Time for a serious rethink of sustainability standards to tackle the urgent climate challenges the world is facing

For many years I have worked with some of the world’s largest conservation bodies, businesses and other civil society organisations to develop sustainability standards for a wide range of globally traded commodities.

Many of these focus on specific sustainability challenges, such as animal welfare, global trade or organic standards. These schemes have done a fantastic job in raising consumer awareness of a whole host of sustainability issues, and in some cases have made an impact – like the highly recognisable Fairtrade mark from Fairtrade International which has improved the lives of millions of smallholder farmers.

At the same time, not all of these have brought the success they have strived for: many of these schemes provide a poor return on their millions of dollars of  investment, and are increasingly regarded as a “silver bullet” for some of the urgent challenges we face today. Instead of being viewed as one instrument in a toolbox of solutions, they have been viewed – mistakenly, in my view – as the toolbox itself.

More than 20 years ago, amid growing concern over the impact of overfishing on the marine environment and on seafood supplies, Unilever and WWF came together to form what we now know as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). Businesses have used this market-driven model as a way of tackling a B whole host of sustainability challenges. Today, there are hundreds of schemes, each with their own set of criteria and verification standards, which are starting to confuse both consumers and producers.

The impact of many schemes is also increasingly dubious: on the one hand we can monitor the number of farmers involved, but on the other the results are less clear – percentage of rainforest preserved, species saved from extinction, livelihoods improved or significant improvements in water quality and quantity. In fact, the evidence increasingly points the opposite way, towards continued environmental degradation and social injustice.

So we need to look at the bigger picture and move beyond the farm-by- farm approach to sustainability. That way we can ensure that we achieve the ultimate goal of making all products sustainable and fair. In other words, to ensure that there are only sustainable choices on shop shelves so that consumers don’t have to choose between different products with varying degrees of sustainability.

How do we get to that point? I don’t have all the answers – no one does. But now is the time to review the impact of certification and explore a more holistic approach that goes beyond individual certification marks and logos so we can get to every consumer and every farmer, no matter how small or large.

What I would love to see is more of these certification schemes collaborating more to consolidate their criteria in order to create a comprehensive standard that all retail products should measure up to. Working together will allow these separate schemes to address a wider spectrum of sustainable development needs, as well as maximise their collective impact. Such collaboration won’t be easy – many certification schemes have become multimillion-pound brands in themselves – but it is necessary and timely.

We also need to move beyond a solely market-based certification and standards approach. For example, we need to create tailored landscape- based solutions in specific geographies, work with or lobby policymakers in producer countries, and look at alternative business models or products. Taking a system approach to transforming our products will not only make the products we buy more “fair”, they will also help to improve resilience and empower communities, and reconnect consumers with the people who produce their food, and how it is produced.

As we celebrate 20 years of the Marine Stewardship Council, grapple with the question of how to limit global warming to 1.5°C and explore how we deliver the ambitions of the new Sustainable Development Goals, now is the time to reflect on how we can move beyond a certification-based approach, and step up the action.

Mark Driscoll is head of food at Forum for the Future

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