Low bar or high bar: scaling up while maintaining credibility

More and more we see a tension between the call to raise the bar of sustainability standards and the need to ensure they remain accessible to small holders and small and medium businesses.

This issue has moved to the forefront of the agenda as ISEAL and its members’ work has grown in emerging economies. In addressing this challenge we need to consider whether sustainability standards are accessible enough to the most marginalised producers, how standards fit with the needs of emerging markets and businesses and, most importantly, how standards can increase their accessibility without losing credibility.

Independence and integrity

Last month, at the ISEAL conference in Zürich, more than 80 people gathered to debate how we might reconcile these competing needs, while maintaining credibility. And, to consider the values that we need to hold on to as we scale up and improve our outreach.

The debate was opened by Piera Waibel, of Lindt & Sprüngli (International) AG, where she explained what credibility means for the company and the core values that underpin their approach. Waibel reinforced the importance of companies doing what they say they will do, ensuring they maintain integrity with the producers and others in the supply chain, and ensuring they are overseen through external assessments and public reporting. She also added that honesty and trust are the key; being open and honest about things that are not going so well.

Manfred Borer, who leads Swisscontact’s work in Indonesia, stressed that audits are essential for independent control and ensuring credibility, stating that the goal should be to improve the quality and ability of auditors. Borer emphasised that for quality control, involving farmers and working on the ground with them is essential for credibility – and this can only happen when you have full commitment from the companies in the supply chain.

Taking account of local context

Rainforest Alliance works closely with companies and producers both in established and emerging markets. Ana Paula Tavares of Rainforest Alliance emphasised that credibility is the most important asset of a sustainability standard. She explained that sustainability is not straightforward, it is a journey, and a process, and you need to bring in as many farmers, producers and stakeholders as possible into that journey to tackle the many issues. According to Tavares, relevance is an essential consideration in the credibility of a standard. This is the vision of the new Sustainable Agriculture Network standard, which she described as a continuous improvement approach with three performance levels.

China is a country where many organisations want to scale up their work. Junzuo Zhang, programme leader of the China-UK Collaboration on International Forest Investment and Trade (InFIT), described the core values of credibility as being multi-stakeholder, robustness and transparency. She explained the importance of local context, stating that the extent to which this can be achieved by standards in China depends very much on different perspectives, risks and challenges.

One size doesn’t fit all

Dafni Skalidou of University of East Anglia raised the question of what happens to producers who are not able to comply with the demands of western markets. This led to the concept of the sustainability journey being discussed further, as the group considered how you recognise commitment to meet the ‘high bar’ and the journey producers are taking; reinforcing the fact that attaining a standard or holding a label is not the end result – sustainability is the ultimate goal.

Taveres described how there isn’t a single mould for sustainability standards, explaining that to address the needs of small holders and provide accessibility, standards can create partnerships, working with traders and committed companies to bring in training and capacity building. Taveres made it clear that we can’t leave people behind, we really need to think about what we can do to bring them on the journey with us – helping producers to improve productivity and yield without negative impacts on biodiversity and livelihoods.

Applicability in the field

Based on Rosemary Addico’s work with Solidaridad West Africa for smallholders in Ghana, she believes, irrespective of high bar or low bar, the crux is applicability in the field and making sure there is support on the ground. Zhang, shared this view, she explained that political will and commitment to a high bar is a primary factor in China. Noting how China is opening up and developing with priorities like the Belt and Road initiative, Zhang explained that success is related to the extent that a standard builds in capacity and respects the local development context and the local culture or process.

The group was clear that no matter the context – mature market or emerging economy – for credibility the values of transparency, honesty, impact and relevance need to run through the entire system. As a movement we need to be honest about where the gap is and work together to close the gap – considering what is required in a particular region. The challenge is helping the low performers to improve without demotivating those at the top.

It seems that it’s less about choosing between a low bar and high bar. Standards can choose to keep the bar high but the journey needs to be more cost effective, empowering, participatory and transparent and whatever the level, the business case needs to be clear for the farmer.