Chocolate and trees – fairtrade and certification

I always like reading about food, and an article in The Guardian this morning with photos of chocolate and coffee was irresistible. This however was a discussion of fair trade, or rather Fairtrade, and the fact that many specialist food producers are turning away from it not because they don’t care but because they care too much.

I always like reading about food, and an article in The Guardian this morning with photos of chocolate and coffee was irresistible. This however was a discussion of fair trade, or rather Fairtrade, and the fact that many specialist food producers are turning away from it not because they don’t care but because they care too much.

The arguments are complex, to do with quality of products, with choice and with just how well people are treated under Fairtrade schemes. Some artisan producers believe that they can pay more, get better products and ensure better living and working conditions. Essentially, they are seeing Fairtrade as being like Building Regulations – creating a lower limit of quality rather than being aspirational. And just as many clients (and unfortunately architects) aspire to nothing better, so many supermarkets aspire to nothing more than Fairtrade. (And of course, unlike Building Regs, it is not compulsory).

What the debate about Fairtrade really made me think about was timber certification. The leading certification method, FSC, is treated by many as a gold standard. Introduced for the entirely laudable reason of preventing the devastation of virgin forest in the tropics and elsewhere, and ensuring that timber harvesting is sustainable – that the enormous benefits of using wood are not offset by devastation at the point of production.

It is also true however that FSC is unwieldy and is mainly suited to large producers. PEFC, an alternative method, was set up to offer an alternative. It is also true that in some parts of world (particularly in Scandinavia and North America) almost all production is sustainable. There is hardly any replanting – timber seeds itself and regrows naturally. The timber producers do not like the phrase ‘like a weed’ but it is pretty much true.

There are some users of timber who do not think that certification is always necessary or appropriate, and that one can actually be more responsible by sourcing in different ways. One of these is furniture maker Luke Hughes, who has an enormous commitment to sustainability, not least by producing beautiful furniture from solid timbers that will last for decades or even centuries. 

Through his knowledge of wood and also of the Himalayas, he has argued that certification is not always good and may actually do harm. If you think that this means he does not care about sustainability, the carefully worded statement on his website should change your mind. This is not the approach of somebody who is trying to wiggle out of environmental sustainability but of spmebody who has thought carefully and is taking a nuanced approach.  

Fairtrade should not disappear, and nor should certificatiion. (In fact the Guardian article says there is a drop-off in sales of Fairtrade products as more people shop at budget supermarkets – understandable, but not desirable). We should, says the Guardian, be asking for things to be fairly traded rather than Fairtrade in future. Which is great for the specialist coffee maker or chocolatier prepared to put in the legwork. And for the specialist furniture maker or responsible architect. Certification is great though for the supermarket shelf and to make us confident that the timber we buy at the local builders’ merchant doesn’t come from a dodgy supplier.

To certificate or not? The answer is both. We should certificate our products where that will improve standards, but allow certain people to rise above it but never to fall below.

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