Cocoa, Indonesia © Sustainable Agriculture Network

How are Sustainability Standards Innovating to Address the Needs of Certified Small Producers?

By Joshua Wickerham, Policy & Outreach Manager, ISEAL.

This year, ISEAL headed into the field to talk to certified small producers about the issues they face, their expectations of certification and their experiences with sustainability standards. In a new report, we outline the key challenges facing producers and suggest opportunities for standards to innovate to meet these needs.

Sustainability standards need to ensure that small producers are continuing to benefit from certification. To do that, standards systems need to understand the concerns and priorities of certified small producers and test out innovative approaches to meet those needs.

Our new report ‘Understanding Certified Small Producers’ Needs’ is based on interviews with 63 producers in five countries across six sectors. In it, we uncover insights into smallholder perspectives on standards, explore the challenges of implementing standards in different sectors and geographies and share opportunities for innovation and scaling-up standards systems. 

Seven cross-cutting challenges for producers emerged from our research. Here, we outline those challenges and lay out opportunities for how sustainability standards can continue to evolve and innovate to tackle them.

Producer challenge 1: Fluctuating and low prices for certified products

Sustainability standards are increasingly engaging with governments and businesses on issues around living income and living wages. These issues are intimately related to the prices of certified agricultural commodities.

Producer challenge 2: Market access

Many standards promote their systems and certified products through partnerships, advocacy and convening with businesses and government to increase recognition of sustainability. However, more can be done to build on this and increase demand for certified products in local and emerging markets.

Producer challenge 3: Accessibility and cost of assurance

Standards are deepening their work on risk-based approaches, landscape/jurisdictional approaches and continuous improvement approaches through, for example, producer support funds and new technologies.

Producer challenge 4: Rising cost of agricultural inputs

Standards could offer more guidance on best practice for the efficient and productive use of these inputs and on purchasing decisions. There may be opportunities for sustainability standards to engage more with agricultural suppliers to better support smallholders.

Producer challenge 5: Environmental and social issues like climate change, the natural environment and human safety

Many standards already require environmentally sound techniques, like ground cover and vegetative buffers, which can help small producers deal with the challenges of wind, erosion, drought and climate change. Building capacity in this area is essential, by clarifying environmental requirements standards can provide significant contributions to addressing environmental challenges. In addition, standards could also provide more convening opportunities, bringing together vital actors to find solutions to key social and environmental issues.

Producer challenge 6: Access to finance

Sustainability standards can help build the capacity of local producer networks and cooperatives for access to finance and increased financial literacy. Various initiatives that provide pre-financing to producers based on standards and certification are now being implemented.

Equally, some standards systems have developed more structural approaches to pooling financial resources from downstream players to provide financing for producers. Sustainability standards can make the case for certified producers being better at managing risk, accessing markets and ultimately paying back loans.

Producer challenge 7: Demand for practical education, data access and information sharing

Many standards systems already provide training and information, but they can strengthen and extend what they offer and use their convening power to work with other training providers to encourage greater alignment.

There is a need for standards’ principles and criteria to be simplified and adapted to local contexts and translated into local languages. In addition, more can be done to drive home key content, for example, by training instructors to provide practical, hands-on visual learning materials and relevant field demonstrations. Supporting comprehensive training in areas like partnership development, management, finance and markets can empower the next generation of producers.

By listening to small producers and understanding their priorities, the sustainability standards movement can maximise its impact and ensure the benefits of certification reach those who need it most.

Whether developing new forms of assurance, convening stakeholders around specific issues, growing demand for certified products or providing information and training, standards have an important role to play that can improve small producers’ lives.

As some of standards’ most important intended beneficiaries, it is vital that small producers continue to value what standards offer, becoming ambassadors and living proof that standards work.

This work is part of a project funded by the German Corporation for International Cooperation (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, or GIZ).

To find out more and read the full report, go to

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