It’s been a decade since the first commodity round-tables brought producers of soy, palm, and other crops together with environmental organizations, but the results have been less than stellar. Are consumers the weak link – or the missing link?
19 March 2014 | King Arthur is supposed to have invented it, and he and his Knights are believed to have congregated around it: the table that has no head so that everybody at the table has equal status – the Roundtable.
Fast-forward to the 21st century, and Roundtables are springing up like mushrooms – particularly in the world of sustainability, where we have the Roundtable for Responsible Palm Oil, the Roundtable for Responsible Soy, the Global Roundtable on Sustainable Beef (GRSB), the Better Sugar Cane Initiative (Bonsucro), the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels, and the Better Cotton Initiative – to name just a few. They’ve been in existence for nearly a decade, and are designed to forge consensus on how to more sustainably harvest some of the planet’s most environmentally destructive but economically lucrative crops. Their track record is mixed, and their successes and shortcomings will be a central focus of the 19th Katoomba Meeting, which takes place today and tomorrow at Iguazú Falls, on the border of Brazil and Argentina.
This is the first of two Katoomba Meetings taking place in Latin America this year (See “About This Series”, right), and will focus on the need to scale up sustainable supply chains.
The Roundtable Concept
At the root of these Roundtables lies the recognition that with global population said to be approaching 9 billion by 2050, the demand for food, fuel, feed, and fiber is continuously and relentlessly increasing – and with it the need to ensure these resources remain available in the future.
Since these resources are used by 7 billion consumers and produced by 1.4 billion producers, influencing the sustainable production is no small feat. Enter the commodity roundtables which, instead, target those companies that control a significant portion of the commodities demand trade, leveraging almost half of the production. To streamline this process even further, the idea was born to convene groups as a platform for convening different stakeholders – producers, processors/traders, manufacturers, retailers, bankers/investors, members of civil society to develop and implement standards for the sustainable production of their respective commodities – around the concept of sustainable commodity production.
Beyond this common goal, the work of the various roundtables differs considerably.
Some of these efforts, such as the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, limit their goals to facilitating “a global dialogue to advance continuous improvement in the sustainability of the global beef value chain.” Others, such as the Roundtable for Responsible Palm Oil and the Round Table on Responsible Soy, include development of standards for responsible production of their respective commodities; they also develop a certification system that indicates which products were sustainably produced and work to build the market for these commodities.
To comply with the standard the Roundtable on Responsible Soy, for example, producers must not covert areas with high conservation value for production purposes, they also must use the best management practices, ensure fair working conditions, and respect land tenure claims;. Whether or not producers adhere to these standards is verified by third-party auditors; and Chain-of-Custody Standards allow for the verification that products in the marketplace really do contain responsibly-produced soy.
Effective or Not?
Knowing that natural resources are still rapidly declining, the question inevitably arises how effective these standards really are.
Critics argue that the standards they set are “low and ambiguous”, not binding, and that market transformation becomes too industry-friendly or, in the case of Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil, are not even worthy of being called “sustainable” as they do not effectively protect secondary areas and peat swamps from the risk of deforestation.
Even those creating the standards will admit that they present the bare minimum of what is necessary., but producers – both smallholders and large-scale producers – hold the view that the requirements are too tough.
These two diverging viewpoints illustrate that the strength of the roundtables, the multi-stakeholder approach, may also be their weakness. Vastly differing perspectives and the need to reach a consensus inevitably means that change towards more sustainable production will be slow to come and that the bar may have to be set lower than some at the table may like to see.
The Role of the Consumer – The Missing Link? Or the Weak Link?
Some have argued that the multi-stakeholder model is not “multi” enough, that having civil society at the table will not create the pressure that is needed to create standards that truly bring about sustainability.
Others, including Darrel Webber, Secretary General of the RSPO, argue that, with a few exceptions, uptake of certified products by consumers has been too slow and has not been creating the additional pressure needed from that end of the spectrum to speed up the sluggish pace of change.
Regardless of who is right, both sides seem to agree on the fact that the consumer plays a critical role in all of this – a notion that seems to be underpinned by the fact that those companies that most recently made drastic changes/commitments to sustainability in their supply chain are consumer goods companies.
A Strategic Approach to Sustainable Supply Chains