The following is the established format for referencing this article:Jia, X. 2023. Sustainability assessment in agriculture: emerging issues in voluntary sustainability standards and their governance. Ecology and Society 28(2):16.
Over the past two decades, voluntary sustainability standards (VSS) have emerged as instruments to improve social and environmental practices and to communicate sustainability standards in trade and business. However, debates about the correct assessment methodology for VSS risk causing duplication, overlaps, and fragmentation, undermining the value of VSS in sustainability transition. In this paper I propose materiality, theory of change and reflexive governance as the three building blocks of an appropriate framework for VSS and other sustainability assessment schemes in the food and agricultural sectors. Materiality is the specific criteria for defining and assessing factors that matter for sustainability, such as indicators, metrics, and rankings. Materiality is a process of social construction that enables stakeholder engagement and integrated knowledge production, going beyond just benchmarking entities against their competitors using standardized measures. Theory of change is a method that explains how interventions lead to desired outcomes and changes but is much more than a linear logic model of inputs and outputs. It sheds light on underlying assumptions, embedded contexts and long- and short-term dynamics. Reflexive evaluation consists of a single-loop process that follows a problem-detection-correction course and double- and triple-loop learning that allows assumptions and learned propositions to be challenged. It highlights unintended outcomes and offers alternatives to conducting interventions, which is different from conventional monitoring and evaluation methods, which focus on measuring the attainment of intended outcomes only. The study concludes that the semantic meaning of “standards” and “assessment” in agricultural VSS abstract the complex nature of sustainability because of overly linear meaning. In the complex construct of sustainability assessment, the role of VSS is not to conclude a success or a failure but to encourage knowledge-based learning and accountable governance because social change is an open-ended validation and adaption process. The framework proposed by this paper offers a solution by calling for integrated knowledge production resulting from interdisciplinary assessments and learning-oriented actions.
Over the past two decades, voluntary sustainability standards have emerged as instruments to improve social and environmental practices and to communicate sustainability standards in trade and business. Voluntary sustainability standards (VSS) are criteria that “producers, traders, manufacturers, retailers, or service providers may be asked to meet, relating to a wide range of sustainability metrics, including respect for basic human rights, worker health and safety, environmental impact, community relations, land-use planning and others” (UNFSS 2013:4). According to the United Nations Forum on Sustainability Standards (UNFSS), there were 768 VSS across all sectors by 2019, and the integration of VSS into public procurement accounted for 13% of gross domestic product in OECD countries (UNFSS 2020). According to the State of Sustainable Markets annual report by the International Trade Centre, in collaboration with the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture and the International Institute for Sustainable Development, VSS are no longer niche but the area of agricultural production land certified by the 12 leading agricultural VSS accounts for 1.94% of total such land globally (Willer et al. 2019). The area certified by VSS grew by at least 18% on average in 2016–2017 alone and the growth rate was exceptionally high for certain commodities such as cotton (up 172%), cocoa (up 115%), sugarcane (up 90%), and tea (up 77%) in 2013–2017.
The need to assess sustainability supported the rise in the use of VSS. In 2007, the Bali Action Plan (UNFCCC 2008:3) introduced “measurable, reportable and verifiable” (MRV) principles for greenhouse gas mitigation and commitments. MRV was perceived to enable a better understanding and ability to track greenhouse gas mitigation by individuals or collectives and to facilitate the provision of technical services and financing to developing countries in the context of sustainable development. The principles improved confidence in and enhanced the accountability of greenhouse gas mitigation using quantified information and providing background information on the scope and ambition of national climate responses (Ellis and Larsen 2008). In a survey conducted by KPMG of over 5200 companies in 52 countries and regions, the share of the world’s 100 largest companies investing in sustainability reporting rose from 75% to 80% from 2017 to 2020. More than half of these companies had the sustainability information certified or assured by independent and third-party institutions (Threlfall et al. 2020). At the 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 16, also known as the “Cancun Agreements”), guidelines were provided in order to determine the scope, inputs, process, and outputs of carbon emission mitigation using “international assessment and review” (IAR) for developed countries and “international consultations and analysis” (ICA) for developing countries (UNFCCC 2011:9 and 11, respectively).
