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Rio + 20 Earth Summit: 436 Visions of Sustainability, At Least

Rio de Janeiro – How many definitions are there to the concept of sustainable development? At least 436, according to the panel on assessing sustainability at the Rio + 20 Corporate Sustainability Forum.  More on that shortly.

Business wants to get in on the business of sustainable development big time. The official United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development doesn’t kick off until the end of next week. But there’s plenty going on in and around Rio de Janeiro now. I spent the day hanging out in meeting rooms at the elegant beachfront Windsor Barra Hotel where a couple of thousand businesspeople, government officials, activists, and UN bureaucrats have gathered with the goal of somehow making money out of “sustainability.”

The figure for 436 different definitions and visions of sustainable development comes from the private voluntary social and environmental product labeling schemes identified by the Committee on Sustainability Assessment (COSA) have identified. That number includes labels like Fairtrade,Rainforest Alliance, UTZ, and Marine Stewardship Council and so forth. Other panelists would later ratchet that number to more than 800 just in Europe alone.

The head of COSA is Daniele Giovannucci who declared at a panel discussion devoted to Making Sustainability Standards Work for those Most in Need that the goal of COSA is to set up a consistent set of standards and indicators that can be used to assess the impact of the labels – are they actually accomplishing what they claim to be doing? Even if a person thinks that some of the goals of the certifying groups are silly, checking up on them is a laudable enterprise. His organization aims to gather evidence for effectiveness using 135 different indicators of economic, social, and environmental effects. The group has sought the advice of hundreds of groups ranging from major food companies to radical leftwing NGOs. Giovannucci declared, “If we are going to drive sustainability, we can’t drive it from a charitable or donor perspective; it must be driven through markets.”

Giovannucci illustrated COSA’s goals by citing a study looking at a couple of eco-labeling schemes applied to coffee and cacao production. Why? Because these export crops appear to be moving faster toward sustainable production than crops that are not exported. COSA analyzed more than 5,000 farms in ten developing countries measuring various aspects and consequences of certified versus uncertified production, including yields, income, adoption of conservation measures, and  even the schooling of children.

For example, the COSA researchers looked at coffee yields under various labeling schemes. Giovannucci said that he was surprised that the researchers found that certified yields were generally higher than uncertified yields, e.g., Organic + 5 percent, UTZ +32 percent, Starbucks + 18 percent, Rainforest Alliance + 15 percent, and Fairtrade + 13 percent, for an average +17 percent  over uncertified production. He speculated that certification training of farmers might have introduced better management practices. However, Giovannucci did note that between 2009 and 2011, the differences in yield between certified and uncertified were declining. The researchers had no explanation.

Coffee certification also tended to increase farm incomes, raising them +35 percent in Colombia, but falling -1 percent in Mexico. In addition, certification raised the chances that farm kids were in grades appropriate for their ages, up 9 percent in Colombia (which is already fairly high) and up 254 percent in Tanzania.

One intriguing finding was that when COSA researchers measured how income affected environmental conditions in and around the coffee farms, they were surprised to find that increased income resulted in worse conditions. Giovannucci speculated that incomes between $2,000 and $10,000 per year are not yet high enough for farmers to prioritize environmental improvements.

I asked Giovannucci later if the certifiers liked being checked on by COSA. He observed in one instance that COSA researchers had discovered that in one country a specific certification scheme had increased incomes and yields, yet in a neighboring country certified yields and incomes were 30 percent lower than uncertified yields. “They do not want to hear that,” he said.

The result of the proliferation of hundreds of labels, codes and audits, according to Robert Skidmore from the United Nations International Trade Center, is that “standard fatigue is developing” among producers and consumers.  His group has set up a database looking at 75 standards, codes, and auditsbased on a framework of 200 criteria. The idea is to make it easy for producers and businesses to find background information on what is involved in implementing each scheme.