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Cooperation in Sustainability, the safest bet

On a recent assignment, I was asked to identify British retailers’ trends as regards sustainable food and see whether these trends are in-line with sustainable food and agricultural produced by US farmers. The answer wasn’t straightforward: yes farmers produce sustainably, but no, they do not use the same approach taken by most European suppliers. Is that to say US farmers are not sustainable? Far from it.

There are many ways to define and demonstrate sustainability. Much depends on what is required and what can be delivered. Certification schemes; benchmarking; verification; sustainable sourcing; assurance programs – all have their place. But the plethora of such schemes and programs is confusing, complex and costly. New ways to define and demonstrate ‘sustainability’ are required; an increased number of cooperation models between retailers and farmers is called for; and above all, cultural differences need to be taken into account.

The results of a comparative analysis of US sustainability models –covering agriculture, forestry and fisheries– with demands of the UK retail market, indicated that for US producers looking to export to the UK, the offer of high quality products at the right price is no longer a guaranteed sale, but a mere pre-requisite to enter the market. Producers must now also meet requirements in multiple areas across the social and environmental agenda in order to compete with other suppliers.

When it comes to food, consumers are now setting the agenda. Customers are increasingly demanding retailers to source responsibly, driving retailers to focus on enhancing the environmental performance in their supply chains and adhering to certain social standards such as proper wages and no child labour. As a result, UK supermarkets have been integrating aspects of environmental and/or social responsibility such as “deforestation free soy”, sustainable sourcing of seafood, animal welfare, sustainability reporting and certification for the past 10 years. Moreover, they are demanding that their suppliers set and demonstrate environmental and social standards in their practices to ensure the whole supply chain is sustainable – which they do mostly via certification.

From a farmer perspective, here are the main take-aways:

  • There’s a halo around food sourcing and people trust retailers who openly engage with farmers and are transparent about their practices. A strategic partnership between retailers and international farmers on sustainable agriculture is the way forward.

Studies show that consumers are increasingly concerned about where their food comes from, its carbon footprint, the conditions of the workers growing, harvesting and producing and in brief, whether it has been produced in an ethical and sustainable way. According to Euromonitor’s Top 10 trends for 2015, “consumption in 2015 is increasingly being driven by the heart: consumers are making choices defined by their positive impact on the world and community through cause-linked buying, the thriving ‘sharing economy’ or the ‘can-do’ attitude that Millennials have in common”.

  • Flexibility to demonstrate a sustainable approach to farming is required. The British – and European – certification systems work well in Europe, but are too rigid for exporters around the world whose idea of sustainability might be the same but whose methods to achieve it are different. Naturally suppliers are expected to comply with the schemes as adopted by retailers, but when suppliers are not local and neither are their resources, can the expectation still be the same? Does a one-size-fits-all certification scheme really deliver? Could a supplier this year fail to be sustainable next year because of a small differentiation in an audit? Moreover, how to take account of different environmental and labour legislations

Certification schemes are one way to dictate how to deal with sustainability and often perceived as “static” markers, delivering results up to a point. However, when dealing with exporting suppliers, who have different farming systems suited to the local climate, pests, soil, natural resources, a certain degree of flexibility is called for. That is not to say that retailers shouldn’t set the bar high or ask their suppliers to comply with a minimum set of standards. However, there should be a results-driven approach, notably when assessing compliance with comparable but different legislative requirements in different geographical zones as is the case with US farmers and fisheries who subscribe to ongoing improvement in their production and harvesting practices while at the same time complying with stringent environmental legislation which in most instances delivers what Europeans would consider “sustainable produce”.

For this reason, there is a need to steer away from certification labels and move towards systems such as benchmarking performance that encourage a continuous improvement of suppliers’ social and environmental performance regardless of their geography.

  • Adopting the right farming and seafood harvesting techniques and distilling what is feasible and cost-effective from what isn’t, can be game-changer to bring about sustainability.

Although this trend is reversing, farmers are often the last to be asked about sustainability despite the fact they can lead positive change in this respect. Cooperation and open dialogue between farmers and retailers whereby both decide on what constitutes sustainability, and how source sustainably without incurring price hikes (often passed on to consumers) will deliver consumer expectations on food production. Such an engagement should reflect consumers’ and retailers’ desires – e.g. low carbon foods, low transport and fuel use, good water management, environmentally-respectful foods, etc.–, as well as the ability of farmers to decide what works best in terms of land management, water use and reuse, innovative farming techniques and technologies, and even varieties to cultivate which may be better suited to their local climate, soil and pests. Moreover, this engagement should have a tri-fold objective: i. maintaining the environmental and social standards set by retailers; ii; providing a wide range of solutions tailored to the specificities of each supplier; iii. encouraging dissemination of best practices and training on the more modern techniques of sustainable agriculture.

At present, an increasing number of food manufacturers, suppliers and retailers are investing in strategic partnerships or platforms via the creation of farmers’ networks designed to build and strengthen agricultural supply chains. Examples include: Asda’s FarmLink programme and Sainsbury’s Farmer Development Groups, Morrisons vertical supply chain model and the Sustainable Agricultural Initiative Platform and the US Field to Market programs. These programs have led to closer engagement on the ground with some farmers and direct sourcing.

  • When assessing social responsibility, the cultural element needs to be taken into account: UK retailers take child and forced labour very seriously, and suppliers are asked to comply with a ban on child labour. Yet, in many US farms and small fisheries, teenagers are present and part of the family business. Given the little (or non-existent) evidence of forced child labour in the US, and compulsory schooling up until 16 or 18 years old (depending on the State), this cultural element needs to be recognised as such, and not regarded as a negative or failure to comply with child labour requirements.

Again, much comes down to understanding the systems and procedures of supplier and customer. What is wanted must take account of what is practical and achievable. Much can be gained at the very outset by each link of the food supply chain understanding the context behind how the other links in the chain operate. Based on this knowledge makes it easier to find solutions to the outcomes desired.

One way to demonstrate compliance with the ban on child labour could be for farmers to develop materials about the US soy farm protocol to help retailers understand what the US farming system is like. Such information –verified by an independent and non-government led third party– would assess whether the solutions chosen really represent to the outcomes desired. It is worth noting that the cultural factor also dictates some sustainable approaches: the size of farms (US farms tend to be larger than European ones even if within Europe there are still some noticeable differences, see Polish vs French farms), type of farming (farming techniques and technologies are adapted to weather and soil type amongst other factors), type of business (family-owned such as 95% of US farms or owned by corporations). Again, there is no one-size fits all.

The increasing complexity and global nature of food production and supply requires greater collaboration and flexibility to find workable, adapted, efficient and cost effective solutions to meet the needs of consumers in the supply of sustainable food which also address environmental, social and trade concerns. As the details need to be spelled out on how to create and sustain such partnerships, the reality demands adaptability from both sides and a willingness to have an open dialogue about sustainability.

To know more or for support with the implementation of a strategy, please contact:

Farmers are the new heroes, as people aim to know who’s growing their food”, hence the need to put farmers at the forefront of all sustainable food strategies”.

Turow Paul, E. “Sustainability is here to stay” the Sustainability Alliance, 2017, web

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