Despite the rising profile of VSS globally, the best way to use the criteria is still being debated. There are multiple other certification schemes for sustainability other than VSS, and as these schemes compete for legitimacy and market influence, it increases risks of duplication, overlapping, or fragmentation of standards (Reinecke et al. 2012, Glasbergen 2013). For example, in the case of biofuel, the European Commission has recognized 17 different VSS for showing compliance with its Renewables Directives, and the resulting overlap has caused a race to the bottom in terms of standard stringency and has undermined the credibility of the VSS in Europe (de Man and German 2017). Moreover, producers have to bear the additional auditing costs of verifying their compliance with MRV principles as they often adopt multiple certifications for a larger price premium (Fransen et al. 2016). In the coffee industry, the impact of different voluntary sustainability schemes on economic returns and the livelihoods of workers is varied, e.g., Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, and Organic (Raynolds et al. 2007, Chiputwa et al. 2015, Vellema et al. 2015). Those who work directly in VSS must use lengthy and tedious reporting methods for customer complaints and receive endless requests for more information in sustainability assessment and certification (AccountAbility 2006). On top of these challenges, the United Nations have warned that the existence of greenwashing or SDG washing undermines the credibility of sustainability assessments and has suggested they need to be more rigorous and standards need to be harmonized (United Nations 2021).
The agenda in this paper is to provide a conceptual framework for VSS and various other sustainability assessment schemes in food and agricultural sectors. The article introduces the global proliferation of VSS and the variant systems that govern them, and outlines the methodological challenges that face sustainability assessment. Focusing on several fundamental questions, the paper proposes materiality, theory of change and reflexive governance as the three building blocks of an appropriate framework for VSS and sustainability assessment. The article concludes that the sematic meaning of “standards” and “assessment” in agricultural VSS and their proliferation are abstracting the complex nature of sustainability because of overly linear meaning. In the complex construct of sustainability assessment, the role of VSS is not to conclude a success or a failure but to encourage knowledge-based learning processes and accountable governance.
The value proposition of the article is ontological and conceptual. The purpose of this article is not to introduce the process of the proliferation of VSS, as a variety of studies have already made contributions in this area (Derkx and Glasbergen 2014, UNFSS 2020, Abbott and Snidal 2021). Nor does the article aim to analyze applied approaches and methodological rigor of VSS impact assessments as several review-based studies have already discussed this at length (Oya et al. 2018, Meemken 2020, Traldi 2021). Rather, this article offers a specific and unique perspective on how sustainability assessments of VSS can or should be done, hoping to offer a “method of methods.”
GLOBAL GOVERNANCE OF VSS IN FOOD AND AGRICULTURE
VSS have been widely adopted in agriculture and related fields globally. According to the fourth flagship report of the United Nations Forum on Sustainability Standards, the proliferation of VSS started in the 1990s and continued through the early 2010s (UNFSS 2020). The total number of VSS recognized by International Trade Center increased from 15 to 29 in the 1980s. The figure rose in the 1990s–2000s by an annual rate of 10%. By the end of 2019, there were a total of 768 VSS across all sectors, of which agriculture accounted for 45%, including agricultural commodities (152), livestock (58), aquaculture (56), fisheries (44), and forestry (39). Cropland certified by the 12 leading agricultural VSS increased by 11% over the past decade, although this accounted for only 1.94% of global cropland, mostly that of bananas, cocoa, coffee, tea, cotton, palm oil, soybeans, and sugarcane (Tayleur et al. 2017, Willer et al. 2019).
The proliferation of VSS and the governance have been conceptualized and depicted in different forms of a so-called Governance Triangle that was originally developed by Abbott and Snidal (2009). They created a triangular form that frames the interactions between the private sector, civil society, and governments in governing VSS. VSS falls into the three zones at each vertex of the triangle that are governed by governments, firms, and civil society, respectively. The bordered and central zones cover VSS that are governed in hybrid by different bodies with shared responsibility. As the interactions between governments, firms, and civil society evolve, meta-governance of agricultural VSS is forming. Multiple rival certification schemes such as organic labeling are looking for harmonization and coherence at the project and territorial level (Glasbergen 2013, Derkx and Glasbergen 2014, Fransen 2015). Established in 2002, the International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labeling Alliance seeks partnership with other agricultural sustainability standards schemes to create a form of meta-governance that integrates value chains with divergent priorities, i.e., retailers, branded firms, and private standards (Fransen 2015, Fransen et al. 2016). Recent applied research on the Governance Triangle revealed that the governance of VSS is not static but changing; schemes involving only states or NGOs have declined and multi-actor schemes have expanded, especially those involving corporate and civil society partnerships (Johnson et al. 2020; Wright, Abbott, and Snidal, 2019, unpublished manuscript). Global governance of agricultural sustainability is shifting toward collaboration and innovation-led partnerships (Abbott et al. 2016, Cockburn et al. 2019, Abbott and Snidal 2021).
