By now most everyone is familiar with eco-certifications of some kind: USDA Organic, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), and Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM are just a few we have been living with for at least a decade. But as these types of sustainability initiatives proliferate, expanding to new commodities and having larger impacts on supply chains and consumer demand, are they actually accomplishing their objectives? In other words, are they really setting new benchmarks for sustainability, or do we need to go beyond certifications and standards to truly create sustainable landscapes?
In my work here at EcoAgriculture Partners, I spend a large percentage of my time trying to answer exactly that question. Recently, it is a question we find businesses, eco-standard certification bodies, donors and conservation organizations are asking frequently as well. In researching our 2012 report “Assessing the Ecological Impacts of Eco-Certification and Standards,” Jeff Milder, Alexandra Class and I heard from these groups involved at all stages along agricultural supply chains. For the private sector, getting hard data on the impacts of eco-standards and certifications is critical to justify investments. This data also affects their decisions regarding sustainable sourcing commitments and participation in additional commodity certification programs. Additionally, increasing regulatory pressure, for example European Union limits for acceptable greenhouse gas emissions of imported livestock feed, is increasing the urgency for eco-standards to account for their impact with hard data. For conservation practitioners, understanding the best management practices implemented by farming communities is critical to understanding progress towards goals for biodiversity preservation and enhanced livelihoods. Despite the boom of eco-certification (nearly $100bn worth of the global commodities market in 2012, projected to grow to $200bn by 2020), the need to demonstrate their value proposition is still pressing.
To response to this challenge, as part of the Landscapes for People, Food and Nature Initiative, EcoAgriculture Partners led the development of Reducing Risk: Landscape Approaches to Sustainable Sourcing. This new report, due out in full next week, presents a clear description of the value proposition of the integrated landscape approach through the preparation of three case studies of businesses partnering with conservation NGOs and government to undertake landscape scale sustainability initiatives. Two of these initiatives include eco-certification as a key component, but in both cases the study demonstrated the value to business, community and nature of landscape-scale activities that went beyond certification requirements. Our findings suggest that the bottom line benefits to businesses of this approach include increased water security, product quality improvement, reputational benefits, climate variability risk mitigation, and improved supply chain management.
We are working hard to improve the performance of eco-standards in many other ways as well. We recently increased our engagement, as the Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) Unit, with the Biodiversity and Agricultural Commodities Program (BACP). Our experience supporting implementers of eco-certification impact assessments and M&E systems in the field are central to our role in that program. My work with project managers from NGOs working in Southeast Asia, West Africa and Brazil supports the development of M&E methods and tools that are comprehensive, yet cost-effective and operational, in the most challenging of environments.
Our engagement with standard setting bodies, such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RPSO) and Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS) through BACP, is focused on strengthening M&E systems and improving biodiversity impact assessment at multiple-scales (i.e. field to landscape) within the standard. Eco-certifications, such as RSPO, utilizing the High Conservation Value approach serve as a mode for companies to engage “beyond the farm” with local stakeholders in integrated landscape management. We see, as do many eco-standard participants, that the risks and opportunities driving adoption of sustainability practices are shared across sectors and stakeholders within a landscape. Determining how to design eco-certification programs that encourage cross-sectoral and participatory decision-making and are grounded in interdisciplinary science is difficult. We anticipate that it is this next big step, of deeper integration and collaboration, that business and civil society must face together to create resilient environmentally and socially sustainable communities, supply chains and ecosystems.