International Project Sheds Light on Voluntary Sustainability Standards

Vivek Voora

Many consumers wonder how the food they are buying and eating is being produced, and whether the food production systems that we all rely on are degrading the environment or exploiting people. But voluntary sustainability standards (VSS), including organic, Fairtrade Alliance, Rainforest Alliance, and the Marine Stewardship Council, have been established to assure consumers that the food they are eating is better for the environment and producers. VSS have grown substantially over the last three decades, trying to take the mystery out of buying products that are environmentally sustainable and producer-friendly. Their numbers have grown so quickly that it is becoming increasingly difficult to understand exactly what benefits they provide.  

The State of Sustainability Initiatives (SSI), a project conducted by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, aims to shed light on VSS operating in the agricultural and fisheries sectors. Reports compiled by the SSI, Standards and the Green Economy, and Standards and the Blue Economy provide detailed information on the design characteristics and market performance of global VSS operating in a number of agricultural sectors, as well as capture fisheries and the aquaculture sectors. By looking at the design and operational characteristics of VSS, the report provides clarity on how they are configured to provide potential social, economic, and environmental benefits when implemented. Examining their market performance provides detail on where they are being produced, how they are capturing market share, and which opportunities might lie ahead for their expansion.

Overall, the reports provide a number of insights on VSS for broad audiences such as supply-chain decisionmakers, green procurement officers, government policymakers, and the general consumer. For example, VSS serving large mainstream markets tend to have more lenient requirements for producers to join their programs, while VSS that serve more niche markets tend to have more demanding requirements. This has resulted in VSS making trade-offs between having more potential benefits per unit of production and ensuring that program requirements remain accessible for a greater number of producers. On the market side, the coffee sector is poised to become the first 100-percent sustainable commodity, with 40 percent of global coffee production having reached standard compliance based on 2012 market data. Jason Potts, the lead author of the reports, also points out based on the market analysis that “the concentration of VSS-compliant production tends to occur in more developed economies, raising questions about their ability to reduce poverty where it is needed most.”

The research undertaken by the SSI aims to encourage VSS to fulfill their promise to shift food production systems towards ones that are better for the environment and producers while providing consumers with more clarity on the products they purchase and consume. The importance of VSS is supported by a recent study by the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs on the interlinkages between Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which found that SDG 12—Sustainable Consumption and Production—is the most interconnected with the targets of the seventeen other SDGs. For this reason, SDG 12 may have the greatest potential for enabling the fulfillment of all the SDGs. Clearly, VSS could play a pivotal role in enabling sustainable consumption and production if they result in actual benefits as opposed to empty promises. That is why ensuring that VSS provide better food production systems for current and future generations without eroding the environment and the people that support our food production systems is important business.