2013-11-11

Co.Exist

A New Label Lets You Know How Much Social Justice Is In Your Shopping

Like fair-trade or organic, the Just certification informs consumers about the business practices of the companies that make what you buy. How much social justice have you bought today?

If you want to know about the nutritional value of the food you buy at the grocery store, you can find a nutrition label on the container or somewhere nearby. If you want to know how your potential purchase contributes to a more just and equal world, what do you look for?

That's the idea behind JUST, the first ever social justice label, a voluntary disclosure program consisting of 22 indicators with a simple one, two, or three star rating for each. The indicators are arranged into six broad areas measuring an organization’s contributions to a more just and equitable society: diversity, equity, safety, worker benefit, local benefit, and stewardship. The idea is, you can see, right in one place, how much social justice is contained within a product or service you’ve purchased.

Jason McLennan is CEO of the International Living Future Institute the group that came up with JUST. "There's still going to be a lot of people that don't care, just like consumers that don't care about trans-fats,” McLennan says, but he and his colleagues at ILFI are confident that there will be plenty that care enough to know and enough to make decisions based on that knowledge.

There's already been more early interest from businesses to participate in Just than ILFI can currently handle. "The early adopters so far have been those that are already doing good things. They're already leaders, and they're looking for a way to differentiate from their competitors,” McLennan says.

To date, one bank, two engineering firms, a small environmental nonprofit and ILFI itself have all gone through the Just labeling process. So it's not just designed for businesses. "If you have employees, you can participate in JUST,” McLennan says. Three more organizations were going through the Just labeling process at the time of writing this post.

JUST’s flexibility is crucial: ILFI envisions state and local governments requiring a Just label as part of all public procurements, potentially having massive reach into government contractors that include everyone from construction companies to nonprofit service providers in housing, education, or health care.

Like it or not, the era of consumption as a force for social change is here. Fair trade coffee is mainstream enough that Kelly Clarkson is now doing commercials for Green Mountain, a long-established fair trade coffee brand. But how much can we really rely on consumers to transform business practices?

“We usually rely much more on media attention and political pressure,” says Christopher Albin-Lackey, senior researcher for business and human rights at Human Rights Watch.

"I think there are some questions about how effective some of those initiatives are in actually identifying responsible versus irresponsible products and companies,” he adds. "I don’t think there’s actually been enough objective, credible research looking at the effectiveness of these initiatives.”

Over the next twelve to eighteen months, ILFI will run Just as an "open pilot," inviting feedback on indicators and potentially making adjustments on the fly even as organizations continue to apply for and receive their labels. In ILFI’s manual detailing the indicators there’s also a list of “organizations of repute” for each indicator, consisting of well-known and some not-so-well-known groups that are relevant experts in each area.

Some of the indicators are areas that social enterprises or other organizations may not have thought of as opportunities to show some social justice leadership. One PacificCoast Bank, an early adopter, established an animal welfare policy after going through the Just label process.

There are also a few indicators that are probably low-hanging fruit for many social enterprises; happiness, for example, has only two requirements per star level, and one of them is a two-question survey provided right in the Just manual.

The indicators also shed light on factors that are bigger than any one enterprise can address. From a lack of gender diversity at engineering firms, to lack of ethnic diversity at ILFI itself, the Just team has had to learn how to coach through disclosing weaknesses that may be linked to broader tendencies.

"This really is about a learning journey for all of us, as businesses or nonprofits or governments, or as consumers and citizens,” McLennan says. "Once we understand that, all of a sudden it's race to the top [of the indicators] as opposed to a race to the bottom.”

Others hope that learning journey eventually leads also to more political pressure on governments to do the right thing.

"I think the growing awareness on the part of consumers about these issues and the growing demand for products that are socially responsible is without question a very positive thing that should be encouraged and nurtured,” says Albin-Lackey. "The problem is, by itself, there’s only so far you can get with that.”

At the very least, there is some new evidence that new labeling techniques can shift consumers toward better choices. Gold star nutrition ratings are helping people make better decisions about what they buy at the grocery store. Maybe someday labels like Just will help make better decisions about how all that stuff gets there.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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