fair Trade buyers to FLO-Cert, the Certification arm of the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations (FLO) International, which also conducts on-site audits to ensure producers continue to meet the standards. Through the chain of custody, a shipment of beans is tracked and audited at every step from producer to roaster. This all sounds like a lot of hassle, but the upshot is that by doing it right, Ethical Bean has been increasing sales 40% a year for the last 5 years. It’s not a perfect system, Lloyd admits. Workers with a history of being screwed over will occasionally short on weights and use other creative tactics to their benefit, but by and large, a difference is being made. Even though FairTrade only accounts for some 2% of world coffee production.
frogsealLloyd also pointed out that not all certifications are the same. A certain ‘cute frog’ label (representing the Rainforest Alliance, an organization created, he claims, as an industry-sponsored answer to the fair-trade movement), only requires that 30% of the coffee so labeled needs to be certified. This fact is well hidden on their website – and I was REALLY looking – but to their credit, the guidelines for application of their logo suggest that the seal be accompanied by the percentage included.
The Green Briefs P.O.V is that none of these certifying organizations are directing enough of their resources into consumer education. Diligently tracking a coffee bean around the planet is great, but if no one staring at the shelf knows about it, the effect is lost. These are good stories. They deserve better telling.

Overall, the message from the morning was “Do your homework.” Or, as Brad only half-jokingly suggested “Get your kids into the certification business.” Competing certifications aren’t perfect, but they do provide a rallying point for consumers and a pressure point for industry that can honestly move things in the right direction. It’s up to consumers to find out more about what’s behind different certifications and decide which to support. It’s up to marketers to make those stories as transparent and compelling as possible.

What do you think? Leave a comment. Start the dialogue.

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Now I think I need a Fair-Trade-Organically-Community-Verified-Rainforest-Certified-Activist-Villified Scotch.

Tags: Green Creative · Green Points of View · Green Politics · Research · Sustainable Businesses · Sustainable Lifestyle · Sustainable Products

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Beverly // Mar 8, 2010 at 3:56 pm

    Lorne, thanks for this report. How many of us has time to do all the research needed to buy the ethical products we really want to buy? You are providing a service, thanks.

  • 2 admin // Mar 8, 2010 at 5:15 pm

    You’re welcome, Beverly. Many more certifications to wade through yet, I’m afraid. (Personally I think there should be one for organic beer….)

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