In recent years, practitioners have come to understand the challenges and innovations associated with VSS in food and agriculture. In a special report titled “Toward Sustainability: The Roles and Limitations of Certification,” the Steering Committee of the State-of-Knowledge Assessment of Standards and Certification summarized current knowledge about VSS and argued that a new theory of change is critical for guiding future action on VSS, although such new knowledge has not yet been articulated (RESOLVE 2012). In the meantime, to facilitate the collection of data necessary for sustainability assessments, the use of open-source (but anonymous) reporting systems and digital technologies such as blockchain potentially move VSS and its governance toward their sustainability objectives (European Union 2019, UNEP 2020). Although a systematic review of these technologies is far beyond the scope of this article, the framework developed in this article provides conceptual guidelines for blockchain-supported systems, e.g., time-stamped and authenticated record-keeping of sustainable farming practices, validating provenance of greenhouse gas reductions, and shared ledger systems of auditing. Importantly, digital technologies enable behavior changes and better interactions among actors in sustainability ecosystems without relying on centralized authorities or external notaries, moving toward more democratized communities of sustainability transition in agriculture.
Sustainable agriculture is increasingly recognized as a complex system. In a simple situation, the desired outcomes are predictable and certain and what needs to be done can be identified and achieved through technological breakthroughs or social communication. However, in biologically complex situations such as sustainable agriculture, the outcomes of interventions aimed at solving problems are unpredictable and uncontrollable; a large number of factors and variables interact with one other and many are unknown and even “unknowable,” given the limited number of tools and approaches available (Zimmerman et al. 1998). In socially complex situations such as rural societies, it is not just that people disagree, but they have fundamentally different perspectives and values, resulting in numerous and profound disagreements (Cabaj 2009). Such differences and diversity are particularly significant in the agricultural context and engrained in rural communities (Darnhofer et al. 2012). Achieving sustainability in agricultural systems often involves different stakeholders (or actors) who articulate competing values and propose conflicting solutions, making it is a complex issue (Wigboldus et al. 2016, Hansen et al. 2018, Jia 2021).
There are methodological difficulties when assessing complex systems and there are debates about which methodology is best to use. Conventional monitoring and evaluation (M&E) approaches focus on measuring the attainment of intended outcomes and tracking preconceived performance indicators (summative or formative). Rather than following a single-loop problem-detection-correction course as is done in the public policy cycles of M&E, assessment and assurance follow “double-loop learning” processes in complex constructs of sustainability (Patton 2011). They go beyond linear problems solving and involve “questioning the assumptions, policies, practices, values, and system dynamics that led to the problem” in the first place and “intervening in ways that involve the modification of underlying system relationships and functioning” (Patton 2011:11). In other words, assessments of complex constructs of sustainability are reflexive and focus not only on interpretation of the observed outcomes (first-order processes) but also “interpreting the interpretation” (second-order processes; Voß and Kemp 2006). Complexity-sensitive evaluation methodology is backed by social-psychological studies and is believed to be a cognitive form of adaptive learning designed to make sense of the complex relationship between interventions and processes, as well as the knowledge involved at individual or collective levels (Alvesson and Sköldberg 2000, Lieberman et al. 2002, Schut et al. 2015).
Where the concept of sustainability is a subject of debate, its articulation requires standards and assessment. The United Nations Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs) use 231 indicators and metrics to measure the underlying assumptions and values of sustainability. The SDGs recognize a wide range of global challenges, such as poverty, climate change, energy, mobility, food, water, and healthcare, and propose global initiatives that call for greener production, increased social justice, a fairer distribution of welfare, sustainable consumption patterns, and alternative models of economic growth (OECD 2015, United Nations 2015). Scholars warn, however, that sustainability standards can be problematic, advocating for technology-determinism, using “no alternatives” rhetoric, and favoring privileged social actors, such as regulators, research institutions that are part of existing regimes, and key opinion leaders (Brown and Michael 2003, Leach et al. 2010).
Identifying the right methodology to measure sustainability remains challenging, despite the increasing amount of data available. Some phenomena are unmeasurable, and trying to measure them has been found to affect people’s attitudes and behavior (Lazer et al. 2021). Algorithmic prompt projects that quantify social behavior and surveillance have been found to have particularly distortive effects on the way people think and act (Lazer et al. 2014). Patton (2011) argues that to safeguard the accountability of public policies, micro and static studies are often employed to validate the value propositions of the policies. This is particularly true for institutions having limited tenures or being subject to contractual responsibilities (such as development agencies); evaluation is mandatory to maintain their accountability and to inform policy makers of the effectiveness of their interventions. Evaluations that use quantitative outcomes and metrics have been criticized, however, for abstracting functionality from the totality of the structure of sustainability and pursuing the function of sustainability assessment using linear perspectives of change-making at the societal scale (Perez 2004, Jia 2021).
