Standards continue to grow as consumers focus on health, sustainability

8 October 2020
ITC News
The fifth edition of the State of Sustainable Markets report provides the latest facts and figures on standard-compliant land and agricultural and forestry products

Consumer preferences to buy healthier and more sustainably grown goods continues to underpin the steadily rising popularity of certified products such as soybeans, cocoa and bananas. More farmland than ever is being used to grow standard-compliant crops, according to the International Trade Centre’s (ITC) latest report on sustainable markets.

The State of Sustainable Markets 2020: Statistics and Emerging Trends presents the most recent data on area, production volume and producers for 14 major standard-setting organizations focusing on eight commodities and forestry. The report finds that the share of certified farmland of most of these crops is expanding and that this trend will probably continue – especially if emerging markets and producing countries get on board.

While consumers are largely responsible for the growing popularity of certified products, ‘we should not depend on consumer sentiment alone’, noted Pamela Coke-Hamilton, ITC’s new Executive Director. ‘We must bring multinational buyers and policymakers to the table to explore how they can work together to scale the uptake of sustainability standards across more goods and countries.’

The report, published jointly with the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture and the International Institute for Sustainable Development and funded by the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs, is the fifth annual update on the status of sustainable markets. Voluntary standards are usually third party-assessed norms and requirements linked to environmental, social, ethical and food safety issues.

Sustainability standards can help address challenges ranging from labour issues and loss of biodiversity in the banana and sugarcane markets to deforestation, soil erosion and the use of agro-chemicals in the tea sector. The more than 400 such standards across the globe represent an opportunity along international supply chains to meet resource shortfalls.

‘The COVID-19 pandemic has added stress on exporters of the products examined in this report,’ Ms. Coke-Hamilton said. ‘This means that now, more than ever, voluntary sustainability standards can help small and medium-sized enterprises improve their competitiveness and differentiate their product offerings, while using more environmentally friendly and socially responsible practices.’

Cotton, cocoa, oil palm and coffee dominate

The ‘big four’ remain cotton, cocoa, oil palm and coffee. The land area used to grow certified cotton expanded more than 173% in 2014–2018. At least 5.9 million hectares of cotton – or 18.2% of the global cultivated cotton area – are certified, followed by cocoa (3.2 million hectares), oil palm (2.9 million hectares) and coffee (2.2 million hectares).

Growth slowed in 2017–2018, however, and the land area dedicated to two certified crops – coffee and sugarcane – actually declined. Forestry certification has also been slowing. Still, a fifth of the global coffee area, more than 7.4% of the sugarcane area and 10.4% of forests are certified.

Organic farmland covers the greatest area. Some 71.5 million hectares – roughly the size of Côte d’Ivoire and Zimbabwe combined – were certified as organic in 2018, representing 1.5% of the world’s farmland. Most of the other standards have grown more in recent years and five – Rainforest Alliance, the Better Cotton Initiative, GLOBALG.A.P., UTZ and the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil – covered around 4 million hectares each for the first time in 2018.

Standards that directly target mainstream adoption within a particular sector largely drive growth and market acceptance, the report finds.

Despite a ‘significant potential for further growth’, the supply of certified goods outpaces demand. Boosting demand in new markets – emerging economies and producing countries, particularly in Asia – is essential to step up consumption of these products.