Discussion Paper

The Evidence Base for Environmental and Socioeconomic Impacts of “Sustainable” Certification

Mar 26, 2010 | Allen Blackman, Jorge Rivera

Abstract

Initiatives certifying that farms and firms adhere to predefined environmental and social welfare production standards are increasingly popular. According to proponents, they create financial incentives for farms and firms to improve their environmental and socioeconomic performance. This paper reviews the evidence on whether sustainable certification of agricultural commodities and tourism operations actually has such benefits. It identifies empirical ex post farm-level studies of certification, classifies them on the basis of whether they use methods likely to generate credible results, summarizes their findings, and considers the implications for future research. We conclude that empirical evidence that sustainable certification has significant benefits is limited. We identify just 37 relevant studies, only 14 of which use methods likely to generate credible results. Of these 14 studies, only 6 find that certification has environmental or socioeconomic benefits. This evidence can be expanded by incorporating rigorous, independent evaluation into the design and implementation of projects promoting sustainable certification.

Certification of commodity producers has become a prominent method of ensuring that products meet environmental and social standards. For example, more than 120 million hectares of forest have been certified by the Pan European Forest Certification Agency, the Forest Stewardship Council, and other organizations. And global production of organic, Fair Trade, and other types of certified coffee has grown by 10 to 20 percent per year in recent years, a rate far higher than that for other kinds of specialty coffee. Still, the environmental benefits of ecolabels remain unclear.

Proponents of certification programs claim that price premiums associated with such ecolabels create financial incentives for commodity producers to improve their environmental and socioeconomic performance. In a new RFF Discussion Paper, “The Evidence Base for Environmental and Socioeconomic Impacts of “Sustainable” Certification,” Senior Fellow Allen Blackman and George Washington University Associate Professor Jorge Rivera review the evidence to support these claims. They identify ex postfarm-level certification studies, classify them on the basis of whether the studies use methods likely to generate credible results, summarize the findings, and consider implications for future research.

Blackman and Rivera find limited empirical evidence that ecolabels have significant benefits. They identify just 37 relevant studies, of which only 14 use methods likely to generate credible results. Of these 14 studies, only 6 find that certification has environmental or socioeconomic benefits.

Blackman and Rivera conclude by considering how the evidence base on ecolabels can be expanded. Their main recommendation is to incorporate rigorous, independent evaluation into the design and implementation of projects promoting sustainable certification.