Producer agency and voice in certification schemes

Most certification schemes fail to include producers in their governance. At the same time, perceived issues with ‘third party’ schemes have led to a number of companies moving away from such schemes.

A recent IIED webinar explored diminishing producer voice and agency in the governance of standards setting and considered how voice and agency can be strengthened in the governance of certification schemes.

Panellists included Jerónimo Pruijn, executive director of Símbolo de Pequeños Productores (SPP); Nelson Camilo Melo Maya, a certified organic coffee producer in his small farm Las Acacias located in Popayán, Cauca, Colombia, and co-founder and board chair of SPP and legal representative of Asociación de Productores Orgánicos del Cauca (ORGANICA) in Colombia; Marike de Peña, director and co-founder of Banelino, an organic banana cooperative in the Dominican Republic and member of Fairtrade International (FTI) Standards Committee, representing farmers on behalf of the Latin American and Caribbean Network of Fair Trade Small Producers and Workers (CLAC); and Dr Elizabeth Bennet, associate professor of international affairs and director of political economy at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon.

Why do producer voice and agency in certification schemes matter?

Failing to promote producer voice and agency in standards’ governance can result in inadequate and inappropriate standards and flawed verification processes that do not reflect local contexts. This can undermine the livelihoods of producers and their wider communities, and the credibility of certification schemes.

Bennett, whose research highlights the way producers are excluded from the governance of voluntary sustainability schemes, explained that organisations are more likely to achieve their objectives if they include producers – since producers are best placed to understand organisations’ needs. Including producers also strengthens the schemes’ accountability and reduces the risk of ‘mission creep’.

How small producer organisations are increasing voice and agency 

Responding to international certification schemes excluding producer voice in their governance, small producer organisations have created alternative, producer-led and owned schemes.

Pruijn and Maya described SPP – a network of producers created in 2006 and launched as a certification scheme on the international market in 2011 with an independent certification scheme and governed by small organic producers from Latin America, Caribbean, Africa and Asia. SPP represents 122 small producers’ organisations and 500,000 farming families globally. It is run and owned entirely by producers and works with an independent verifier.

Although successful (SPP now works with 47 companies and brands), entering some global commodity markets, such as coffee, cacao, sugar and banana, has been challenging. Buyers are reluctant to include a minimum price for producers which reflects the true costs of production.

In SPP, producers determine minimum prices based on their first-hand knowledge of production costs. SPP works to convince consumers that true fair trade and higher/minimum prices are a necessity and partners with companies who support this.

De Peña highlighted the need for producers to build strong organisations and networks at local, national and regional levels. Being organised allows producers to actively participate in certification schemes – as FTI now does – to influence debates and decision making on standard settings and price.

The CLAC network is a good example of a strong producer organisation, representing over 900 certified organisations in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Bennett stressed the need to improve representation of producers in the governance of certification schemes, including selection in boards and other decision-making bodies – for instance, should they be given rights to veto key decisions? Producers come from diverse value chains and geographies and certification schemes should pay close attention to these selection processes.

Where producers have been invited to participate in key decision-making bodies of certification schemes, they need resources and financial support to fulfil this role.

What next for certification schemes? 

Beyond the issue of the governance of certification schemes, there are a large number of certification schemes in use in global trade; it can be hard for consumers to decipher which schemes might genuinely enhance (or not) the livelihoods of producers while also addressing environmental issues.

Trying to do both, while offering low prices to consumers, is challenging. Buyers and distributors can abuse their bargaining power and drive down prices by encouraging competition between producers. 

Maya has grown high quality coffee promoting traditional and exotic seeds for 17 years and provided support to organised small producers for 33 years. He suggested schemes should focus on small producers who are the most vulnerable in global markets especially during the current pandemic. Small producers play a key role in ensuring global food security and protecting the environment.  

De Peña underlined the need for continuous consultation with producers to understand their challenges and to act on them, not only in standards setting but in policies relating to the governance of value chains. States should also regulate prices, including setting minimum prices – but competition law in certain countries makes this very difficult, as Pruijn explained.

Setting a minimum price should be combined with regulation at national and international level to address unfair trading practices in global value chains. Beyond setting minimum prices, there is an ongoing debate on living incomes for producers – which De Peña argued should be a human right.

As members of the ISEAL Alliance, a number of certification schemes have adopted ‘Credibility Principles’, developed through consultation with numerous stakeholders, which define the core values of credible and effective sustainability standards. These principles are then reflected in ISEAL’s Codes of Good Practice and implemented by ISEAL Code Compliant members.

One of these principles is engagement with stakeholders, including producers (for example that standards should provide genuine and accessible opportunities to participate in governance). The principles have recently been under revision to make sure they are reflecting the expectations that stakeholders, including producers, have of certification schemes.

Panellists reiterated the importance of promoting producer agency through genuinely inclusive governance, in which the producers do not just play the role of beneficiaries, but as people with their own rights and capacities. Schemes should not define what is best for producers, but recognise the producers’ realities as experienced and expressed by themselves.

If needs and capacities are overlooked in standards and policies, producer livelihoods will not improve. Further, unless producers are part of the transition to sustainability, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

Additional resources:

The webinar was part of IIED’s Empowering Producers in Commercial agriculture (EPIC) initiative, funded by the  UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) through its Commercial Agriculture for Smallholders and Agribusiness (CASA) programme. EPIC aims to empower rural producers and wider communities to influence public decisions and private sector conduct for locally beneficial and more sustainable investments in commercial agriculture.

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