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Good time to push sustainability schemes

Good time to push sustainability schemes

Can voluntary certification schemes really play a “crucial role” in the food sector's progress towards 2030 Sustainable Development Goals? Maybe, but they have to keep up with the pioneers, says David Burrows.

“While ambitious sustainability goals and strategies at the individual company level remain vital, sector-wide transformation can only happen through the sort of collective action that credible standards encourage and enable,” their report reads.

It’s a bit early to assess progress towards the SDGs given that they were only published in September 2015, but this new report (“SDGs mean business: How credible standards can help companies deliver the 2030 Agenda”) is timely in two respects.

First, the 17 SDGs and 169 underlying targets are pretty ambitious, and the timescales are tight. Fifteen years (now 13, and counting) to end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture is a tough ask – and that’s one of the goals, many of which are food related.

Food sector steps up

Indeed, a report by consultants at DNVGL in September 2016 concluded that no single region will achieve the necessary progress towards all the goals. The scale of the challenge is such that urgent, extraordinary action is now needed.”The firm highlighted 17 companies “at the frontier of progress on the SDGs”; four of them are in the food sector – Danone, Marks & Spencer, Unilever and Cermaq.

DNVGL’s chief sustainability officer Bjørn Haugland believes the sector is moving in the right direction. In the past five years or so there has been a “mindset change in a lot of food and drink companies that are now taking a more holistic approach to sustainability, including social and financial aspects”, he explained to me. “This mindset change is not only seen [in] large organisations with a clear sustainability strategy. It is also something that smaller and medium enterprises are starting to realise,” he added.

Globescan research last year found that almost one in three businesses are using the SDGs to set corporate targets. Indeed, Haugland said the 17 pioneers from his report are not the only leaders. “We could have found 17 others, and another 17,” he explained. “But there are many companies lagging.”

The ISEAL-WWF report also picks up on this lack of sector-wide transformation. The authors use the Consumer Goods Forum’s 2010 pledge to achieve zero deforestation by 2020 as an example of how high-level ambitions can become stuck in the mud – the commitment has elevated the issue but getting a majority of members on board is proving more difficult.

There have been plenty of other recent reports showing slow progress on deforestation, which is where schemes for certified sustainable palm oil and responsibly-sourced soy can come to the fore – as the experts at WWF and ISEAL are quick to point out. “Credible standards provide guidance on what better production looks like in a concrete and practical way. In doing so, a standard typically contributes to a number of SDGs and at the same time brings real business benefit”.  

Of course, these schemes will only be effective if they are “credible”, which is the other reason this report is timely.

Time for promotion

Interest in the schemes is reportedly growing all the time – in terms of certificates issued, the 18 systems that are part of the ISEAL alliance grew by 16% between 2014-15 and 2015-16, for instance. Three-quarters of respondents to a survey last year also said there’s a strong business case for standards and understand that using standards brings about positive sustainability impacts.

However, it’s no secret that the past 12 months have been difficult for schemes like CSPO (IOI’s suspension and the child labour expose by Amnesty International), MSC (the leaked WWF report) and Fairtrade. No major brands have criticised the voluntary approach on which these models are based but some of the food industry’s “pioneers” (as DNVGL refer to them) are clearly keen to assess the merits of moving beyond certification.

This won’t happen overnight. But the recent change in the relationship between Mondelēz and Fairtrade – undoubtedly one of the ethical labelling world’s pin-up relationships – perhaps offers a glimpse into the future. Some of the reactions FoodNavigator gathered on the back of the RSPO’s recent impacts report also suggests firms are keen to move further and faster than some certification schemes are able.

And though it would be harsh to call the report this week a publicity stunt, it is in the interests of those behind the schemes to present them as credible solutions – and now more than ever. They are not the silver bullet (“other complementary approaches are needed”, admit WWF and ISEAL) but they are powerful brands in their own right and therefore live or die by their reputation.

I have no doubt that certification schemes will play a role in achieving the SDG targets, but there is an argument to say they don’t go far enough. The SDGs are extremely ambitious but more and more food firms are using them to develop their own 2030 commitments. Time may therefore be running out for the schemes to evolve and play the “crucial role” WWF and ISEAL suggest they will.

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