Investigating claims: “sustainably sourced”


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Coffee, cocoa, and sugar are commodities that are largely moving towards sustainable sourcing–but what does that mean? /source

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | March 27th, 2019

Sustainably sourced clothing, food, and products are ones that many people would like to support more often, as expensive as they often are. When a company claims “sustainably sourced” on a product, it generally means, by definition, that the company in question uses methods of harvesting or producing its item in ways that do not irreparably damage the planet. Usually, there are social and economic aspects to this claim as well, since sustainability and fair trade often go hand in hand.

Sustainable sourcing often aims to take the local population of a certain commodity into account. The frequent mistreatment of the workers who harvest “exotic” goods–like coffee and chocolate–is no secret; much of this abuse of labor can be traced back to the colonization of these nations and continues, unfortunately, today. Fair trade is a solution to this, but just like “organic”, fair trade is a term that can be abused to make products seem more ethical than they actually are.

Sustainable sourcing, as a claim and as a practice, has some of its own issues.

Sugarcane, for example, is a multi billion-dollar commodity grown and sold in multiple regions today. It is also an industry that carries its own risks of environmental and social damage, relying frequently on slave labor in the past. Sustainability and strict standards for wages, labor, and pesticide use define Bonsucro, a certification given out to sugar producers that meet its strict guidelines. General Mills and Pepsi-Cola both aim to eventually rely only on Bonsucro-certified sugarcane.

For sugar producers like India, getting sugar farmers properly certified would involve cutting off massive areas of sugarcane territory. Getting certified isn’t just inconvenient, it’s often expensive and time-consuming for the farm.

None of these detriments mean that fair trade, organic, sustainable food is bad, or that we should collectively stop trying to make our products and commodities better on a social and economic setting. It just means that we must be careful in evaluating what these terms mean, and continue forward–with caution.

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