The growing interest in impact assessments of agricultural VSS has been confounded by methodological pitfalls. After analyzing 45 peer-reviewed articles about impact evaluations of agricultural VSS, Traldi (2021) found a mismatch between what is certified and what is studied. When outcomes were measured in these studies, only 20% analyzed economic, social, and environmental indicators simultaneously; and there were no significant differences among environmental sustainability pillars in terms of the average treatment effects. In the meantime, qualitative and quantitative methods arrive at different conclusions about the sustainability impacts of agricultural VSS; participants perceived benefits but the positive effects were not captured in quantitative assessments of income and other outcome indicators (Milder et al. 2015). Some evaluation studies were designed to differentiate the intended treatment effects of VSS programs and spillovers from the generalizations that were obtained through external validity (van Rijsbergen et al. 2016, Ingram et al. 2018). However, considering that VSS is rooted in dynamic processes and complexity in the real world, the construction of scenarios with assigned interventions (i.e., the treatment group) and scenarios without (i.e., the control group) potentially weakened the analysis as the assignment and adoption of VSS interventions is often embedded in and adaptive to local factors that are hardly observable by external evaluators. A growing body of studies call into question the effectiveness of external monitoring and auditing systems associated with agricultural VSS. In addition to a lack of transparency and increasing costs related to external auditing and assurance, the competence and integrity of external monitoring and auditing is a key challenge and it is difficult for bodies that provide such services to provide socio-culturally appropriate feedback and recommendations to improve practices (Setrini 2011, Larsen et al. 2014). The legitimacy of external evaluation systems comes into question as none of the external evaluators and auditors are responsive to the changing needs of the beneficiaries and key stakeholders (Cashore 2002).
A PROPOSED FRAMEWORK
Although straightforward in concept, assessing sustainability with agricultural VSS is complex. There can be multiple VSS schemes for just one agricultural commodity, which causes a race to the bottom for standard stringency and undermines the credibility of the VSS as a whole (de Man and German 2017). Taking wild fishing as an example, there were 44 sustainability schemes led by different institutions in 2019 (UNFSS 2020). Because the boundaries between users are blurred, different VSS demonstrate the plurality of interactions between multiple actors, such as symbiosis, complementarity, competition, supplementation, and antagonism (RESOLVE 2012, Eberlein et al. 2014, Lambin et al. 2014).
In this article I aim to address the gaps of existing conceptual frameworks for the proliferation and variation in VSS. I will focus on a few fundamental questions about VSS in agriculture, i.e., what should be included in sustainability assessment and what matters for VSS (materiality). Why does sustainability assessment matter for VSS and what is its relationship with social change (theory of change)? What is the nature of sustainability assessment in VSS and so what (reflections)?
Materiality: what matters and for whom
Materiality is a primary component in sustainability reporting. It presents in a variety of forms such as indicators, measurements, metrics, and rankings that cover a wide range of environmental, social, and economic aspects. In business and development practices, sustainability information is communicated and managed through accounting sheets and nowadays management information systems. Materiality is specific criterion for defining and assessing factors that matter for sustainability and is used as a filter for “a sea of data.” Taking greenhouse gas emissions as an example, the EU Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) has a complicated set of guidelines and rules in which data that would change the total emissions figure by a certain percentage is considered a material misstatement or reduction in credibility (European Commission 2021). Establishing “rules of thumb” and the use of thresholds are also included in materiality, which are often debated among different stakeholders. However, accountants and assurance providers are inclined to focus on the veracity, accuracy, and completeness of reported materiality data rather than its scope and underlying theories. This makes materiality reasoning crucial for deciding what issues and indicators to include, omit, or emphasize in sustainability reporting.
Growing interest in materiality is rooted in ontological thinking about social change using socio-technical perspectives. Because technologies are no longer all made of physical substrates, which are traditionally called “materials,” it has become unclear how nonphysical artifacts (e.g., ecology, information, innovation, well-being, and inequality) claim roles in organizational life. Is materiality considered the passage through which everything that exists ultimately acquires material status or is disembodied as belief and imagination that integrate with but also transcend prior existence? Are technologies causes or outcomes and how can we explain the unintended consequences associated with technologies that are developed solely with economic interests in mind (such as in venture capital and stock markets)? The questions are a small sample of the puzzles raised by the concept of materiality and associated epistemological and ontological debates on social change, such as technology-determinism (Woodward 1958) and social constructivism that argue technologies themselves are embedded in cultural interpretations and hardly matter in discussions of social change (Grint and Woolgar 1997), and structuralism that frames human choice as being made using the very resources that objects and structures dispose of (Barad 2003). Recognizing the conceptual challenges associated with materiality, scholars in the field of organizational studies argue that “every organizational practice is always abound with materiality” (Orlikowski 2007:1436), and materiality matters for organizational innovation because “the material properties of artifacts are precisely those tangible resources that provide people with the ability to do old things in new ways and new things that they could not do before” (Leonardi and Barley 2008:161).
