Measuring Sustainability: Two major studies on the impact of standards now out

This past week in Geneva saw the launch of The COSA Measuring Sustainability Report and the State of Sustainability Initiatives (SSI) Review 2014. Both reports are the culmination of years of research and look at the trade and impact of voluntary sustainability standards.

ISEAL welcomes the contributions of both reports to the growing body of evidence on international sustainability standards and their impacts globally. Credible, third-party research and analysis is essential for better understanding the social, environmental and economic changes to which standards are contributing and the improvements they need to make in order to be stronger tools for sustainable development.

COSA, or the Committee on Sustainability Assessment, has established itself as a leader over the years to drive the alignment of standards and certification initiatives, showing the potential of harmonising metrics. Their work to advance understanding in agriculture and develop indicators for social, environmental and economic sustainability that can be used widely have been of value for our poverty impacts project. COSA's global report helps us all see the forest for the trees, pulling together findings from a cross-section of cases to offer a generalised picture emerging about the impacts of standards systems. We appreciate that the report is appropriately modest, recognising that there are still limitations in our current capacity to translate the available information into strong conclusions. 

We also applaud the massive effort that was needed to pull together the SSI report, particularly the compilation of market data. ISEAL members depend on this type of information to understand where they stand and how standards and certification overall are faring in their market. The market data analysis also flags some important challenges for the standards movement, including the concern of supply outstripping demand in certain sectors and perhaps an overfocus of certification on strong export-oriented economies such as those in Latin America.

Below are some of the key findings from each report. Click here to read WWF's statement on the SSI 2014 Report.

The Committee on Sustainability Assessment (COSA) Measuring Sustainability Report

The report "illuminates the salient findings from nearly 18,000 surveys between 2009 to 2013 in Africa, Asia and Latin America for coffee and cocoa - two important commodities that are bellwethers for sustainability trends in other crops."

Click here to read the report or read below for some direct excerpts from the Executive Summary:

  • Farms that are part of a sustainability initiative (typically certification) are experiencing better economic performance compared to conventional and uncertified control farms.

  • Average net income per hectare, the single best measure of farm-level economic viability, was higher across many of the major certification initiatives observed, but not by very large margins.

  • Farmers participating in initiatives promoting sustainability tend to have more training and more diverse training on a variety of topics such as good agricultural practices and environmental stewardship.

  • The perception of producers in terms of their social situation, economic situation, and environmental situation was consistently higher for producers that were part of an initiative.

  • Key areas of work such as strengthening producer organizations, gender-oriented inclusion (training, credit, land tenure), or preparing the next generation of farmers, are often left untended.

  • [Farms that participate in sustainability initiatives ] are more likely to use soil and water conservation measures such as soil cover, contour planting and terracing, check dams, drainage channels, soil ridges around plants, and live fences.

SSI Review 2014, "Groundbreaking new study reports double-digit growth in market performance of eco-labels"

According to the report, it "provides a bird's eye view of market and performance trends of the 16 most prevalent standards initiatives across ten leading commodity sectors. The Review reveals double and triple digit growth across the majority of initiatives surveyed. Certified goods with an estimated trade value of US$31.6 billion in 2012, and a much higher market value, were studied."

Click here to read the report or read below for some direct excerpts from the press release:

  • The growing number of companies that have made commitments to source sustainably illustrates the critical role that the private sector plays in overall market growth of certified products
  • The average annual growth rate of certified production across all commodity sectors (excluding biofuels) in 2012 was a stunning 41%, outpacing growth of 2% in the corresponding conventional commodity markets.
  • Certified commodities with significant market share for sustainable production in 2012 include: coffee (38%); cocoa (22%); palm oil (15%) and tea (12%).
  • The Review reveals a persistent oversupply of standard-compliant products.
  • Voluntary sustainability standards have been successful in establishing more inclusive governance across global supply chains; third party monitoring as the minimum norm for conformity assessment; and compliance with core ILO labor standards as minimum requirements for market entry.
  • While a number of voluntary standards are making concerted efforts to ensure that smaller-scale producers have access to sustainable markets, most production for sustainable markets has been dominated by more advanced producing countries.