Suppose I went and counted quality marks in the supermarket, how many would I find?

“I wouldn’t like to say…”

Hazard a guess, just name ten.

“Utz, Fairtrade, EKO – there are dozens of them, I can’t think of that many offhand.”

And yet you deal with these quality marks on a daily basis! According to the independent sustainability organisation Milieu Centraal, there are two hundred. The average consumer can’t see the forest for the trees. Why are there so many?

“Anyone can set up a quality mark, be they manufacturers, sectors or international non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Every agency which issues a quality mark has its own preferences. One focuses on the conservation of rain forests, another on enhancing income in developing countries. And quality marks compete with each other, as well. Everyone wants his or her quality mark to be the dominant one, which is why those involved often make compromises.”

Isn’t that odd?

“Yes, in a way. But the dilemma is that your market share will shrink if you are too strict. It is a case of balancing on a tightrope. You have to keep a good watch on everything or your quality mark doesn’t amount to anything much. However, because you want to keep your customers – the providers of products – you have to turn a blind eye to things now and again. After all, a quality mark needs income, too.”

Why? Do you have to pay for a Fairtrade label?


How much?

“That depends on the size of the company in question. It varies from a few hundred to tens of thousands of euros. That is a lot of money, particularly for small farmers. This is one of the problems associated with the enormous proliferation of quality marks. A farmer with a number of customers must go through a certification process several times for the same product.”

Why do we have quality marks?

“They fill the information vacuum. You assess a product on its quality and price, but there are also things that you cannot see just by looking at it: the ecological and social processes involved in its realisation, for example. You cannot see the conditions under which an iPhone has been made from its appearance and you cannot see whether pesticides have been used in the cultivation of a banana from its flavour. Quality marks supply us with information about these factors.”

Members of the Dutch Parliament, Fatma Koser Kaya of D66 (Democrats 66) and Bart de Liefde of the VVD (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy), advocate tackling the uncontrolled growth of quality marks. Is that a good idea?

“I think so. You could argue for the merging of certain quality marks which overlap a great deal. And forbid any obviously misleading or hollow ones.”

Can you name a quality mark which is absolutely meaningless?

“There is one which is ‘a label prescribed by law’ rather than a ‘quality mark’ and that is the measurement of the relative emission of CO2 by new cars. In some countries, including the Netherlands, cars are assessed, on a scale from A to G, on the basis of a comparison with other cars in the same category. This means that an energy-guzzling SUV (sport utility vehicle) can get an A label, whereas it emits twice as much greenhouse gases as a small car with a C label. I find that totally misleading.”

In the supermarket, we have the much-discussed green and blue ‘tick’ of the Stichting Kies Bewust (Conscious choice foundation), a foundation which we now know was set up by Unilever, Campina and Albert Heijn. That is pure deception of the public, isn’t it?

“It is good to realise that the parties behind every quality mark have a political or economic motive. And there are, of course, manufacturers who try to take us all for a ride. But that does not mean that quality marks are not worthwhile. Perhaps the tick erroneously creates the impression that this is an objective assessment and that the product concerned is a healthy one but, basically, that applies to all quality marks. They are, by definition, imperfect instruments.”

You formulated that very carefully!

“The question is whether it is better to have an imperfect quality mark than no quality mark at all. By and large, it is preferable to have something than nothing. Take the example of the Dutch Society for the Protection of Animals’ Beter Leven (Better life) quality mark which entails giving scores up to and including three stars for meat and eggs. One star on this quality mark scale doesn’t mean much but, for many manufacturers, this is a stepping stone to a second or third star, and these categories indicate a substantial contribution to improving animal welfare.”

Can I set up a quality mark tomorrow?

“I think so.”

And then people simply have to trust me?

