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Sustainability certification may be failing farmers and the environment

Coffee Farmer in Uganda

Sustainably certified produce is not fulfilling its original aim of lifting marginalised farmers out of poverty, says new study. Photograph: Getty


Powered by article titled “Sustainability certification may be failing farmers and the environment” was written by Jo Confino, for on Thursday 30th January 2014 23.42 UTC

The production of certified sustainable agricultural products is booming and has broken out of being a niche player in global markets, but up to half fails to find buyers at a premium price and therefore gets sold off cheaply as a basic commodity, according to a new study.

Moreover, while certified produce is gaining market share, it is largely richer countries that are benefitting and the system is therefore not fulfilling its original ambition to lift marginalised farmers out of extreme poverty, concludes the State of Sustainability Initiatives (SSI) Review 2014.

The detailed review covers the most common standards, such as the Forest Stewardship Council and the Rainforest Alliance, across ten leading commodity sectors.

It claims that some newer certification initiatives, such as RTRS, RSPO, BCI, Bonsucro and 4C, have made sacrifices to labour and environment standards in order to scale up quickly. Some of these also contain few criteria related to economic sustainability, believing such benefits should automatically accrue.

Experts point to the 4C Association, which works in the coffee sector, as the best example of setting an intentionally lower level of requirements in order to build momentum.

However, the authors of the report say there needs to be a debate about the balance between scaling up and the risk of cynicism growing among consumers if certification standards are not seen to be robust.

Tensie Whelan, president of the certification body, Rainforest Alliance, said that there is always room for more standards that focus on different areas, and entry-level standards are fine as long as they are credible and play a role in helping producers and products journey toward higher standards of sustainability. She notes that the majority of coffee – more than 60% – still isn’t certified.

The SSI talks of “a long-term trend of declining depth of sustainability criteria coverage among voluntary standards over the past decade. This trend might be enabling more producers to enter sustainable supply chains, but also highlights the growing importance of answering questions related to the field-level impacts created by voluntary sustainability standards.”

The study also warns that developing countries should not put all their eggs in one basket by thinking certification is the panacea to all ills, and that they should continue to focus on other initiatives such as quality of produce, improving yields and social programmes.

Research from the report shows double and triple digit growth across the majority of certification schemes, with a total trade value of $36.1bn in 2012, although this would be far higher when it reaches the consumer market. It says the move towards mainstreaming sustainability standards is being led by demand from major companies isuch as Dole, Coca Cola, Tetley, Unilever, Hershey’s, Home Depot, Lowes, Starbucks, Nestlé, Mars and IKEA.

But there are particular challenges in areas like palm oil, with major markets such as China and India failing to prioritise sustainable production.

The average annual growth rate of certified production across all commodity sectors, excluding biofuels, was 41% in 2012, compared to a mere 2% in corresponding conventional commodity supplies. Sustainable palm oil showed the biggest growth, nearly doubling in 2012, followed by sugar (74%), cocoa (69%) and cotton (55%). In terms of global market penetration over the four years to 2012, coffee has shot up from 9% to 38%, cocoa from 3% to 22%, palm oil from 2% to 15% and tea has doubled to 6%.

“The reason why we’re seeing such significant growth in certification is because what the world’s doing is redesigning practices, which over the years have become unsustainable,” Whelan said.

The certification movement has moved beyond the initial stages, she said, and is currently in a cycle of proliferation before some certifications will inevitably fall out and the market will stabilize. The useful certifications will continue to improve and innovate by adding new standards for new challenges such as water usage and climate change, she added.


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