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Ecolabeling and the power of uncommon collaborations

<p>There is a growing body of evidence showing that sustainability certification is spawning far-reaching changes in production and land use practices, supply chains and in the way businesses operate.</p>

Sustainability certification and ecolabeling have been around for a generation. My organization, the Rainforest Alliance, just turned 25 and founded its forestry certification program 23 years ago.  

So it's a fair question to ask: What good has it done for the planet in that time and what metrics do we have for measuring progress? 

Since it started in the late 1980s, certification grew rapidly and clearly helped make the goal of sustainability much more salient and familiar to consumers and companies. The market for certified goods and services has exploded since 2000 and continues to grow rapidly

Forty-two percent of U.S. consumers, for instance, now recognize the Rainforest Alliance Certified seal. Major global companies now source Rainforest Alliance Certified products, resulting in significant market shares for these products, including 3.3 percent of coffee, 15 percent of bananas and 9.4 percent of tea -- up from 0 percent just five years ago.

At the same time, the global population and general consumer demand have also grown rapidly, leaving analysts to wonder whether we can really shop our way to sustainability through green consumerism, whether certification regimes are sufficiently benefiting poor producers, and whether sustainable certification can make enough of a difference to the planet to help achieve global sustainability.

There is evidence that it can -- and it is. To share some of these successes, several stakeholder groups met in New York last week, including sustainability experts such as executives of major companies, NGOs, sustainable farmers, foresters and tourism businesses from around the world.

Rainforest Alliance's certification and verification for sustainable agriculture, forestry and tourism -- now touching more than 100 countries -- is one body of evidence that shows far-reaching changes in production and land use practices, supply chains and in the way businesses operate. There's a PowerPoint from the meeting summarizing some of this evidence here (PDF).

It shows certification is succeeding at preserving biodiversity. FSC-certified high-value conservation forests from Malaysia to Gabon, for example, now protect habitats of great apes and other endangered species. In community-owned forests from Mexico to Nepal, foresters are reducing deforestation while preserving biodiversity and forest communities. 

"Most of the people are poor, but we believe in sustainable forest management,"  Apsara Chapagain, of Nepal's Federation of Community Forestry Users, said at the New York meeting.

At the same time, certification has directly helped some 2 million people -- vastly improving working conditions from cocoa farms in West Africa to the coffeelands of Latin America, and reducing costs, increasing efficiency and raising incomes for foresters and farmers worldwide -- most dramatically in poor countries like Nicaragua.  

But perhaps even more consequential than what the impacts are so far is how they've been achieved. At the New York meeting, we kept returning to the theme of "uncommon collaboration," a term coined by Howard-Yana Shapiro, global plant science director for Mars, Inc. His company is committed to sourcing all the cacao for all its products from certified sustainable sources by 2020; Mars Dove Bars are made from 100 percent certified cocoa as of this year. The term refers to how pursuing sustainability requires competitors to collaborate, and people who were previously disconnected or didn't perceive much in common to connect and work together.

Staples, for instance, not only greened its own huge supply chain, establishing a sustainable paper purchasing policy, cutting energy use and emissions from its own facilities and fleets, etc. It also used its leverage to work with the companies that supply the hundreds of thousands of SKUs it sells to green their supply chains, too.  

To boost a cocoa supply lagging increasingly behind demand, chocolate giant Blommer worked concertedly with small farmers to improve yields on their existing plots, helping lift them out of poverty while preventing more land clearing. Nesspresso also collaborated with small coffee farmers in Colombia to build a collective coffee mill, enabling farmers to outsource processing, produce superior quality coffee, earn higher premiums and shorten their workday from 16 or 17 hours to 11 or 12. It also saved energy, water and effluent, and lowered costs for each farm to achieve sustainability certification.

The Peruvian Amazon tourism company Rainforest Expeditions partnered with a native community to build a sustainable certified ecotourism resort that shares dividends -- 60 percent for the community and 40 percent for the company. They could have bought neighboring land, built their own facility and kept all the money, but by working with the community, they incentivized reduced hunting and destructive land use, preserving habitat, wildlife, and the reason why tourists visit. When goldmining concessions exploded and degraded the surrounding lands, this preserved ecosystem became what Rainforest Expedition's Kurt Holle called "a vaccine against the virus."

Pursuing sustainability also increasingly connects consumers. Collaborative consumption expert Roo Rogers pointed out that technology-mediated consumer networks have punctured the old model where consumers were atomized and encumbered by owning their own individual everything, which was bound to need replacing and get thrown out. 

Today, with Zipcar and Airbnb, we're eager to share car keys, even house keys. EBay catalyzed resale and reuse of all kinds of things, and is now recognized as one of the great green markets of our time. There are now thousands of such examples, with a billion dollars of venture capital behind them. 

"The 20th century was about hyperconsumption," Rogers told the New York meeting. "The 21st century will be about collaborative consumption."

You can access Roger's presentation here, and read more about award-winning uncommon collaborators here. They are inspiring reminders that sustainability isn't found in silos, and that the barriers between and among big companies, small producers, and consumers are rapidly dissolving in favor of more interconnected and sustainable ways of doing business.

Image courtesy of Rainforest Alliance.

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