Retailers like Tesco and Wal-Mart have implemented their own sustainability initiatives, and they're not alone. A number of growers, processors and distributors in the food industry have undertaken the same goal.
While admirable, these programs will eventually end up competing with one another and confusing not only consumers, but the industry itself, according to the people behind an effort to establish a national standard for sustainable agriculture.
“We don't believe that there should be a proprietary standard owned by anybody,” said Linda Brown, senior vice president at Scientific Certification Systems, a leading third-party certification firm and one of the main sponsors working to establish a common guide.
A core document is due out by April 2010, covering production and distribution in four main areas: food crops, floral, biofuel crops and fiber. There will be a logo for use on approved products, and participation will be voluntary. The nonprofit Leonardo Academy in Madison, Wis., has signed on to shepherd the process through the various approval phases.
“There's clearly a growing interest in sustainable products of all sorts,” said Michael Arny, president of the organization. “There are ones that address pieces, and others are proprietary, and that's why we think a general-consensus standard will be best in providing clarity and consistency.”
Proponents believe there is an important parallel between what's going on with sustainability now, and what the industry experienced earlier in the decade with organics.
“Before national standards, organic wasn't in mainstream supermarkets by any stretch,” said Brown. “It's a completely different story now, and one of the things that propelled it into the mainstream was its harmonization into a national standard.”
Supermarkets will benefit from a sustainability rule in several ways. The buying process for products will be greatly simplified under a unified treatment. A logo and associated marketing tools will make it easier to communicate a product's benefits to consumers. And there will be cost savings, added Arny.
“The power of standards is they can reduce transaction costs of either providing or receiving sustainably produced products,” he said.