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source: Corporate Accountability  Lab and Fair World Project

These days, if you go into a grocery store, there are numerous labels on food products touting how ethical and sustainable the product is. Yet these certification labels often misrepresent the labor and environmental standards used to produce these products. Certification schemes, such as Fairtrade International, were initially developed to provide workers – often farm workers in rural areas – with increased income, better working conditions, and a steady stream of buyers. Moreover, they signaled to consumers that the products were produced sustainably, without exploiting workers, children, or the environment. 

Certification is Failing Workers

But over time, these schemes have been watered down, often becoming nothing more than greenwashing and labor-washing – unsubstantiated claims intended to make money from conscious consumers – for corporations. In recent years, more and more evidence has come to light that certifications are failing workers, communities, and consumers. Across the board – from Rainforest Alliance to Fair Trade USA to Fair For Life – certifications do not deliver on their promises of sustainability and ethical production. These certification schemes represent themselves as helping workers and the environment, yet those producing the goods – whether it’s coffee, milk, or strawberries – often see little or no difference in income or working conditions. 

There are countless examples of this failure. In 2022, we documented instances of hazardous child labor on Fairtrade International and Rainforest Alliance/UTZ certified cocoa farms in Cote d’Ivoire. In November 2021, the Washington Post published a story on the failure of certifications in the Brazilian açaí industry. In September 2021, Mongabay reported that a Rainforest Alliance certified coffee plantation in Brazil had their wages illegally cut to pay for equipment. And Fair Trade USA (separate from Fairtrade International) has been certifying dairy farms in the United States that sell to Chobani, despite workers’ rights groups advocating against it and demanding a worker-centered program. Wage theft, child labor, hazardous working conditions, and workers’ and farmers’ lack of knowledge about whether the farms and plantations they work on are even certified are common issues across industries, countries, and certification schemes.

Certification is a Marketing Pitch

While the increased use of certification schemes is often touted as evidence of an evolving, more principled market, the private sector has responded not with principles, but with public relations campaigns. This is because consumers have made clear that they care about buying “ethically” produced products – and they often rely on certifications to make their buying decisions. According to one survey, “60% of consumers would stop using a product if they knew that human trafficking or forced labor was used to create it.” A separate survey found that 56 percent of consumers would stop buying from brands they believe to be “unethical,” while 35 percent of consumers would stop buying from these brands even if there is no substitute for the product

As a result, certifications and labels on “ethically” produced products have proliferated, with companies establishing their own labels such as Barry Callebaut’s Cocoa Horizons, Mondelez’s Cocoa Life, Lindt & Sprüngli’s Cocoa Farming Program, and Nestlé’s Cocoa Plan. These labels lower the standards, making it more difficult for Fairtrade International and other certifiers that try to implement strong standards to convince companies to use them. Yet consumers know little about the difference between these labels. Moreover, certifications have become a way for companies to sell products at higher prices without addressing the fundamental flaw in their supply chains: that brands often underpay suppliers for products, squeezing suppliers and leading to human rights and environmental abuses. Instead of dealing with the underlying problem – in far too many cases, farmer and worker poverty – certification schemes are used to paper over issues, stymying the very accountability the schemes initially stood for.

Critiques of Certification

Since Fairtrade International was established in 1997, certification schemes have become ubiquitous in grocery stores around the world. Yet there is key information that certifications schemes don’t tell you:

  1. Not all certification standards are equal. Certification schemes vary in their standards, and an ethical, sustainable, or “fair labor” certification does not necessarily mean ethics, sustainability, or fair labor practices were achieved. For example, Rainforest Alliance’s newer “assess-and-address” framework states that “Sustainability is a journey, not an end in itself.” Under these new standards, in the cocoa industry, child labor – and even forced child labor – does not necessarily lead to a farm or cocoa cooperative being decertified. While there is certainly value in working with farmers to improve labor and human rights, consumers often believe that certified products are free of child and forced labor – while the reality may be far from this. 

  2. Auditing is often sporadic. In many industries, auditing is essentially non-existent. For example, in the West African cocoa sector, the “audits” that do take place may be carried out by cooperatives, the groups that buy cocoa beans from farmers before selling them to larger companies. Coops are incentivized to claim their beans came from certified farms – regardless of the labor practices – because such beans can be sold for a higher price. A study by Professor Genevieve leBaron found that 95 percent of cocoa workers in Ghana did not know whether they worked on certified farms. Similarly, dairy farmers in the United States working on farms certified by FairTrade USA were unaware that the farms they worked on had been certified. This suggests that auditing is, at best, ineffectual, as farmers do not even know when it is taking place. 

  3. Even when auditing does take place, it often fails to find abuses. Periodic monitoring, announced or unannounced, has been shown to miss the type of abuses that are present on agricultural farms or in factories. It is far too easy to hide child workers when auditors show up or to have two account books, one stating legal ages and legally paid wages and the other the real ages and wages. Because auditing fails to discover abuses, producers are often certified even when there are obvious abuses taking place. One social auditing firm even acknowledged that “social audits are not designed to capture sensitive labor and human rights violations such as forced labor and harassment.” Social audits are especially bad at detecting whether workers have paid recruitment fees, which is a key sign of debt bondage, an indicator of forced labor. 

  4. Workers and farmers have little input into certification standards and implementation. In most cases, standards are imposed onto farmers and workers by certification schemes with little or no input from those most impacted. Farmers and workers have the most knowledge about the difficulties they face in producing goods and should, at the very least, be consulted about standards that impact them. Of the major certifiers, only Fairtrade International includes former or current workers on its board; in contrast, Rainforest Alliance’s and Fair Trade USA’s boards are made up of corporate executives.


Social auditing, including certification schemes, has been shown to fail – over and over and over again. The auditing industry has grown and become quite profitable, yet workers – and especially those who are most vulnerable – have gained little. Until we center workers throughout the entire process – which necessitates allowing workers to lead it – the vast majority of social and environmental certifications will remain a sham, and thus a profit tool for corporations intent on maintaining their same supply chain practices while purporting to answer consumer demands for change. 

Allie Brudney and Reynolds Taylor are Staff Attorneys at Corporate Accountability Lab.

Tagged: Combating Forced Labor