While the debate over front-of-pack GDAs versus traffic lights continues to grab the headlines, another labelling row is quietly brewing.
Two weeks ago, the 350-member World Fair Trade Organisation unveiled plans for a new certification system to reward businesses that commit to fair trade principles. It's an announcement the Fairtrade Foundation has described as premature. It stresses that the consultation process, of which it is a part, is ongoing, but expresses concern at the impact of another potential logo on its own Fairtrade mark. So how will the WFTO certification work? And does the Fairtrade Foundation have grounds to fret?
The Sustainable Fair Trade Management System is a certification tool that will work like an ISO standard - only tougher, says WFTO communications consultant Robin Smith. "Businesses will sign up to rolling criteria targets over a three-year period. If they meet the criteria, they get the certification."
The criteria are based on the WFTO's 10 principles of fair trade. They include creating opportunities for economically disadvantaged producers, transparency and accountability in all transactions, and respect for the environment.
The fact that the SFTMS assesses the overall performance of a business, rather than focusing just on product lines, is its main benefit, claims Smith. "There's a whole load of manufacturers that are unable to get FLO certification at the moment because they make products from more than one source," he says. "The advantage of the SFTMS is that, potentially - and I emphasise that word - any company of any size along the supply chain can gain accreditation."
The system's "potential" may be far-reaching, but the same cannot be said of its appeal to many Fairtrade aficionados. Established WFTO member Divine Chocolate is a natural candidate for accreditation, yet its reaction is hardly welcoming. "As a key contributor to the success of Fairtrade and the Fairtrade Mark, it makes sense for us to stick with this certification that people know and understand," says a spokeswoman.
It's a line of argument Chris Davis, director of producer partnerships at the Fairtrade Foundation, a UK member of FLO, appreciates. "We want to extend the benefits of fair trade to all marginalised suppliers. But while we make sure any system is appropriate for them, we must also make sure it doesn't confuse consumers who trust the Fairtrade mark." Consequently, there is still much to be resolved with the SFTMS, Davis believes. "For any standard, there needs to be clear evaluation criteria. Once that's established, there needs to be a discussion on who is going to do the evaluating, how it will be paid for, and how companies can use it as a marketing tool. We are unlikely to see these points agreed on before the end of the year."
Smith says he understands these concerns. He also recognises just how well established the Fairtrade mark is, having worked for Cafédirect for 17 years. He concedes that any new fair trade mark on products "is a discussion point" but doesn't shy away from the debate. "The entire aim of the SFTMS is that it can be a mark that goes on products. Currently WFTO members can use the organisation logo on promotional materials and letterhead paper, but not on products. This will address that," he explains.
However, he expects the process to be completed in weeks rather than months. "Clearly it's in nobody's interest to create conflict in a market that continues to grow, but our members have spent two years developing SFTMS and there is finite time left for discussion."
The SFTMS will be high on the agenda at next week's WFTO Annual Conference in Nepal. Judging by the current distance between the various organisations, it's going to be the kind of debate Westminster and Brussels are only too familiar with.