Elevating environmental governance with sustainability standards requires a mélange of political powerplay

The existence of good governance can be attributed to shared knowledge base and values, and a good environmental governance takes into account the role of all actors that have an impact and have been impacted by the environment. Although developing countries are the most vulnerable to environmental shocks, a shared knowledge considers the need for them to expand their agricultural supply chains in order to diversify their economy. So, how do we balance this double-edged sword?

Taking the last roundtable dialogue on Sustainability Standards and Environmental Concerns into consideration, much of the rationale behind governmental involvement is often associated with market failures, and that market-driven tools like sustainability standards are a form of market response to this tragedy. It is uncertain that this can be considered as an objective deliberation, but the certainty lies with the fact that despite the existence of many policy tools, the environmental problems do not seem to get any better.

The need to address environmental concerns

The problems we face today in relation to the environment are complex, and often involve many factors. Humans impact the environment in many ways: pollution, burning fossil fuels, cutting down rainforest, farming livestock, etc. Consequently, a wide range of environmental problems have emerged, including climate change, biodiversity loss, and deforestation, among others.

“Climate change has severely affected global food production by contributing to wider inequality gaps in food supply between developed and developing countries. It is no coincidence that many developing countries rely on agriculture for income and food security thus, making them vulnerable to climate shocks. Agriculture is the cause and the victim of some of the concerns of environmental crisis. The world needs rapid transition to sustainable pathways that would require a paradigm shift that deploy instruments such as sustainability standards to address these issues and that this should be done without compromising developing countries’ growth potential and welfare gains.” – Santiago Fernandez de Cordoba, UNCTAD Senior Economist and Coordinator of the United Nations Forum on Sustainability Standards (UNFSS).

Sustainability standards alone, are unlikely to solve environmental problems

Sustainability standards have gained importance in the realm of governance instruments but still requires more comprehensive insights into its effectiveness to pursue the larger Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The debate as to whether sustainability standards have an impact to reduce environmental challenges are still lacking evidence today.

Dr. Graeme Auld, Professor and Director of Carleton University´s School of Public Policy and Administration have expressed that Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS) alone, are unlikely to solve environmental problems, but their performance can be better or worse, and that better VSS performance are ought to be the goal.

The effects of these standards are always a product of interactions; and knowledge for the best part, is the key reason why informed dialogue and a wide array of academic research are crucial to culminate impartiality. Knowledge of VSS is highly varied and patchy according to Dr. Auld, and there are challenges of doing research that recognizes and accounts the differences and specifics. Thus, the impact of VSS lies upon its interactions among multi-stakeholders.

“Along with the rapid growth in their numbers (in reference to sustainability standards), there is an acute interest among producers, consumers, policy makers, academics and corporations about questions such as whether they are successful in achieving their purported sustainability objectives.” – Dr. Axel Marx, Professor and Deputy Director of the Leuven Institute for Global Governance Studies.

The impact and effectiveness of VSS can only be realized with the level of uptake

Dr. Eric Lambin, Professor at the University of Louvain and Stanford University, signified two essential points in order to enhance the impact of VSS; the need to expand the uptake of VSS, and the need to integrate VSS into public policies and company commitment. According to his study, there are differentiating outcomes in VSS uptake across commodities where the dilemma is that while some commodities are doing well in terms of level of uptake, the commodities that are contributing to deforestation are still lagging in their VSS uptake.

The term ´voluntary´ by definition, according to Dr. Lambin, can be associated with ´selection bias´, as they tend to be adopted mostly by progressive actors as market incentives while leaving behind the laggards who may not always have all the necessary means to adopt sustainable practices. For this reason, it becomes more significant to dive deeper into the policy ecosystem as a mélange of different interventions, from uplifting the laggards to the emulation and transfer of knowledge from the progressive actors.