“Exactly. It is up to consumers to assess how credible the certifying party is and, moreover, how it implements sustainability – which brings us to the difficult part. For one person, sustainability means using paper bags instead of plastic ones. For the next, it is an organic production process. Yet another feels that humans should be one of the key elements. Sustainability is an enormously broad concept which everyone can interpret in his or her own way. Everyone can claim it. Manufacturers who launch their own quality marks are naturally anything but independent. I am in favour of curbing the jumble of quality marks by means of sectoral, or even cross-sectoral, quality marks. The point is, though, that these all-embracing quality marks – which apply to both textile manufacturers and cacao farmers – are so general that all kinds of vagueness, and thus opportunities to get out of the obligations, arise.”

‘The question is whether it is better to have an imperfect quality mark than no quality mark at all’

Frank Wijen

Why isn’t there a ministry to monitor quality marks?

“That would be a good idea. There are all sorts of different groups, such as Sins of Greenwashing and Rank a Brand, who assess companies’ sustainability claims. The problem is that there is no one single monitoring agency.”

In Great Britain, they have a traffic light system. Red is irresponsible, orange is slightly better and green is good. Things are a lot clearer then, surely?

“It sounds great; the question is what the underlying requirements are. The criteria are politically charged. One person finds equal wages important and another, a free market. One person wants everything organic and another, better agricultural practices. Then again, one wants everything local and another, support for small farmers in developing countries. What do you do with a product which scores well in terms of the environment but less well in terms of social elements and how do you integrate dissimilar environmental effects such as biodiversity and toxicity? There is another aspect we have not mentioned yet: we also have a strong tendency to look at everything from a western standpoint and to condemn child labour, for example. But child labour is not always bad.”

I beg your pardon. Did I hear you correctly?

“In an ideal world there would be no child labour. However, my position is that the alternatives are sometimes worse, and that direct, rigorous measures are often counterproductive. A few decades back it appeared that the balls used during the World Cup Football had been stitched together by children. This aroused mass indignation and the Pakistani manufacturers, who employed entire families, were banned. The western world patted itself on the back but a study carried out by fellow researchers later showed that the families concerned subsequently sank deeper into poverty.”

Ynte van Dam, marketing researcher in Wageningen, the Netherlands, obtained his doctorate last month with a study which shows that positive ‘quality marks’ have hardly any effect. If we really want to make a difference, he contends, we should use ‘negative quality marks’. What is your opinion on that?

“It is the ‘naming and shaming’ strategy: a heavy-handed approach. It may be effective in the short term but bombarding people with negative information doesn’t work in the long term, so you have to be very cautious about doing so. In the past, organisations like Greenpeace did nothing but pillory companies but nowadays they are more inclined to point out companies that are doing the right thing and actually I think that this is a better tactic. You create positive dynamics so that companies realise that they are not just culprits.”

The sugar tax is currently being introduced in Great Britain and cigarettes have been taxed for some time now. Why don’t we opt for a similar method for dealing with products which are not sustainable?

“It is very easy to conclude that cigarettes are not good for the health but the level of sustainability of a great many products is very difficult to analyse. Quality marks have been set up for jeans, for example, including those by Kuyichi, but then you have to deal with manufacturers of thread, material, buttons, and so on and so forth in various countries. To analyse a whole chain of this kind and regulate it effectively is no mean feat.”

What do you do when faced with all the chocolate on the shelf at the supermarket?

“If there is chocolate with a quality mark, I choose that.”

You haven’t become cynical?

“No, you mustn’t do that. Even low-threshold quality marks have a purpose. When a manufacturer initiates a development path, he or she often acquires a taste for sustainability and discovers its advantages. It all starts as symbolic politics, intent on pleasing public opinion or under pressure from customers but, ultimately, a lot of companies genuinely strive to make their production sustainable.”

Frank Wijen
Frank Wijen

Frank Wijen is Associate Professor at the Department of Strategic Management and Entrepreneurship at the Rotterdam School of Management. He carries out research on institutions for sustainable business practices, and international self-regulation, in particular. Among other activities, he has edited two editions of ‘A handbook of globalisation and environmental policy’.