Article for Solidaridad (August 2018)

In the last decade, we have seen a spectacular increase in sustainability initiatives and Voluntary Sustainability Standards. A lot has been accomplished through the joint efforts of companies, governments, NGOs and research institutes. However, in many agricultural supply chains we still face a tremendous challenge to bring small producers up to the sustainability standards required by market stakeholders and consumers.

It is highly unlikely for us to achieve a 100% certified sustainable production [1]. Or to put it another way: according to a study by The State of Sustainable Markets [2], most agricultural products do not reach a level of certification that exceeds 15% of the certified area as per the Voluntary Sustainability Standards – VSS, despite years of hard work, investment and implementation. Based on more empirical data, we know that the percentage of VSS-certified/verified areas among small producers is even lower, and the degree of compliance with standards within this group is, for the most part, unknown or invisible.

This situation can be better envisioned by projecting it on an iceberg: you can see the tip, but you don’t know what lies beneath the surface. To put it in a supply chain perspective: market stakeholders can currently see the performance of suppliers that are certified by third parties, while the level of compliance and progress attained by small-scale suppliers – who are not certified or verified – is hardly visible.

In light of this situation, why not stop considering the compliance by small producers with Voluntary Sustainability Standards as a binary yes/no exercise? Why not map the non-certified/verified producers as per multiple levels and focus on more realistic goals for these types of suppliers, providing support and incentives in accordance with a more gradual roadmap toward excellence?

Most small-scale producers are not at the tip of the iceberg. These producers barely have the ability to adopt a certain number of sustainable practices each year, and it would take them years to undergo the final audit. The reasons for the lack of standard adoptions are many: lack of financial resources, limited levels of education, greater vulnerability to climate change and insufficient market incentives, among others. With this outlook, it is not always feasible for small producers to attain the certification/verification. Their highest performance potential may be lower, or it would take them many more years to fully comply with a specific Voluntary Sustainability Standard or a company’s sustainability policy.

Solidaridad has worked for many years to support the implementation of responsible practices by suppliers. As part of our work in Colombia, we discovered that a model of continuous improvement is usually more suitable for small producers to develop their full production and performance capabilities. By aiming toward a progressive improvement throughout time and offering personalized support in each stage of the producers’ learning curve, it is more likely for them to adopt better practices and make their businesses grow in accordance with their potential and resources.

With the purpose of assisting companies and producers in mapping the level of compliance with responsible practices, the Farming Solution tool was developed by and for sectors of different supply chains, such as sugar cane, palm oil, flowers, coffee, cacao and meat. This tool allows producers and processors not only to track their performance, but also establish realistic goals and prepare improvement plans for each step of the road toward a more sustainable production: close to, and beyond the levels of certification/verification. Farming Solution gives a higher visibility to the progress attained by non-certified/verified producers as time passes. In other words, it allows for the iceberg to be mapped, and for a roadmap to be delivered at every milestone.

[1] Certified by one of the Voluntary Sustainability Standards.

[2] Average area certified as per VSS out of the total banana tree area 6.9% (2015), Average area certified as per VSS out of the total sugar cane area 4.3% (2015), Average area certified as per VSS out of the total oil palm tree area 15% (2015). The exceptions are cacao, with an average area certified as per VSS out of the total area of 23% (2015), and coffee, with 34.1% (2015). Source: Julia Lernoud, Jason Potts, Gregory Sampson, Salvador Garibay, Matthew Lynch, Vivek Voora, Helga Willer and Joseph Wozniak (2017), The State of Sustainable Markets – Statistics and Emerging Trends 2017. ITC, Geneva.

Joel Brounen

Colombia office manager – Solidaridad Network

Share This