The presence of materiality in sustainability management originates from the business and finance sectors. The application of materiality in business originates from legal texts as a measure of the accuracy and validity of items or information (Loss 1961). Because modern corporations have evolved into agency-based management and contractual arrangements, the “principal,” e.g., shareholders and investors, requests information transparency and disclosure for administrative control. Materiality has become a basic principle in accounting so that shareholders and investors can obtain adequate information for decision making. Shareholder and investor interests are damaged when information is omitted or altered (Bragg 2020). For example, materiality is defined by the Statement of Financial Accounting Concept No. 2 of the Financial Accounting Standards Board as “the magnitude of an omission or misstatement of accounting information that, in the light of surrounding circumstances, makes it probable that the judgment of a reasonable person relying on the information would have been changed or influenced by the omission or misstatement” (FASB 1980).
In spite of the wide use of materiality in businesses, the definition of the word in relation to sustainability is still subject to debate. It is defined by some scholars as “the relevance of each sustainability issue, taking into account the effect of each issue on the organization and its stakeholders” (Baraka 2017:19). This definition goes beyond traditional entity-specific views that limit materiality to internal management, and frames materiality as also having significance to stakeholders. After scrutinizing historical precedents upon which the notion of materiality is based, Eccles et al. (2014) insist on the social construction of materiality as the way that people are mediated by a variety of social processes and suggest not looking for a finite definition but to evaluate its meaning on a case-by-case basis. In their view, materiality varies depending on the institution and evolves in stages depending on how different stakeholders are engaged and influenced at each stage. The old definition of materiality ignores the social construct of materiality as “a form of human agreement that involves the capacity of an institution, or more specifically its agents, to symbolize it.” (Eccles et al. 2014:121). In other words, materiality matters for not only “which issue,” but “for whom” and “by whom.”
Conceptual debates on materiality lead to different understandings and practices in VSS. Because materiality is more than relevance and only material information that reflects the impact of an organization on societal change is considered in constructing VSS and sustainability assessments, materiality is regarded as “the threshold at which aspects [of sustainability] become sufficiently important that they should be reported” (GRI 2013:17). The GRI-G4 guidelines on sustainability reporting require a list of all material aspects of the reporting and for them to be classified by relevance (low, medium, or high) to internal and external stakeholders. Measures are normalized (e.g., in the form of z-score) and made relative to the average of the population. However, such a measurement comes at the cost of absolute outcomes and distinctions; a farm or an agribusiness firm might be poor in managing low-carbon productivities even when it ranks in a higher percentile. A more sophisticated approach is to combine dynamic and normed measures. In this approach, measures of baseline change are particularly useful when a well-functioning management system is yet to be established or when it is difficult to precisely and consistently measure sustainability indicators (such as when it comes to the environment and natural resources). Normed measures can be combined with baseline changes so that a farm or firm can compare itself with peers in the same community and learn how to improve at the group level.
Algorithmic and weighted scoring schemes can incentivize sustainability and ethics in materiality. What if a farm or an agribusiness firm performs extremely poorly (e.g., scoring 0 on a 5-point scale) on one indicator but scores high over other indicators? When taking the arithmetic average of its scores, the summative measure of farm or program can be misleadingly positive. In a balanced system of sustainability assessment and integrated reporting, the weighted-average approach weights different indicators and penalizes poor performance more proportionally; a farm or program will score zero overall if it has a zero-value in any one of the component indicators. Thus, materiality that encourages behavioral changes places less weight on performance and more on effort. The use of weighting schemes in VSS informs changes and incentivizes actions.
Materiality in VSS remains an under-researched subject. After extensively reviewing major institutions’ sustainability standards and integrated reporting, Eccles et al. (2014) argue that the employees of such organizations found it hard to make sense of value propositions for social stakeholders, and this calls into question the legitimacy and capacity of existing VSS schemes. The prevailing model of fiduciary duty (e.g., a board committee) is neither scientifically warranted nor practically valid; company boards are reluctant to define the relative importance of different stakeholders in detail (Stout 2012). In addition, a board of stakeholders is only appointed for a short amount of time, which distorts decision making associated with materiality, especially because sustainability issues are long-term in nature.
