Many 21st century consumers want to know whether manufacturers and retailers are dealing ethically. Checking for an organic or fair trade logo is often a first step. But do the costs of accreditation reap sufficient benefits for small producers, or would their money be better spent on talking directly to consumers? Bernice Hurst comments.

As long as they are legitimate, transparent and trustworthy, logos and insignia are important and more than superficial. More than wearing your heart on your sleeve or waving the flag to prove good intentions, recognisable symbols of verification can inspire loyalty and approval as well as sales.

Advocates of relevant associations would explain the virtues of participating in their schemes by pointing out that having a clearly visible and understandable symbol helps consumers recognise quality and value. Those ploughing their own furrow, as it were, cannot be verified. Therefore, it is implied, they cannot be entirely trusted. Some may apply standards equal to, if not better than, the accrediting organisations but how is a customer to know?

Meanwhile, critics point to paradoxes created by globalisation. While the British-based Soil Association is debating a disqualification of air-freighted food, others point out that trade is the best way to improve the fortunes of poverty-stricken farmers in developing countries. It is thanks to fair trade agreements that many are improving their standard of living, something that could not be achieved without an export market for their products.

There are questions, however, about whether consumer principles are more about politics than practicalities. Some might say it really is all about money. Richard English, fair trade policy manager for the charity Oxfam, maintains that, even if they dismiss non-governmental organisations, politicians and policymakers do listen to consumers.

BBC anchorman and patron of the Fairtrade Foundation, George Alagiah, believes that profit and principle can go together. He contends that large companies operating by fair trade principles can encourage farmers to increase their capacity and organise cooperatives that go beyond producing food to start improving their living and working conditions.

This is another area where many believe size matters. Critics say that big companies, by their very nature, cannot be entirely organic or ethical,and cannot maintain genuine relationships with farmers and farming. They stand accused of letting practices pervert idealists’ principles. Can giving confined cattle organic feed possibly be as good as letting them out to graze? Perhaps surprisingly, prominent ethical campaigner Dame Anita Roddick disagrees. “Big can also be fair,” she wrote in the UK Guardian ’s fair trade supplement in March 2007. “Business makes things happen.”

Size is also an important consideration for producers deciding how large they want their business to be and where to sell their products. This is truer for organic accreditation than fair trade. It is producers who decide on the importance of labelling output organic. For small businesses selling direct to the public through farmers’ markets or independent shops, quality can be explained face to face.

Small producers may see accreditation as a cost they can ill afford, not demonstrating an obvious return on investment especially when taking into account that a percentage inevitably goes to administration. That, plus the associated time and cost of bureaucracy makes some small producers decide that their products speak loudly enough, rendering an externally awarded logo superfluous. Accreditation doesn’t always bring in enough extra business to justify its cost.