Better together: collaboration is the way to make sustainable farming the norm

by Han de Groot

Today you can visit any supermarket and find numerous products carrying a sustainability label. It is easy to forget that certification is a relatively new phenomenon. The first sustainability labels started to appear 30 years ago on products such as coffee and bananas but it is only in the last decade that sustainability standards have become common in mainstream markets.

In 1997 Nick Bocklandt, a Belgian-Guatemalan coffee grower and Ward de Groote, a Dutch coffee roaster, were brought together by their shared vision for a new certification for coffee. They saw a way to have more impact and the result of their collaboration is UTZ, which today celebrates its 15 year anniversary.

UTZ is now the largest certification program for coffee and cocoa, as well as having significant programs for tea, rooibos and hazelnuts. UTZ certified crops are grown on more than 2.7 million hectares of land. Over 1.2 million farmers and workers work on UTZ farms in 41 countries. In 2016, companies sourced enough to make 15 billion bars of chocolate and 38 billion cups of coffee.

Our founders were inspired by their vision of a time when sustainable coffee would be available to a global market and the positive impact of sustainable farming practices would be felt worldwide. By founding UTZ they helped bring us much closer to that goal.

Yet there is still so much more to do. Climate change, low wages, gender inequality – these are all big problems that we are far from solving. Too many of the world’s farmers and workers struggle to earn a living. Many are already feeling the effects of higher temperatures and erratic rainfall. Women still face systematic exclusion and discrimination. These issues also pose a real threat to the future supply of ingredients like cocoa, coffee and tea.

More worryingly, and perhaps in part because of the progress we’ve made, we risk becoming complacent. The latest report from The Economist Intelligence Unit, “No more excuses – responsible supply chains in a globalised world“, found that four in five respondent companies described their firms as having responsible supply chains, yet only under a quarter were actually addressing key issues such as climate change or child labor. In fact, 30% had actually decreased their focus on supply chain responsibility over the last five years.

We need to see more commitment from business, not less. After all, brands stand to gain from embracing sustainable sourcing. Recent research by Nielsen, for example, compared more than 1,300 brands across 13 markets. They found that brands with a demonstrated commitment to sustainability saw more than 4% sales growth, while those without grew less than 1%. Their research suggests that trust in a company or brand is the greatest single purchase driver for consumers, and a commitment to sustainability is increasingly how you can earn that trust.

Furthermore, the report by Aidenvironment, which analyzed 40 previous independent research studies, surveying over a hundred business leaders across four sectors, found a range of business benefits from certification – from improved market access, profitability and production to enhanced reputation and reduced risk for certified businesses.

Yet of course, it is not up to business alone. What is evident to me is that the gains we have made over the last 15 years are thanks in large part to collaboration. The progress towards more sustainable production comes from farmers, traders, industry, NGOs and governments working together to bring about change. If we are to go further this collaboration matters now even more than ever.

That’s why we recently announced our intention for UTZ to merge with the Rainforest Alliance. The new organization will create a single global certification standard that will simplify certification for farmers and empower companies to build more responsible supply chains, more efficiently. This is an exciting development giving us a greater reach and a stronger voice in the fight against climate change, deforestation and rural poverty. I believe that our latest collaboration will bring us even closer to our goal to make sustainable farming the norm and I invite you to join us on this journey.