Interest in understanding the impacts that sustainability standards have on the ground is growing in all sectors and amongst donors, businesses and other users of standards. Alongside this, high-quality, independent research is extremely valuable for informing us about how sustainability standards are experienced on the ground and how they can be improved to unlock more benefits for producers and workers, and their environments. But at present, there is little coordination in ongoing research efforts.
As part of the ISEAL-led project to Demonstrate and Improve Poverty Impacts (DIPI), ISEAL and a group of its agriculture and forestry members (Fairtrade International, Rainforest Alliance / Sustainable Agriculture Network, Forest Stewardship Council, 4C Association, Union for Ethical BioTrade, UTZ Certified and Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels) have begun to develop a shared research agenda for generating a better understanding around sustainability standards’ contribution to poverty reduction.
The objective is to drive cooperation between sustainability standards, researchers and other stakeholders around the information that is needed to support learning and improvement of sustainability standards. The research agenda can potentially provide guidance for ISEAL members as they build systems for monitoring and evaluating their impacts, and enable better coordination with researchers to get meaningful information about impacts.
We hope that this common agenda will be a building block for achieving greater efficiency among standards and a way to help them deliver long-term sustainability results.
Sustainability standards and poverty reduction
The research agenda focuses on the direct effects of sustainability standards on producers, workers and small enterprises in developing countries, and whether and how standards contribute to pro-poor development. The dimensions of rural poverty are many and equally complex are the pathways for breaking out of poverty. The agenda reflects agreement on the different areas that need to be explored to understand the potential associations with sustainability standards.
To understand the potential for impact we first need a clearer picture of the current reach of sustainability standards and the degree to which producers and workers are becoming certified and their level of poverty. More deeply, we must look at the experience of certified producers and enterprises, particularly the costs and benefits that drive their decisions to enter or leave certification programmes.
The research agenda also explores the unique added value that assurance processes (certification or verification of compliance with a standard) bring, for instance in providing an incentive to follow sustainable practices and stimulating more lasting benefits for producers than technical assistance can alone.
Pathways to poverty reduction
Building on the above questions, we are also hoping to more broadly assess cause-and-effect relationships that link standards with long-term impact results. ISEAL members have hypothesised a number of pathways in which compliance with sustainability standards is translated into improvements in well-being, including through better management of natural resources, stronger business resilience, and increased protection of labour rights.
The research agenda aims to test these ideas to see how standards actually deliver gains in social, political, environmental, human and economic capital For instance, a major motivator for becoming certified is the additional income this can provide, but we need to know more about the conditions under which this occurs.
While poverty has dimensions which are localised to individuals and households, it is also essential to analyse the situation at a community level. Thus ISEAL members would like to explore the effects of sustainability standards on the local communities where certified operations are located. Investment of revenues into community improvements and the spread of good practices to non-certified peers are among the community-based impacts that the research agenda addresses.
ISEAL will share this research agenda about poverty reduction with the research and the donor community in different forums to enhance high-quality and independent research about the impact of sustainability standards. ISEAL envisions that future efforts to develop shared research agendas will include other sectors and look beyond the direct effects of sustainability standards on certified entities to the effects on whole landscapes and supply chains.
This research agenda also has a central role in the DIPI project. The agenda has been one of the sources of inspiration to guide the selection of indicators for the field testing that is taking place in the next six months within the context of the DIPI project. One of the goals of the first phase of this project is to reach agreement on a common core set of indicators that will help demonstrate the extent to which standard systems are contributing to poverty reduction.
To download a summary of the Research Agenda click here
To learn more about the Demonstrating and Improving Poverty Impacts project, and receive access to the full research agenda, contact Marta Maireles, ISEAL’s Monitoring and Evaluation Coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org