4.1 Sustainability Requirements/ Sustainability Standards

What does it mean when a company aims to source its soya, milk or cocoa from sustainable sources? There are yet no criteria that define sustainable agricultural raw materials universally. So a company has to make a choice. It has to set a minimum level for different sustainability aspects identified earlier on (as per Chapter 3). Once set, only raw materials that conform to this minimum level can be accepted by the company.

To decide whether the sustainable agriculture requirements set by the company are being met by farmers and suppliers, there is a need for a set of sustainability criteria by which compliance can be measured. For example, a requirement related to climate change can be translated into clear criteria for GHG emissions per quantity produced. A requirement related to labour rights can refer to detailed criteria as set by, for example, the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI). The sustainability criteria define required or allowable values for a set of well-defined indicators.

Important remark on the word “standard”

  • In this guide, we use the term ‘standard’[1] broadly to denote the set of requirement that a company sets for an agricultural raw material. The company may set sustainability ‘standards’ for raw materials such as soya, milk or cocoa. The standard may be crop-specific (a standard for sugar, palm oil, etc.) or more general (a standard for a number of rotation crops, for example).
  • Some standards may be external (defined by another organisation, such as an industry organisation or a multi-stakeholder platform) or internal (defined by the company). Internal standards are not necessarily called a standard but may rather be called ‘company sustainability code’ or ‘company sustainable sourcing requirements’, for example.
  • Sustainability standards may be checked and verified/certified by third parties but this is not always the case. A choice to apply a standard is not necessarily a choice for certification (See Chapter 5).
  • By ‘standard’, we do not mean a final collection of criteria set in stone. The standard may be dynamic and subject to change. There may be a need to develop best practices first, and then on this basis to develop a draft standard and then test the (draft) standard in practice before using it as a requirement for sourcing.
  • Standards for sustainable agriculture will inevitably have to be implemented by the producing farmers. Setting a standard does not necessarily mean that the company imposes requirements on farmers and suppliers or expects farmers to immediately and completely conform to all criteria set by the standard. It can be a much more effective approach to develop sustainability requirements in productive collaboration with farmers and suppliers, being transparent on what the value generation is for all participants.
  • Unless suppliers and farmers are already familiar with the standard and have experience in implementing it, there will be a need for cooperation between the company, suppliers and farmers in which best practices can be tested, capacity is built to apply the standard and the standard is gradually developed and improved. 


[1] General definition of a standard: “A standard is a document. It is a set of rules that control how people develop and manage materials, products, services, technologies, processes, and systems.” The ISO definition: “A document established by consensus and approved by a recognised body that provides for common and repeated use, rules, guidelines or characteristics for activities or their results, aimed at the achievement of the optimum degree of order in a given context”. The ISO definition is valid for ‘external standards’. Internal company standards do not need the same degree of consensus between stakeholders.

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