Theory of change: why it matters and in which context
Theory of change (ToC) is a method that explains how a given intervention, or set of interventions, leads to desired outcomes and changes (Funnell and Rogers 2011). ToC helps to identify solutions to problems that hinder progress and to guide decisions on which approach should be taken. ToC can trigger debate among stakeholders and evaluators of an initiative, however, regarding what the hypothesized and observed effects of actions are, as well as in relation to the underlying assumptions about how change happens and the associated risks (Oberlack et al. 2019). A few international development programs such as the United Nations use ToC in their methodological guidance, recognizing its value as a management tool (Stein and Valters 2012, UNDAF 2017).
The popularity of ToC leads to undesired ignorance about its underlying theories and context. Partly driven by the “result-oriented agenda” of development programs, be they public or philanthropic, the concept of ToC and its emergence in many organizations as a management tool was criticized as being a “buzzword” (James 2011). The application of ToC is often presented as a linear logic model of inputs and the resultant outputs and outcomes (Bakewell and Garbutt 2005, Funnell and Rogers 2011). ToC is often displayed in the form of a diagram, presenting ToC as a pathway to outcomes; a Google image search for “theory of change” directs people the whole range of diagrams. After reviewing and synthesizing many works on ToC, Stein and Valters (2012) suggest to going beyond the initial conceptualization of ToC as a “logic model” and understanding it as a functional continuum of strategic planning, monitoring and evaluation, description and learning. Because the context and purpose of ToC varies by stage, fitting ToC to a specific result-chain may create tension between internally driven processes and externally imposed requirements (Weiss 1995).
False assumptions are a key challenge that prevent ToC from being accepted as valid. Assumptions are often described as the necessary conditions and resources for planned changes to occur (CARE 2012). False assumptions threaten the success of the ToC for a program or policy as additional factors that are needed remain implicit and unexamined. When the ToC of a sustainability program has several levels of intermediate outcomes, too many assumptions are made about what will happen in the presence of the missing middle levels. In such a situation, the out-of-scope outcomes are mostly assumptions about conditions rather than outcomes. Credible ToC does not give internal staff false optimism but rather exposes assumptions to certain external criticism so that the unexamined factors are exposed for further testing, especially when beneficiaries and stakeholders are unheard. (Funnell and Rogers 2011). Some literature questions whether it is possible for assumptions to specify all necessary conditions and define assumptions as a test of the strategic advantage of the chosen intervention over others (Ruesga 2010). Some literature even defines ToC as an assumption itself and considers assumptions as “theories’ in ToC thinking (Vogel 2012). Taking a simple form of if-then statements, ToC in sustainability assessment is to bring assumptions, stated and unstated, to the surface and to have them carefully and tactfully examined.
The absence of ToC in evaluation studies of agricultural VSS has become a focal point of critique. For example, Traldi (2021) found that the concept of outputs (or intermediate outcomes) and impacts (or ultimate outcomes) were often confused in evaluation studies of agricultural VSS. In these studies, a significant portion of outcome indicators such as forestry quality, biodiversity, and carbon stocks did not employ direct measurements but rather focused on farm management practices (e.g., agrochemical input use); the logic chain of VSS-outputs-impacts was ambiguous. A lack of a causal chain was considered a major challenge for VSS assessments as each standard combines a number of different interventions that take place at the same time; the impact pathways linking VSS to final impacts are indirect (Oya et al. 2018, Oberlack et al. 2019). A number of scholars have surmised that the effects of agricultural certifications found at the individual level were mostly driven by specific capacity-building activities, market conditions, and contextual factors; the attributed impacts from purposeful interventions, i.e., agricultural VSS, were not rigorously analyzed (DeFries et al. 2017, Jena et al. 2017, Mintena et al. 2018). Because VSS often collectively operates through producer organizations, it rarely happens in a social, institutional, or political vacuum but is deeply rooted in socioeconomic dynamics (Oya et al. 2018).
The context of agroecosystems is largely missing in current studies of sustainability assessment and theory of change. Traldi (2021) found 75% of evaluation studies associated with VSS focused on agroforest crops, such as coffee, and the global compliance rate of related VSS such as those of the Rainforest Alliance reached 40% in 2014 (Potts et al. 2014). However, agroforestry remains uncommon at the global scale, and studies about crops that have a greater impact on the environment and biodiversity, e.g., cotton, sugar cane, palm oil, soybean, and legumes, have been greatly under-represented (Traldi 2021). Agroecosystems matter because the structuration of materiality and ToC alter across different systems. That is, not only the outcome indicators of VSS change in alternative ecosystems (such as fisheries) but also the re-combinations of multiple social, economic, and environmental pillars.
