Last week I was made aware of a web site called GuideGuide.com by Shawn Askinosie. The About page says that the site's mission is to "provide the worlds largest and most reliable source of information on the health, environmental, and social impacts of consumer products." (Note: Shawn objected to the ratings of his products and they are no longer on the GoodGuide web site, pending review I assume. The observations that follow are based on notes I took before the listings were removed.)
GoodGuide claims that they have more than 100,000 products in their database and an extensive roster of scientists who review every product (or, more likely, set the criteria for what "good" is and then computer programs parse data about the products and come up with ratings).
There is a problem, though with the ratings methodology, in my mind.
A great deal of weight for the environmental and social rankings is placed on the presence of eco-label certifications. No organic certification? Then you get bad environmental ranking. No social certification? Then you get bad society ranking. It doesn't matter what other programs a company might have in place. It doesn't matter what actual benefit a company delivers to its suppliers.
All that matters is the certifications.
If there is a chocolate company on the planet that - measured by dollar of revenue or per employee - delivers more positive impact to the communities it works with than Askinosie, I'd like to know about it. I've traveled with Shawn on bean buying trips and knew about the way he wanted to do business before he made his first bar of chocolate. We've talked regularly since we first met in mid-2005 about how he runs his business, influenced by Jack Stack's A Stake in the Outcomeand his practice of open-book accounting and profit sharing with the communities he buys from. Shawn takes personal responsibility for doing what he knows to be the right thing to do.
Let's take a chocolate company that got higher Good Guide ratings, TCHO. One of the things that has never been clear (to me - and I know the founder and major funders) about TCHO is how closely the actual manufacturing processes match the claims on their web site. I am pretty confident that they have never manufactured any significant amount of product - from the bean - in the factory on the pier in San Francisco. They can't fire up their roaster and I don't know anyone who's seen the entire line in operation. Their TchoSource program is interesting, but it's meaningless unless they can stay in business - probably one of the reasons that the funders ousted founder Timothy Childs. They've always had a small lab producing their beta samples and pre-production runs so they can claim to be manufacturing bean-to-bar on the pier, but the quantities are not commercial quantities.
But TCHO has several products that are made with both FT and organic certified beans. They get great marks on the environmental and social scale, while those that are not get much lower marks (which is to be expected).
Askinosie uses packaging that is quite environmentally friendly. TCHO uses less environmentally friendly paperboard and gold foil imprinting for their boxes. But there is no place in the Good Guide methodology for any chance to think about the marketing messages and other aspects of the companies' businesses - like packaging and ethics - affect factors like environment and society.
Jif peanut butter got higher ratings than Askinosie. Is that a "good" thing?
The Good Guide health rating for chocolate is dominated by one factor - the saturated fat in chocolate. What the scientists fail to recognize is that the triglyceride structure of the saturated fat in chocolate makes it a "healthy" fat (like olive oil and coconut oil) and not a "bad" fat like saturated animal fats. (Specifically, "the nutritional value of the food, as characterized by a standard method of nutrient assessment called the Ratio of Recommended to Restricted Nutrients (RRR)." Easy to write a program to do that, hard to take into account differentiations that make a meaningful difference.)
While there are issues with the density of calories in chocolate and the percentage of calories that come from sweeteners, the Good Guide has no place in its ratings methodology for the growing science into the very real health benefits of chocolate: they make no meaningfully useful distinction between chocolate (i.e., a bar of chocolate from a craft producer) and candy (i.e., a Snickers bars) in their ratings.
Their shopping tips for buying chocolate bars are way too general on the issues of child and slave labor, entirely misrepresent issues in traceability, and confuse the need for fertilizer with the use of pesticides.
They also place way too much emphasis on certifications saying that, "Certifications ensure the chocolate has been produced under industry leading labor and environmental conditions." I BEG YOUR PARDON? You're confusing cacao growers and chocolate makers here in a way that is not defensible.
Which, for me, these issues make the entire Good Guide methodology for all products suspect. I can tell you that I will never be using their service and will never recommend it to anyone, either.
If that weren't enough, I received a confusing press release from a magazine called Organic Monitor over the weekend. Organic Monitor is hosting the Sustainable Foods Summit in San Francisco next week (January 17-18). I won't be attending as members of the press who are not employed by the media sponsors of the event must pay to attend (though the rate is discounted.)
In taking a look at the list of presentations one thing becomes instantly clear: There are no producers making presentations. The only people talking are the companies and organizations who have made millions of dollars successfully selling eco-labeling.
The absurdity of the situation was further highlighted in the press release, in which Organic Monitor posits that consumers are becoming disillusioned and confused by what organic certification really means and what the meaningful differences are between FLO Fairtrade, FTUSA Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, Utz, Fair for Life, and more.
Organic Monitor suggests that mobile apps that enable consumers to use QR (quick response) codes and other techniques to look up information about products as they are making their purchases and make better, more informed, decisions.
They point to Good Guide as being an exemplar of the way the industry seems to be going.
But wait. Don't the Good Guide ratings rely on the very eco-labels Organic Monitor predicts they are going to supplant?
What's an informed chocolate consumer supposed to do?
1) Buy from small producers who work you like and that you can get to know personally or through close friends and/or people you trust.
2) Don't blindly assume that because a product is organic means that it was produced in an environmentally sustainable fashion.
3) Don't assume that "Fair" trade means that smallholder farmers are treated fairly. Even when organized, growers lack the economic leverage to ensure they receive the benefits the fair trade certification process says that they are entitled to and that they have paid for. AND, remember, all of the "Fair" trade certifiers are non-profit organizations that rely heavily on industry support. Kraft pays dearly for the use of the Fairtrade label on their bars and probably pays nearly as much in licensing fees as it does in premiums. That is a fundamental conflict of interest that people blithely ignore - to the detriment of producers.
In other words - do your homework and develop the personal relationships necessary to understand what is really going on. Certification is a huge business with the backing of huge corporations. Follow the money. Who controls the economic leverage?
clay - http://www.thechocolatelife.com/clay/
updated by @clay: 04/10/15 11:52:34AM