State of Sustainability Initiatives Review: Standards and Poverty Reduction

How can voluntary sustainability standards (VSSs) support poverty alleviation for smallholder farmers? This SSI Review examines VSSs and provides recommendations to VSS bodies, value chain actors, and governments to reduce poverty.

By Sara Elder, Ann Wilkings, Cristina Larrea, Niematallah Elamin, Santiago Fernandez de Cordoba on December 2, 2021

There are an estimated 500 million smallholder farmer families globally, many of whom make up a large portion of the world’s poor. These farmers work small plots of land, often earning and producing enough to survive but not enough to rise out of poverty. Widespread poverty alleviation cannot be achieved without uplifting smallholder farmers, and this report from IISD’s State of Sustainability Initiatives examines how sustainability standards can contribute to reducing poverty among farmers.

This report presents findings on the examination of 13 widely adopted (VSSs) and reviews existing evidence—all to better understand how VSSs can improve the three dimensions of poverty reduction: access to resources; opportunities and choice; and power and voice.

It also includes an assessment of the factors determining smallholder farmer access to VSS-compliant markets based on 57 interviews with actors in six countries from a joint field study by IISD and UNCTAD.

Findings suggest that VSS compliance can contribute to poverty alleviation in important ways, such as supporting skills training for farmers, that can support better practices, producer knowledge, and capacity to grow higher-quality and more sustainable products. In turn, this can bring farmers higher and more stable prices and crop income, as well as increased social capital via stronger producer organizations. Importantly, key conditions need to be in place to enable smallholder farmers to access markets for VSS-compliant products. Several actions can be taken to maximize the potential for VSSs to contribute to poverty reduction.

This report’s key recommendations for VSS bodies, value chain actors, and governments include:

  • Establishing a living income reference for farmers
  • Supporting smallholder access to productive and sustainable land
  • Improving farmers’ VSS knowledge and implementation
  • Stimulating demand for sustainable products.

Selected recommendations for VSS bodies include:

  • Enhancing support for business and market diversification
  • Improving assurance, monitoring, and learning systems
  • Systematically including farmers in VSS decision making
  • Adopting a gender-equality approach.

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