Certification quagmire

Academic institutions could help consumers and promote sustainability by creating stronger and more reliable certification systems

Consumers who want to buy products that are produced responsibly can't check the factories or farms themselves—they rely on others to do it for them. For that, there are numerous organizations that work globally to inspect working conditions, examine environmental practices and ensure that living wages are paid to workers.

Unfortunately, there is often a tangle of competing systems and inconsistencies in verification procedures that make it hard for consumers—and even experts sometimes—to know if they are putting their purchasing power to work for the greater good. Sometimes certifying labels are even created by industry groups themselves, rather than impartial watchdogs.

Warrior Coffee is part of the Cultivation to Cup program, an ambitious project that combines responsible cultivation of great-tasting coffee and service learning to introduce students to issues related to the environment, agriculture and global trade. The long-term goal is to potentially use Cultivation to Cup as a model that could leverage the power of universities and researchers to create comprehensive certification systems that consumers can easily understand and trust.

"We want Cultivation to Cup to be an alternative label to Fair Trade certifications (which lack enforcement) using schemes that universities can uphold and check. Many of the current certification systems don't have teeth. Universities, with reputations to uphold and unique expertise could bring a lot to the table," says Caroline Payne, assistant professor of political science.

"Universities are full of very clever persons with all kinds of expertise. By putting colleges out there and promoting conservation, we can capitalize on the kind of research that individuals would be doing anyway out in the field," noted Stephen Madigosky, an environmental science professor at Widener University. "It would be great to form a consortium of these people to make a difference collectively."