Problem conceptions of environmental sustainability in policy setting

A more provocative impulse given by Dr. Benjamin Cashore, Li Ka Shing Professor in Public Management of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, have raised two key questions in the roundtable dialogue: Why do we keep inventing new ways for improving global approaches to sustainability standards and sustainable development? and, why, although all these policy tools are designed to improve “good governance” and solve critical challenges, still the environmental problems are worsening?

Investigating these questions have led Dr. Cashore to conclude that there is a disconnect between the proliferation of intervention and the problems we are trying to solve. He briefly introduced four types of historical policy approaches. Type 1 reinforces the Commons tragedy conceptions by emphasizing a type of collective action problem typically seen in the irrational over-use of resources (i.e. if you do not overharvest, your neighbor will). Type 2 reinforces the Optimization conception such that the “cost-benefit” analysis frames solutions such that policies would be designed based on willingness to pay for the benefit or to compensate those who take on greater risk for the benefit of the economy as a whole. Type 3 Compromise conceptions eschew cost-benefit analysis in favor of balance and compromise across different values (i.e the UN high-level deliberations since Brundtland was to balance environmental, social and economic goals) which includes the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. In contrast, Type 4 Prioritization conceptions, also known to be more rhetorical approach, identifies problems that for moral and scientific reasons, they cannot be ameliorated by subjecting them to policy recommendations that emerge from Type 3 Compromise or Type 2 optimization conceptions.

UNFSS takeaway

Against this backdrop, the question that is more significant to this dialogue is, how could sustainability standards break from the dilemma of previous historical policy attempts? The solution to this dilemma requires the clarity of the specific problems that needs to be addressed and devote explicit attention to conceivable ways it can be achieved.

The promotion of environmental governance requires the mobilization of consensus and formulating environmental policies that are aligned to the international environmental law and initiatives. There can only be so much for instruments like sustainability standards in its contribution to environmental amelioration as it still boils back down to the impact and effectiveness on the level of uptake. For impact and effectiveness to be realized, it requires larger uptake in terms of numbers and geographically.

Thus, the mélange of political powerplay simply denotes that multi-actor intervention should sit at the top of priorities with strategical approaches to elevate the uptake of sustainability standards. Echoing to the impulses provided by the speakers, environmental governance is technically and logically a goal to be achieved purposefully, without over-crowding its intentions with the socio-economic dimensions as it will and can typically allude trade-offs. However, this may be a challenge in many instances especially in relation to developing countries, where agriculture is the cause and the victim of climate change, but agriculture is also one of the main sources of income for the large population, who are often left behind with technological advances and other capacity aspects that seeks to reduce these environmental concerns.

Taking the example from the impulse givers, upscaling sustainable practices with VSS can be denoted in multi-actor activities where:

1- Governments in producing countries integrate sustainability standards into public policy.

2- Governments in consuming countries increase demand for eco-certified commodities.

3- Private companies integrate sustainability standards in their sourcing practices.

4- NGOs advocate for sustainability practices in supply chains.

5- Foundations (and other institutions) to raise awareness about sustainability standards.

All of which makes practical sense, but more focus should also be taken into consideration on the production side as integrating sustainability standards into public policy raises questions in terms of financial, information and infrastructural feasibility in developing countries. Structural support for farmers and producers can facilitate their uptake of sustainable practices.

These questions will be addressed in the next roundtable sessions which have been set to focus on the social and economic concerns with regards to mainstreaming sustainability standards. We invite you to join our mailing list to receive timely updates.

Missed the last roundtable on Sustainability Standards and Environmental Concerns? We have it all recorded for you here. Alternatively, you can also download the PowerPoint presentations here and the Summary of the webinar here. This roundtable series was proudly organized in partnership with Evidensia.