Reflexive evaluations: so what?
The problem setting of agricultural sustainability has been contentious, making approaches to reflexive governance critical in sustainability management. The industrialization of agriculture, which is characterized by standardized production and processing, highly specialized agro-engineering knowledge, and agroindustrial parks, causes unintended side effects, such as the loss of agrobiodiversity and indigenous knowledge (Darnhofer et al. 2012). However, the opponents of sustainable practices weigh up the benefits and costs against another sustainability problem, namely hunger in a growing share of the global population (FAO 2017). This line of discussion reveals the well-known debate of strong versus weak sustainability (Pearce and Atkinson 1993) and the campaign for high-yielding crops, high-performing livestock, and trade liberalization (Pingali and Kelley 2007, Hazell and Slade 2015). Despite dissent about issues with problem setting and goal formation, the economic and political desire and path dependencies to utilize technocratic solutions and substantive policies remain the mainstream; transitions to alternatives are locked out (Grin et al. 2010, Köhler et al. 2019).
Practices of reflexive governance in agricultural sustainability have emerged to deal with agrobiodiversity loss. As the first global agreement to cover all aspects of biological diversity, the Convention of Biological Diversity constitutes a political framework and select guidelines for the sustainable use and conservation of agrobiodiversity, as well as a fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources (CBD 2000). Farmers’ rights were initiated to protect indigenous knowledge of farming and to value the breeding contribution of local farming communities (Girsberger 1999). Farmers’ rights are now codified in the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture to promote and coordinate decision making at the national level on matters related to the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. At the national level, participatory breeding was included in the German National Technical Programmes on Plant and on Animal Genetic Resources and was administered through collaborations of conventional breeders, researchers, and local farmers (BMEL 2002). Despite popularity at the local level, national initiatives of participatory breeding did not survive the budget salvo and many farmers’ rights programs fail to be scaled up (Wolff 2006, Peschard 2014).
Another example of reflexive governance is the rise in alternative food networks (AFNs). Taking on a variety of forms, such as community-supported agriculture, food sovereignty, and agroecology, these movements endorse local supply of agricultural produce and advocate for social justice and rights to healthy and ecologically appropriate food production (Agarwal 2014, Misra 2018). However, these concepts are criticized for not focusing on immediate and global problems such as hunger, malnutrition, and natural resource degradation (Martiniello 2015). In addition, the changes brought about through local practice are often small and hard to scale toward lasting structural transformations at the system level (Fairbairn 2012, Alonso-Fradejas et al. 2015). Some even argue that AFNs risk violating social justice as the practices inadvertently reproduce exclusions (Winter 2003).
Reflexive evaluation is an ontological approach to functional sustainability assessment, not only ongoing but also alternative assessment. Given the characteristics of sustainability transitions—namely having multiple actors at different levels and scales, being dynamic, uncertain, embedded in context, trans-disciplinary, and having vague boundaries—it is difficult to gather indicators and data needed for effective assessment and policy making (Fukasaku 2005). Unlike conventional monitoring and evaluation (M&E) approaches that focus on measuring the attainment of intended outcomes and tracking preconceived performance indicators (summative or formative), reflexive evaluation frames sustainability assessment as a complexity construct, consisting of a single-loop process that follows a problem-detection-correction course and double- and triple-loop learning that allows assumptions and learned propositions to be challenged (in double- triple-loop learning; Argyris and Schön 1974, Raelin 2001, Rogers et al. 2013). In essence, reflexive evaluation goes beyond the linear logic of problem-solving and involves “questioning the assumptions, policies, practices, values, and system dynamics that led to the problem” in the first place and “intervening in ways that involve the modification of underlying system relationships and functioning” (Patton 2011:11). It is necessary to monitor constantly the progress of a VSS project and to oblige, if not explicitly then implicitly, all stakeholders to interpret results and to reflect on the outcome indicators.
Sustainability assessment as viewed in the framework of complexity highlights the sustained capacity of adaptive management. For more than 30 years the governance process of adaptive management has been evolving to address the challenges of sustainability transition, and the process has been refined in a series of on-the-ground applications to tackle issues in the fields of agriculture, fisheries, and ecosystems (Gunderson and Holling 2002, Pahl-Wostl et al. 2007, Sendzimir et al. 2018). What makes adaptive management critical is based on the complex nature of sustainability transition that involves fundamentally different perspectives and variable contexts embedded in sustainability problems and solutions. As elaborated on by the framework in this article, materiality and ToC in VSS assess both the known and the uncertain. Through stakeholder engagement and participatory evaluation, the adaptive process identifies not only sharing understanding but also gaps where select representatives diverge from their values and capacities. The assessment phase is not a technical vehicle to verify the “truth,” but rather should provide an arena through which diverse causes of and alternative solutions to agricultural sustainability are communicated and integrated (Loibl 2006). In this light, the adoption and compliance with VSS for a firm become a part of adaptive management because it inspires the iterative process of doing and learning as experiments.
