Ethical certification: imposition or support?



Increasing numbers of ethical certifications are being created to help consumers identify products that correspond to their values. These include fair trade certifications.

Certification bodies exercise their power in one of two ways on the actors working to become certified: normative or empowering.

Allison Marchildon, an applied ethics researcher at Université de Sherbrooke, interviewed various actors in the fair trade chain. The comments of certification bodies, non-government organizations promoting fair trade and, above all, producers themselves led her to observe that certification bodies exercise their power in one of two ways on the actors working to become certified: normative or empowering.

Normative tools serve to impose certain values and principles on producers and other actors seeking certification and to ensure that these are respected. It is primarily a question of awarding certification to those who work in accordance with these values, and refusing it to those who do not.  

On the other hand, an "empowerment" approach aims to guide and support actors seeking to obtain certification. Certification bodies provide them with tools to help them improve their practices, thereby creating interaction and establishing relationships with certified actors, particularly with producers, who in doing so gain more power in their transition to fair trade. 

Observing how power is distributed and exercised in fair trade certification processes helps to better compare and assess them. This exercise also highlights the potential of developing the powers of certified actors – especially producers – through an empowerment approach for the growth of fair trade.