Standards Have Strong Role to Play in Zero Deforestation Commitments and Landscape Approaches

This is a guest post by Patrick Mallet, Innovations Director of ISEAL Alliance. 

ISEAL’s research finds that the top priorities for standards systems with regard to landscape approaches and company zero deforestation commitments are to push for innovation within their standards’ content and assurance, while helping companies strive for change that goes beyond the minimum.

Many of you have heard that landscapes are the new thing - entire regions that aim to be ‘sustainable’ and where preferential sourcing could take place. ISEAL has been tracking the concept, and a few months ago were contracted by GIZ to undertake research on the current and potential role of sustainability standards in supporting these approaches.  We took on the challenge because one of our strategies is to drive uptake of credible standards. We do this by increasing the effectiveness of standards systems so they can scale up their positive impact. 

The idea of certifying a landscape is a daunting challenge.  However, the very concept is now setting the scene for a transformation that will require ISEAL members to continue to innovate in fundamental ways. In many respects, this will mean that we as standards leaders step back and view opportunities for achieving our sustainability goals without the traditional certification lens that many of us have shaped our careers around. 

300 commitments and growing: threat or opportunity?

Hundreds of companies have now made 2020 commitments related to removing deforestation from their supply chains. Recently Unilever and Marks & Spencer also announced they would only source from sustainable jurisdictions as part of the Consumer Goods Forum’s new ‘produce & protect’ approach.   Some of the deforestation commitments are deeper than others, involving managing for high conservation values or peatlands.  But ultimately for companies, these commitments are about risk management: they want a solution for entire supply regions, as opposed to just a few products. The main question in many of our minds is whether this is a good or a bad trend.

In reality, the landscape approach is nothing new.  Many excellent organisations have been working for decades in related fields such as ‘integrated rural development’ and have been analysing land uses across entire regions.  For sustainability standards, where we have traditionally been focused on inspecting a unit of production – the farm, the forest operation, the mill – we would now need to look at how these units fit within a broader land use plan. 

A future of real-time monitoring?

So what does this mean for ISEAL members?  We already know that full sustainability means looking at things holistically. The goal of any landscape approach is to get to a combined set of land uses that is more sustainable than what exists in the landscape now. It’s not good enough to have a terrific farm in the middle of a monoculture.  But how would we verify a landscape?  If we can imagine five, ten, fifteen years from now, we may be looking at a future less reliant on farm-by-farm audits, but one that allows us to respond to changes in a landscape in real time through a range of technological tools.  But is this good enough?  Such technology could allow us to see that no egregious practices are taking place, and we could check a box that the risk is minimal, but can we ever say an area is ‘sustainable’ without deeper on-site monitoring? 

Landscape approaches as entry level

For us at ISEAL, we believe this means that deforestation or jurisdictional commitments are likely to be about ‘responsible’ not ‘sustainable’ sourcing.  There are exceptions, but the reality is that most initiatives will start by managing for risks in a few key areas.  Incentives will therefore be crucial to support producers to continue to improve over time.  If producers take the first step in a landscape plan or project, sustainability standards should play a role to keep them on that journey.  Standards leaders can also help their company partners understand the difference between responsible and sustainable sourcing. Companies will also need to accept their responsibilities. For example, they will need to ensure that risk management is not pushed exclusively onto producers, especially small producers.

ISEAL members leading innovation

Interestingly, our research found that a group of ISEAL members are already leading the way in innovation in landscape approaches. Notable pilots are underway by Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), Bonsucro, Rainforest Alliance, and other standards such as Roundtable on Responsible Soy (RTRS). Some of these organisations are explicitly developing fully-fledged landscape approaches. Others are developing tools that contribute to holistic land use management.

One of the most exciting innovations is the use of mapping technology to understand landscape suitability for agricultural expansion (e.g. RTRS country pilots). In this mapping work, standards are supported by leading technology platforms such as World Resources Institute’s Global Forest Watch.

Standards are also gathering additional data for impact studies that assess broader ecosystem changes. Many are making strategic shifts to partner with companies and governments on regional-level producer capacity building, taking advantage of their existing infrastructure and expertise to address this bottleneck. Others are building on their stakeholder networks to become broader learning networks (e.g. Bonsucro). Finally, some standards are ambitiously testing jurisdictional certification pilots with local governments (e.g. RSPO).

Top priorities for sustainability standards

As we respond to these new approaches, we need to remember that sustainability standards have proven themselves over the last two decades to be one of the most effective tools for harnessing the power of the market to deliver more sustainable production. Through innovation, we will continue to provide this leadership.

There are a number of potential roles that standards can play in landscape approaches, and steps that will need to be in place to support them to play these roles.  ISEAL is recommending that one top priority should be the mapping of certified entities (through location data) on an integrated platform such as the Global Forest Watch. This is key to be able to see and build on the tremendous reach of several million certified operations across the globe.

Another top priority is to continue to innovate, whether it be through streamlined approaches to verification that shifts the focus from auditing to data management and risk analysis, or through defining landscape metrics and adapting existing M&E programmes to support data gathering and management.

We at ISEAL are committed to making innovative solutions a top priority in 2016 and going forward. We’ll be working to create an enabling environment for our members to test new innovations and collaborate with each other in landscape approaches and in other areas.

Read the full report with all of ISEAL’s recommendations on the roles standards systems can play to support landscape approaches and zero deforestation commitments.

Watch a recorded webinar on exploring key implications from the report.

This article was originally published on the ISEAL blog

Patrick Mallet is Innovations Director at ISEAL and has worked with the organisation since its founding and served as the first Executive Director until 2005. He spent the first few years building trust and a common vision between the founding members and then spearheaded the development of their first Code of Good Practice for Standard-Setting in 2004. Previously, Patrick worked on international development in Mexico. He lives in Kaslo, British Columbia.