The Circular Economy: Can Voluntary Sustainability Standards play a role in bidding adieu to the ‘take, make, waste’ model?

The last three decades have witnessed a worsening of the world’s environmental problems. The global use of natural resources has more than tripled since 1970 and continues to grow, pushing climate stability and ecosystems worldwide to the limits of their resilience. This reflects a pertinent need to shift towards sustainable consumption and production pathways. But how can we achieve that? A circular economy might provide some solutions.

While there is no singular definition of a circular economy, it most widely refers to replacing the make–dispose model of linear production by narrowing, closing, slowing and regenerating material flow loops. A circular economy presents a visionary and proactive message, but there are debates around its concepts, complexity of application, and whether it promotes an “alternative consumer culture”. A survey done by Chatham House and UNIDO indicated that the most significant challenges to implementing a circular economy in developing countries are expected to be limited institutional capacity and lack of access to the requisite finance and technology.

Most scholars and practitioners, however, point out that circular economy is not only about recycling resources and reducing waste but also embracing the use of fewer resources. In the agri-food supply chain, for example, a circular economy can entail minimizing the use of external inputs into production processes.

“Rather than bending nature for food, food can be designed for nature to thrive” Gaëlle Le Gélard, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, speaker at the Roundtable: Circular Economy – Fostering Circularity in Food Trade.

A study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation identifies four key opportunities for circular design for food: using ingredients that are lower impact, diverse, upcycled and regeneratively produced. In addition, the study reported that circular design for food resulted in a 50% reduction in biodiversity loss, 70% reduction in greenhouse gas emission, and a 50% increase in total food output (on average for three modelled ingredients in the UK and EU – per harvest for wheat and potatoes, and per year for dairy).

There are also potential synergies between the circular economy and international trade: on the one hand, circularity can open trade opportunities; on the other hand, trade can help scale up circular economy approaches from local, to regional and global levels. Hence, there are plausible opportunities to leverage Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS).

Potential role of Voluntary Sustainability Standards in Circular Economy

Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS) are private standards that require products to meet specific economic, social and environmental sustainability metrics. Predominantly, the principle and criteria requirements of VSS and their other complementary activities (like training), cover many issue areas that directly or indirectly support a circular economy transition. VSS can play an important role, especially in the production side of the agricultural value chains. Most VSS, especially those operating in the agri-food sector, have criteria that require the management and proper use of natural resources.

VSS also cover regenerative agricultural practices, like encouraging farmers to adopt an effective soil-management plan. Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), for example, mandates farmers that “Tillage methods are conducted in a way that reduces soil compaction and damage to soil structure” (BCI standard version 2.1). Some VSS also require producers to reduce the use of chemical fertilizers and instead adopt techniques like making their own manure or using organically produced fertilizers. VSS also encourage minimizing the required inputs, using organic inputs, and maximizing productivity. In addition, most VSS also have criteria that require recycling and reuse of resources and mandate proper waste disposal practices. For example, 4C certification encourages producers to recycle and reuse wastewater.

Moreover, VSS are not only driven by the agenda to foster responsible production and consumption practices, but also have the impetus to increase transparency, provide accountability. VSS can allow for full traceability of products and inputs. They are also adopting new technologies for real-time farm monitoring practices. For example, satellite monitoring for issues like deforestation-Rainforest Alliance is one of the standards that has adopted this technology. This issue is imperative to ensure that circular economy principles are upheld in the light of supply chains becoming more and more globalized.

The way forward – opportunities for Voluntary Sustainability Standards

With rising consumption, it becomes important to explore sustainable pathways and concepts like regenerative agriculture, resource efficiency, and production efficiency. There is a definitive need to think beyond ‘waste’ and food loss. In light of the discussion above, VSS can prove to be imperative and aid in a transition to a circular economy as: 

  • VSS are aligned in their design towards many aspects of circular economy in agri-food chains and encourage the adoption of techniques that improve waste management and resource efficiency.
  • VSS encourage the substitution of harmful fertilizers and pesticides, and recycling and reusing of wastes like farming inputs.
  • Agricultural VSS include some components of regenerative agricultural practices in their principle and criteria requirement, and there is scope to strengthen this aspect of VSS.
  • VSS allow for traceability of supply chains and leveraging the farm-monitoring systems employed through certifications.

Supporting a circular economy might be the need of the hour, but the opportunities and challenges related to transitioning towards it will vary among countries, depending on their respective economies, political institutions, and resource endowments, among other factors. Fostering a  circular economy transition is, therefore a challenging, yet promising endeavour. VSS can be a powerful driving force towards a circular economy in terms of the production and trade of goods and services. Nonetheless, it must be noted that the role of VSS in furthering a circular economy is not a panacea and demands more exploration.

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.