Further Readings – contributed by the impulse givers

  • Furumo P. and Lambin E.F., 2020. Scaling up zero-deforestation initiatives in Colombia through public-private partnerships, Global Environmental Change, 62: 102055.
  • Furumo P. and Lambin E.F., Policy sequencing to reduce deforestation, under review.
  • Lambin E.F., Kim H., Leape J., Lee K., 2020. Scaling up solutions for a sustainability transition, One Earth, July 24, 3 (1), 89-96.
  • Thorlakson T., de Zegher J. and Lambin E.F. 2018. Companies’ contribution to sustainability through global supply chains, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(9): 2072-2077.
  • Lambin E.F. and Thorlakson T. 2018. Sustainability standards: Interactions between private actors, civil society and governments, Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 43: 369-393.
  • von Essen M. and Lambin E.F., 2021. Jurisdictional approaches to sustainable resource use, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, doi:10.1002/fee.2299.
  • Pendrill, F., U. M. Persson, J. Godar, T. Kastner, D. Moran, S. Schmidt, and R. Wood (2019), ‘Agricultural and Forestry Trade Drives Large Share of Tropical Deforestation Emissions’, Global Environmental Change, 56, 1–1
  • Graeme Auld and Stefan Renckens 2021 “Private Sustainability Governance, the Global South and COVID-19: Are Changes to Audit Policies in light of the Pandemic Exacerbating Existing Inequalities?” World Development 139: 105314 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2020.105314
  • Graeme Auld, 2020 “Transforming Markets? Activists’ Strategic Engagement with Private Governance” Organization and Environment 33(1): 31-55 https://doi.org/10.1177/1086026618811299
  • Janina Grabs, Graeme Auld, and Benjamin Cashore 2020 “Private Regulation, Public Policy, and the Perils of Adverse Ontological Selection” Regulation & Governance https://doi.org/10.1111/rego.12354
  • Stefan Renckens and Graeme Auld, 2019 “Structure, Path Dependence, and Adaptation: North-South Imbalances in Transnational Private Fisheries Governance” Ecological Economics 106: 106422 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2019.106422
  • Graeme Auld and Benjamin Cashore, 2013 “Mixed Signals: NGO Campaigns and Non-State Market Driven (NSMD) Governance in an Export-Oriented Country” Canadian Public Policy 39(s2): 143-156
  • Graeme Auld and Gary Q. Bull, 2003 “The Institutional Design of Forest Certification Standards Initiatives and its Influence on the Role of Science: the Case of Forest Genetic Resources,” Journal of Environmental Management 69(1): 47-62
  • Cross-Sector Partnerships for NSMD Global Governance: Change Pathways & Strategic Implications 2016 cashore cross sector partnerships transformative change.pdf (dropbox.com)
  • Do eco-labels prevent deforestation? Lessons from non-state market driven governance in the soy, palm and cocoa sectors 2018 van der ven rothacker cashore certification deforestation.pdf (dropbox.com)
  • Forest certification: the challenge of measuring impacts 2018 van der Ven and Cashore Certification and Impacts.pdf (dropbox.com)
  • Does California need Delaware? Explaining Indonesian, Chinese and United States support for legality compliance of internationally traded products 2014 cashore stone does california need delaware rego12053.pdf (dropbox.com)
  • Can legality verification rescue global forest governance? Analyzing the potential of public and private policy intersection to ameliorate challenges in Southeast Asia 2012 Cashore Stone 2012Can legality verification rescue global forest governance.pdf (dropbox.com)
  • Do Private Regulations Ratchet up? How to distinguish types of regulatory stringency and patterns of change 2020 JudgeLordCashoreMcDermott2020.pdf (dropbox.com)

The United Nations Forum on Sustainability Standards (UNFSS) is a joint initiative of 5 UN Agencies (FAO, ITC, UNCTAD, UN Environment and UNIDO) that seeks to address these challenges. It is a demand-driven forum for intergovernmental actors to communicate among each other and engage with key target groups (producers, traders, consumers, standard-setters, certification-bodies, trade diplomats, relevant NGOs and researchers) to address their information needs and influence concerned stakeholders. It aims to provide impartial information, analysis, and discussions on VSS and their potential contribution to facilitate market access, strengthen public goods and achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Most importantly, the UNFSS focuses on potential trade or development obstacles VSS may create, with particular emphasis on their impact on SMEs and less developed countries.