In this article I propose a framework for understanding, designing, and using sustainability assessment of VSS in the food and agricultural sectors. Framed by system change and complexity perspectives, I address several fundamental issues associated with VSS and sustainability assessment, e.g., What matters? For whom? Why it works (or not) and in which context? So what? The paper proposes a framework for VSS and other forms of sustainability assessment based on three main methodological approaches: materiality, theory of change, and reflexive governance. Materiality is a process of stakeholder engagement and social construction and matters not only for “which issue,” but “for whom” and “by whom.” Theory of change in agricultural VSS is the driving force behind how standard and certification systems create change, in the context of diversified stakeholders and social networks associated with agri-food chains and rural communities. A credible ToC does not give people false optimism but rather exposes assumptions to certain criticism and risks. Therefore, sustainability assessment in VSS is different from conventional monitoring and evaluation approaches that focus on measuring preconceived performance indicators, but follows a problem-detection-correction course. Such reflexivity in agricultural VSS underlies the role of participatory learning and decision making.
I warn about problems with the semantic meaning of language used for assessment in various voluntary standards of agricultural sustainability. The language used in “standards” usually insists on conformity to program design in terms of the inputs and outputs, as if agriculture was assembly lines in industrial production, or, analyzing the results and processes of items in a pipeline like analyzing chemicals in a laboratory experiment. The practices of VSS and its etymology (score, metrics, standards, etc.) originate from test and contest settings. For example, assessments in a variety of VSS refer to finding out the “distance” to a desired goal (or a benchmark); the more goals are attained, the higher the scores and the more successful the program. The use of assessment and standards derives from industrial production and pervasive experience in modern society (e.g., key performance indicators, rankings, and tournaments). Beneath the basic language of VSS are rather abstract notions of linear movement from a certain point to the destination. In employing this language to evaluate sustainability and sustainability transitions, it is not surprising that people rely on their existing experience and established values, sometimes explicitly but often tacitly. Once the sustainability community has accepted these basic words, their ability to think and their practices become determined. Yet, in the complex construct of sustainability transition, assessment is an open-end validation and adaptive learning process. The dominance of mainstream evaluation approaches, e.g., MRV and randomized control trials, potentially eliminates alternative theories and different views of sustainability assessment (e.g., stakeholder-based evaluation, participatory, and collective sense making).
The line of reasoning of this article takes a step toward alternative understanding and supporting future research about social change. In a variety of disciplines, social change is viewed as evolutionary progress toward greater levels of complexity (Praszkier and Nowak 2012), a process of conflicts and deinstitutionalization (Scott 2001), or disruptive innovations that mobilize and assemble enabling resources (Christensen et al. 2006, Hekkert et al. 2007). Complexity perspectives offer alternative interpretive frameworks of behavior to organizations that pursue sustainability. Agricultural sustainability and associated social problems are highly embedded within local contexts, and any individual efforts, notwithstanding their significance in the short term, do little to move old systems toward new structures. Social change then becomes a process characterized by the augmentation of knowledge, experience, and resources at the organizational, community, and regional levels (Praszkier et al. 2009). Considering the diverse actors involved and the varied contexts that sustainability issues are embedded in, sustainability standards and assessment call for the use of integrated knowledge methods that transcend the boundaries between disciplines and between science and society. These different types of knowledge need to be integrated by various methods that make particular use of the diversity of perspectives in formulating materiality and theory of change (Oberlack et al. 2019). Importantly, the involvement of non-scientific partners, e.g., practitioners, policy makers, and citizens, throughout the phase of project development, ensure that not only problems and goals are defined but that practical and effective implementation also takes place. Social change, in such a framework, becomes a process of democratization and entrepreneurship. With this paper I hope to inspire installed approaches of integrated knowledge production and adaptive management in future VSS studies. Linking sustainability assessment and social change remains an underdeveloped domain in sustainability science.
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The author acknowledges funding support from National Natural Science Foundation of China (71573209; 71661147001) and Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS-ASTIP- 2016-AII).
All relevant data and code underlying the findings described in the manuscript are fully available on request from the author.
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