Moving from compliance to impacts
A couple of weeks ago, I shared a conversation I had with the sustainability director of a major fruit and veg company, in which he stated that they were now receiving 15 different audits/year and spending more time on those than on improving their farms.
How can we tackle this problem? The first thing is to recognize that this is an issue created by the market and that’s where the solutions must come from. Those farms are only responding to the individual demands of their buyers, who request compliance with different certification labels, sourcing guidelines and company codes. Their ability to sell to these customers is based on this compliance and they are just following the requirements from their buyers’ procurement departments, even if there are opportunity costs and not much added value on the ground.
A big part of the solution for me is moving from a compliance based approach to an impact one. Instead of requiring compliance with a given code or certification label as a purchasing condition, buyers can define what are the key impacts they want to see on the ground and then include in their procurement specifications the different systems that deliver on those impacts. Does this necessarily mean that each company would have to become an expert on different standards and their implementation processes? That is certainly a possibility and some leading companies are already recognizing the equivalency of certain systems to their own sourcing guidelines. Another option is for the initiatives themselves to demonstrate their impacts to these brands and retailers and then be included in their procurement specifications.
The move from compliance to impacts would also enable a more constructive engagement with producers, who can enter into a conversation with their buyers about changes on the ground, instead of being required to undergo multiple processes with a high degree of overlap. Buyers would also be able to deliver more effectively on their sustainability goals, both from a point of view of scaling up and of having flexibility to add or remove different initiatives from their list of accepted systems, based on their performance.
I recognize that the shift from compliance to impacts could pose a challenge to schemes that are heavily dependent on the use of a consumer facing label. While I believe there is still value in that differentiation model, ultimately it is not one that, in my opinion, can deliver change at the scale we need.