Assessing Sustainability Standards

One of the most pressing conservation challenges facing our global society is how to meet the growing human demand for food, fuel, and fiber while sustaining environmental services and biodiversity within the earth’s capacity.


THE CHALLENGE – EFFECTIVENESS, LIMITS AND UNMET OPPORTUNITIES OF CERTIFICATION ARE NOT KNOWN

One of the most pressing conservation challenges facing our global society is how to meet the growing human demand for food, fuel, and fiber while sustaining environmental services and biodiversity within the earth’s capacity.

The so-called soft commodities – agriculture, forest products and seafood – are responsible for feeding and clothing the world. They generate jobs and sustain growth. While their importance is clear, their impacts on the natural environment and surrounding communities is profound. From habitat conversion and soil erosion to pollution of soil and water, the soft-commodities significantly degrade the services produced by nature.

To address this challenge, WWF and other NGOs have made significant investments in developing and promoting the adoption of certification standards designed to increase the sustainability of agricultural, forest and seafood commodity production across the world. WWF has concentrated on 15 commodities it has judged to have the greatest impacts on biodiversity, water and climate stability. Taken together, these priority commodities include the five largest drivers of deforestation, the main sources of greenhouse-gas emissions from land use, and the most important fisheries for aquatic biodiversity and food supply.

Certification is indeed one of the most widely used tools. Yet its effectiveness, limits and unmet opportunities are not clear, and are likely to vary significantly across commodities, geographies, producer and consumer cultures and conditions, and supply chains.

THE RESPONSE – A GLOBAL EMPIRICALLY-BASED MODEL TO QUANTIFY THE POTENTIAL IMPACT OF THESE STANDARDS ON AGRICULTURAL YIELDS AND THE PROVISION OF ECOSYSTEM

To better understand the effectiveness, limits and unmet opportunities of certification, the project is developing and applying biophysical models based from empirical data to map and quantify the potential impact of these standards on agricultural yields and the provision of ecosystem services. In addition, economic models based also from empirical data will allow mapping and quantifying the cost and return of adopting standards. Both models are developed globally taking the context specificity of standards and geographies. We will then evaluate the net change in benefits using novel scenarios of alternative futures informed by relevant policy considerations.

Having a clear understanding of how the implementation of sustainability standards can help commodities markets meet our growing food, fiber, and fuel needs while minimizing impacts on the environment, is a critical next step in charting a global future that can meet these interconnected challenges.

THE ENGAGEMENT – GETTING THE CORPORATE SECTOR INVOLVED IN CERTIFICATION TO PARTICIPATE IN THE RESEARCH

The Luc Hoffmann Institute is teaming up with scientists from WWF-US, WWF Market Transformation Initiative and at the University of Minnesota to develop and apply a framework for assessing the benefits and costs of large-scale adoption of commodity standards in close consultation with a collaborative research team composed of WWF national offices working on certification issues (WWF-Cameroon, WWF-Pakistan, WWF-Brazil, WWF-Indonesia, WWF-US), academic experts (University of Minnesota, Bowdoin College, Stanford University), NGOs and IGOs (ISEAL, IFC, IUCN) and corporate (Coca- Cola company, Unilever).

RESEARCH OUTPUTS

  • The first research focus will be on the methodology, linking ecosystem services, agricultural yields and implementation of sustainability standards results;
  • The second focus will be on quantifying the cost and return of adopting standards;
  • A third emphasis will describe the research findings when running the biophysical model under different sustainability standard (starting with Bonsucro, moving to RSPO etc) and scenarios (Business-as-usual, Adoption of standards globally to meet future demand, Adoption of standards in WWF priority areas, Business supply chain adoption of commodity standard).

THE IMPACT

We will develop a quantitative understanding of the expected benefits and costs of implementing sustainability standards by commodity at the global and regional scale. This can contribute to the business case for certification.

The project outputs will be used by the WWF network, standard bodies, investors, businesses, and governments to compare benefits and cost of the adoption of different standards across different regions, working towards more evidence-based approaches for improved certification practices and implementation.

The project will also serve as a methodological framework to improve sustainability standards performance and build capacity in broader organisations for better implementation.

PROJECT PARTNERS

WWF-US, WWF-Netherlands National, WWF Market Transformation Initiative and University of Minnesota. The collaborative research team also includes the Coca-Cola Company, International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labelling Alliance (ISEAL Alliance) and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Project Leadership

Derric Pennington (WWF-US); Steve Polasky, Paul West, Jamie Gerber, Kim Carlson (University of Minnesota); Margaret Arbuthnot (WWF Market Transformation Initiative); Malika Virah-Sawmy (Luc Hoffmann Institute) and William Kolby Smith (Luc Hoffmann Institute Fellow).

“The opportunities for voluntary standards to enable transformational change across major mainstream markets are now well established and continue
to grow, but that taking full advantage of them will require a better understanding of field-level impacts.”

Potts et al. (2014) The State of Sustainability Initiatives Review

Main image: A view over the palm oil plantation, Musim Mas, Riau, Sumatra. The palm oil plantation is owned by the Indonesian palm oil producer Musim Mas and has been certified according to RSPO criteria for sustainable palm oil production. Photo © James Morgan / WWF-International

Chris JohnsonAssessing Sustainability Standards