Economic growth alone is not enough to ensure equity, social progress and to eradicate poverty. Up till today, hazardous workplaces continue to exist, and discrimination remains a challenge. According to the latest global estimates, 152 million children are in child labor and 25 million adults and children are in forced labor.
Improving workplace practices beyond legal compliance fosters sustainability. It can as well result in higher morale and job satisfaction, and foster creativity and innovation. In the last decades, products certified according to their environmental and social sustainability have become an important feature of production, trade and consumption.
The relevance of Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS) is reflected by a growing literature across social sciences, in particular economics and political science. Given their environmental, social, and economic potential impacts, sustainability standards may be expected to play an increasingly important role in complementing governments’ efforts towards achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
VSS specify requirements that cover a wide range of environmental and socio-economic issues. On the social dimension, VSS cover issues related to improved working conditions, labor rights and safety, fair prices and benefit sharing, fair wages, community development, gender equality, and the promotion of responsible consumption and production and others. Hypothetically, the compliance with these requirements leads to improved social sustainability in terms of empowerment and inclusion of smallholders in the supply chains, food security, improved livelihood, job creation and poverty alleviation, among others.
A Dialogue on VSS and Social Concerns
The UNFSS´s Academic Advisory Council (AAC), in partnership with the Evidensia, will be hosting the 2nd AAC Roundtable Series virtually on Sustainability Standards and Social Concerns on 4th May 2021, 14h-15h30 (CET).
This dialogue will help to provide inputs in developing a common foundation upon which the discussion is compounded with the following questions:
- What is the role of certification in promoting sustainable livelihood of producers, bridging living income gap for small-scale producers, improving work conditions and assisting in community development? Are VSS conditioned to improving social outcomes for smallholder farmers?
- Given that the cost of certification is a significant barrier to VSS compliant markets, is certification a double-edged sword that makes the vulnerable groups even more vulnerable?
- What are the challenges of doing research that recognizes and accounts for differences and specifics, while offering general lessons on the social sustainability impact of VSS? And how to overcome these challenges?
Why this dialogue?
Various studies and reports have attempted to investigate the on-ground socio-economic and environmental impacts of VSS. Pointing to the most relevant social components of VSS, the evidence does not always resemble the theory and/or meet the expectations.
- A systematic review of agricultural VSS in developing countries finds evidence that certification leads to higher product prices. Other studies suggest that broader market dynamics and other Institutional factors might have a higher impact on the price received than VSS. Moreover, although some studies confirm the price premium impact of VSS, they find inconclusive evidence for household incomes and improved wages for farmworkers.
- In terms of improved work conditions, a common finding in studies that report on social impacts is that workers receive more training on health and safety issues. For example, a study finds that workers at farms in Kenya that are certified by GlobalGAP, are better trained but find no significant difference in workers’ incomes or health. Other study states that the employment conditions have improved at certified firms compared with other firms in Senegal. On the other hand, the effects of certification on women’s empowerment are far from clear-cut.
- Although household food security is not an explicit criterion for VSS, there are some evidence to support the assertion that VSS can often contribute indirectly to household food security and equality in access to food in two ways: (i) by enabling food security through sustainable production practices that contribute to a diverse and nutritional diet and (ii) by potentially contributing to higher incomes generated from certification.
- Taking forest certification as an example, some studies focused on the degree to which they transform social relations. These studies seem to suggest that forest certification holds potentials to integrate small holders in transnational commodity chains and empower them. However, this assessment is not shared by everyone in the sense that several authors point to the difficulties small-scale operators are confronted with in the context of the certification process.
- Seeking certification is also not a viable strategy for all segments of smallholder producers. Smallholders who are very poor (in terms of finances, land, labor, skills and other resources) have trouble getting certified without external assistance and support.
Assessing the link between VSS and social sustainability is a complex process. Thus, it is not surprising that the evidence in hand is case specific, inconclusive and does not point largely towards a specific direction.
Meet the Speakers
Elizabeth A. Bennett is a Research Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights at the Harvard Kennedy School (Cambridge, MA, US) and the Joseph M. Ha Associate Professor of International Affairs at Lewis & Clark College (Portland, Oregon, US). Her research examines living wages and inclusive governance in the context of voluntary sustainability certifications. Elizabeth is internationally recognized for her expertise on labor exploitation in globalized supply chains. In 2020 she was named a Carr Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.
Verena Bitzer is an interdisciplinary social scientist with Maastricht University (ICIS) in the Netherlands, who helps create sustainable, rural livelihoods in developing economies. Her work focuses on making value chains, the delivery of agricultural services and (agri-)business models more inclusive and empowering for people working in these sectors.
Verena’s key fields of expertise include: Inclusive business, corporate social responsibility and sustainability (standards), value chain collaboration and public-private partnerships, food security and inclusive rural transformation, livelihood diversification and innovation in service delivery models.
Miet Maertens is professor of agricultural and development economics at the Department of Bio-economics, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences.
She holds Masters degrees in economics and bioscience engineering from KU Leuven, and a PhD in agricultural economics from Georg-August University in Goettingen.
In October 2011, she was appointed as ombudsperson for doctoral students within the Science, Engineering & Technology Group.