Good morning ladies and gentlemen—and welcome!
I recently finished reading The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by the journalist Elizabeth Kolbert. The Guardian newspaper voted it the best non-fiction book of all time. If you haven’t read it already I highly recommend it.
Life has existed on our planet for around four billion years but mass extinctions of flora and fauna have taken place every twenty-six million years or so. There is widespread agreement that a meteor strike caused the fifth mass extinction (of the dinosaurs, amongst others), but geologists disagree as to what caused the others. Perhaps other meteor strikes; perhaps natural climate change.
Pretty much everyone, however, agrees that mankind is the cause of the sixth mass extinction that we are currently living. Geologists call our current era the “Anthropocene”.
The Anthropocene is usually said to have begun with the industrial revolution, or perhaps even later, with the explosive growth in population that followed World War II. However, the evidence suggests that this process of destruction began one hundred and twenty thousand years ago when Homo Sapiens began its migration out of Africa.
We humans destroy biodiversity in three ways:
- By eating it
- By encroaching on—and stealing—its territory
- By accidently transferring alien species or bacteria
By the time I had finished the book I had realized that this process of extinction has been going on for so long now it seems all but inevitable that it will continue. When it is complete the only animals that will be left on the planet will be the ones that we eat—or the ones that we can marvel or laugh at in zoos or on YouTube.
Volatire once said, “Dans une avalanche, aucun flocon ne se sent jamais responsible” – in an avalanche, so single snowflake feels responsible. Ms Kolbert puts it this way,
“If you want to think about why humans are so dangerous to other species, you can picture a poacher in Africa carrying an AK-47 or a logger in the Amazon gripping an axe, or better still, you can picture yourself, holding a book on your lap.”
And in case you believe that it doesn’t matter if the world loses a few elephants, tigers, frogs or bats, “the anthropologist Richard Leaky has warned that Homo Sapiens might not only be the agent of the sixth extinction, but also risks being one of its victims”.
Individually we as humans are all pretty good guys. We don’t want to harm our neighbours or our environment. But we do want to do our best for our families. Unfortunately, “doing the best for our families” might entail chopping down a little bit extra forest to plant some more crops to feed our children; shooting the leopard or tiger that is killing our flocks; using more water from the well; using more pesticide or herbicide that we really need—or simply taking our children out to dinner.
Our individual acts don’t have much impact, but taken together they result in the mass destruction of our biodiversity and the poisoning of our planet.
Individually there is little that we can do about it. We can stop eating meat. We can stop buying water in plastic bottles, or coffee in aluminium capsules. We can fill the kettle with only the amount of water that we need to make our tea. We can take a bus or a bike, rather than the car, to work.
All that helps, of course, but together we humans are such a destructive force—and have been for tens of thousands of years—that it is not enough.
But wait a minute. If together we humans are such a powerful destructive force, maybe together we can also be a powerful constructive force. After all, isn’t working together what is supposed to differentiate us from other animals on this planet?
As Charles Darwin once wrote, “in the long history of humankind, those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed”.
Although we have been destroying the planet for the past one hundred and twenty thousand years it is not too late to do something about it if we all work together. And I think we can work together.
But what does working together mean for those of us involved with voluntary sustainability standards – those of us in this room?
The International Trade Centre recently published a report called Social and Environmental Standards – From Fragmentation to Coordination. The authors of the report highlighted 239 voluntary standards operating in 90 agricultural markets, many of them over-lapping.
Cocoa producers in Cote d’Ivoire currently contend with up to ten different sustainability standards. Coffee producers in Honduras have nine standards. Tea producers in China have thirteen. Soy producers in Brazil face 21 voluntary standards.
Different buyers use different standards and, in many cases, their own. This leaves suppliers struggling to comply with several voluntary standards at the same time. The associated audit processes can quickly push up costs, both in time and money.
Competition between standards can also result in what could be called “a race to the bottom”, where producers or buyers may be tempted to choose the most lenient standard.
It is a bit tough to ask a farmer to go through a whole new audit process just because he wants to grow soy this year rather than sugarcane. At the same time, too many standards can confuse consumers and undermine their trust in the whole system.
The report’s authors argued that a reduction in the number of voluntary standards would have many benefits. It would (among others):
- Reduce audit costs, enabling more small-scale producers to become certified.
- Reduce costs for certifying agencies and consumers through economies of scale
- Create brand company clarity in marketing
Perhaps most importantly, a reduction in the number of standards would empower certifying organizations to go beyond certification, to focus more on supporting their stakeholders, and to have more impact where it is needed, at smallholder level. It would allow value chain partners to focus more resources on improvement rather than multi-standard compliance.
This is a case where “less is more”. The voluntary standards scheme sector is ripe for change. But how do we get from where we are now to where we want to go?
The report authors suggest that a first step would be to get everyone talking together, and conferences such as this one have an important role to play.
When we talk together, the various standard-setting organizations need to explore ways of aligning standards, audit procedures and management structures. Benchmarking and mutual recognition of standards would be an important part of that process.
Stacked audits to combine key different elements of standards/company specific audits would reduce the reporting burden.
The idea of companies working together would be unthinkable in the commercial sector; we would quickly be hauled up in front of the competition authorities. However standards agencies are mostly non-for-profit organisations. Our goal is not to make a profit, or to increase our share prices. We are not interested in market share; we are interested in “the greater good”.
Working together, whether in the form of partnerships, shared standards, benchmarking or outright mergers should therefore not only be possible, everyone in this room should welcome it.
Thank you. I wish you a successful conference.