Transnational voluntary standards for sustainability: do they deliver on their promises ?

Cheyns Emmanuelle. 2016. Transnational voluntary standards for sustainability: do they deliver on their promises ?. . Montpellier : CIRAD, 2 p. International Conference on Agri-Chains and Sustainable Development, Montpellier, France, 12 December 2016/14 December 2016.

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Additional Information : Emmanuelle Cheyns est l'expert invité du Cirad

Abstract : Mechanisms to standardize sustainable agricultural practices first emerged in the early 2000s with the goal of establishing responsible rules of corporate behaviour. Based on voluntary commitments by firms, these mechanisms are usually structured around a particular agricultural product and bring together the global value chain's various actors (producers, buyers, processors, retailers), as well as NGOs, banks, and sometimes governments, to define and monitor sustainable production practices. They aim to regulate the environmental and social impacts of agriculture, especially large-scale industrial agriculture. And yet, some authors have noted the difficulty of 'internalizing' the negative effects and costs that international trade makes invisible, due to a 'distance' effect. I will explore the ability of standardization mechanisms to make visible again the effects that are 'obscured' by distance and the strategic action of firms and governments. Distance is understood here in terms of different dimensions: geographical, but also (and particularly) pertaining to contractual asymmetries; a limited cognitive ability of interpretation in an exchange between 'foreign' people and places; or a large number of intermediaries. From an empirical analysis of standardization mechanisms and a literature review, we show that sustainability standards have brushed aside part of the social and environmental criticism raised in a wider public debate, much like they exclude certain concerns raised by the affected people themselves. Characterized as a form of 'government by the stakeholders', such mechanisms in fact lead to the depoliticization of the debate and therefore to the exclusion of certain political perspectives and expressions of the common good. Moreover, they ignore some relationships that people have with their environment, thus making invisible part of the damage. Thus, these sustainability standards do not take some of negative impacts of the exports of biomass by industrial agriculture into account. Some NGOs and civil society alliances support more critical participation of vulnerable voices, for ex. aiming to re-politicise human right concerns or stimulating creation of farmer unions to organize their direct representation. Some other NGOs oppose the voluntary standard organisations and call for re- positioning on other forums, with the intent to re-prioritise human well-being in the debate and addressing critical issues and concerns of family farmers and local communities. They call for a more systematic transformation and re-open the debate on models of agriculture, of production and trade, outside RTRS, valorising diversified agriculture, re-localisation of agriculture, shorter trade, questioning the consumption models, etc. Family farmer unions may also reposition themselves in other forums with different collective action forms. In this very different form of participation, they can assert a common cause with other family farmer unions, addressing issues of inequality. Finally, some other works suggest to balance the powers, creating counter-power. In this, coalitions outside multi-stakeholder organisations and multi-scale alliances in and outside MSIs stay important. Addressing the limits of the current model of multi-stakeholder organisations, two trends of actions can be highlighted: -The first is to make apparent what is political, in order to address power inequalities and vulnerability issues, to change and adapt the MSI procedures and to create new spaces and arenas more open to diversity:-The second is to create and support other forums where perspectives excluded from multi-stakeholder organisations can be publicly debated, and where excluded or vulnerable participants can unite on common causes, in forums more open to them and their views.

Mots-clés libres : Standards volontaires de durabilité, ONG, Forum alternatif, Modèle d'agriculture, Durabilité sociale

Auteurs et affiliations

  • Cheyns Emmanuelle, CIRAD-ES-UMR MOISA (FRA)

Source : Cirad-Agritrop (

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