"The case studies show some positive benefits from certification," Ruth DeFries of Columbia University, US, told environmentalresearchweb. "Certification is often accused of greenwashing, which the evidence does not support entirely, although most outcomes from certification were not statistically significant."

DeFries and colleagues examined more than 2600 peer-reviewed papers. Of these, 16 rigorously analysed differences between certified and uncertified households for a wide range of factors, using treatment and control groups. These 16 papers contained 24 unique combinations of study area, certification programme and commodity: 20 of these cases were for coffee whilst none were found for cocoa or oil palm. Papers on coffee spanned Latin America and Africa but the rigorous studies of banana only took place in Latin America and those on tea were set only in Asia.

"The analysis follows the principles of a Cochrane review, which aim to improve decisions based on high-quality evidence that meets scientific standards," said DeFries. "Applying these principles to a review of the literature on effectiveness of certification schemes revealed that there are only a handful of studies that use methods to account for the counter-factual case of non-certification in a rigorous manner and, based on the small amount of evidence, there are some positive environmental and social outcomes from certification although certification is not a panacea."

Certification schemes tend to focus on different criteria, such as environmental standards or labour practices. Typically, producers receive a premium and other benefits for keeping to the scheme’s prescribed standards.

Most of the world’s poor are smallholder farmers and labourers in rural areas in the tropics. "Improving livelihoods of smallholder farmers and ensuring adequate working conditions for agricultural labourers are consequently critical aspects of sustainable supply chains," write DeFries and colleagues in Environmental Research Letters (ERL).

Cash crop

In 2015 coffee exports were worth around $21 trillion dollars, with palm oil at roughly $12 trillion, bananas at $8 trillion, tea at $5 trillion and cocoa at nearly $3 trillion. Standard-compliant coffee grew from 15% of the total to 40% between 2008 and 2012. Coffee is the product with the largest share of certified production; in 2012 cocoa was at 22%, palm oil at 15%, tea at 12% and bananas at 3%. However, supply is typically greater than demand so some standard-compliant goods are sold as non-compliant and producers do not receive benefits for those goods.

Early certification programmes were based on eco-labelling, according to the team. Now there are more schemes and they’ve broadened to include economic and social criteria as well as environmental sustainability. This review looked at the Fair Trade International, GlobalGAP, Organic, Rainforest Alliance/Sustainable Agriculture Network, UTZ Certified and Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil programmes.

The researchers found that environmental and economic variables, at 36%, had around the same average fraction of positive outcomes, whereas social variables saw an 18% fraction. Environmental factors had the lowest fraction of negative outcomes (0%) and the largest average fraction of not significant outcomes (64%).

"From a consumer’s point of view, the results indicate that premiums for certified products do have a generally positive impact on the ground," writes the team. "These positive impacts are most pronounced for conserving habitat and increasing revenue from the commodity for the producer compared with more diffuse impacts on environment and overall household income."

The researchers conclude that certification programmes can play a role in advancing sustainable development goals, although consumers "should be aware that these programmes are not a panacea especially for the considerable social hardships facing smallholder producers". The team cites the imbalance that creates more supply than demand, and the usurpation of governance responsibilities by actors from the North as serious obstacles to long-term contributions of voluntary certification programmes to sustainable development goals.

There weren’t enough data to compare the success of the different certification programmes with any confidence. Now the team would like to see standardized criteria and independent evaluation of such schemes. "I hope this paper helps promote the adoption of rigorous analysis for assessing effectiveness of sustainability approaches," said DeFries.

DeFries and colleagues’ study was an Environmental Research Review.

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