Beyond certification: the next step for sustainable supply chains

Supply chains are complicated and none more so than those of a retailer like M&S with our thousands of food, home, clothing and beauty products.

Beyond our product suppliers are many processors, traders, ingredient manufacturers, wholesalers and farmers who we need to support our sustainability ambitions.

Certification has been the traditional approach to managing these complex supply chains and we remain a huge supporter of its strengths: multi-stakeholder governance; transparency; independent verification; and third party chain of custody.

However certification has to improve. ISEAL’s Credibility Principles are helping to drive consistency, efficiency and technology across multiple different standards. But most sustainability standards are not set up to drive scale change in a way that would allow all the world’s output of a commodity or all of a supermarket’s products to be certified.

To achieve this level of scale change we need a new way of working. One that links markets (developed and developing); producers (big and small); policy makers, civil society and campaigners to deliver a whole landscape approach to managing commodity production.

Let me illustrate below through a few practical examples we’re involved with how this might happen.

Lyme Bay Fisheries and Conservation Reserve Project

Small-scale fishermen can be one of the most difficult groups to engage in conservation activities. Decades of being at the sharp end of policies to reduce fishing effort; a perception that legislators favour bigger operators; and a deeply embedded culture of independence (an essential attribute when your life is spent on small vessels in open seas!) have made many resistant to change.

We’ve been supporting a project at Lyme Bay in the South of England that seeks to engage these small scale fishermen in managing the whole marine ecosystem in the area. Led by the Blue Marine Foundation it puts fishermen at the heart of decision making from the beginning. This means they were willing to listen to regulators, marine conservation organisations and academics, and they were willing to be open about their own practices and what needed to change.

They developed and implemented their own Code of Conduct. They adopted vessel monitoring systems to verify where and how they fish. They undertook Responsible Fishing Scheme training and certification. They looked at the market and how to optimise their catch value, and bought ice machines and introduced quality standards. The local enforcement agencies sought feedback from the fishermen on the effectiveness and practicality of their proposals. As a result both the unique reef features of Lyme Bay and the future of the small fishing fleet are more secure.

Amazon Moratorium

In 2006 Greenpeace campaign ‘Eating up the Amazon’ brought to the world’s attention the devastating impact of soy expansion on the Amazon. It showed the connection between the soybean industry and deforestation. Within weeks the main trade associations declared a moratorium on deforestation, pledging not to buy soy produced on lands deforested after June 2006.

The Moratorium is still in place and statistics demonstrate its success. Despite soy prices rising to record highs since 2007, tropical forest clearing for soybeans has declined and deforestation has been reduced substantially. By 2011 only 0.25% of deforested land h been planted with soy since the moratorium began, only 0.04% of the total soy area in Brazil.

To achieve this required collaboration on an unprecedented scale. The government provided remote sensing data so deforestation maps could be overlaid with land ownership maps, showing which farms were causing deforestation. McDonald’s (the world’s biggest beef user) relationship with Cargill (world’s biggest soya producer) combined with the latter’s role as the major buyer in the region created a market environment that incentivised good behaviour. Geographical remoteness was an unusual advantage as it meant that the only route to export markets was via Cargill’s port at Santarem.

Supported by a broad coalition of European buyers, including M&S, the Moratorium set the standard for Brazilian soy imports to the EU. Brazilian oilseed trade associations were instrumental in acting as brokers in the process, and Greenpeace provided both on the ground technical support and a watchful eye to ensure the integrity of the arrangement was robustly maintained.

Water Stewardship in the Lake Naivasha region

Lake Naivasha is a unique natural, social and business environment hosting 70% of Kenya’s cut flower export business, geothermal power generation, tourism, fishing, smallholder agriculture and an expanding population. But the Basin also has poor water data, challenges in public water governance, a growing population and persistently high levels of poverty which together make the sustainable use of water difficult to achieve.

Research told us our suppliers were efficient and responsible water users but that further improvements were needed to protect the wider water basin. A research team worked closely with farm managers, Kenyan institutions and local experts to assess what worked well and what needed strengthening.

Three case studies, the Amazon, Kenya and the South Coast of England. Different challenges, politics and of course geographic scale but they show some common themes. Firstly the only credible long term solution for marketplaces defined by millions of different products and supply chain linkages is robust, jurisdictional landscape based regulation.

Of course business can and should use certification to support this approach but ultimately a strong public approach to regulation not only has a greater democratic mandate but is also more efficient than trying to ‘privately regulate’ millions of different products and raw materials. Put simplistically a business wants to be able to say ‘all our soya comes from Brazil which has a strong approach to preventing deforestation and we don’t need to micro-manage every kg of soya from there and the millions of animals and products it ends up in’.

Secondly all three case studies show what a difference true collaboration can make. Collaboration based on equality, respect and a willingness to listen. Finally each has spawned practical solutions from fishing nets to satellite imaging of deforestation to water conservation.

Yes business needs to scale certification, improve its efficiency and prove better the outcomes it delivers but it must also see the bigger picture that robust global, national and regional governance is the true endpoint morally and financially.

This article is part of a series being run by Olam. The series features inspiring individuals writing on a range of topics within the transcending boundaries theme, exploring how we can go beyond expectations to tackle some of the issues facing the next generation such as climate change, food security and population growth. The full series can be viewed here.