Beyond Certification

Background and Aims


Amidst sustained scrutiny of the social and environmental impacts of agro-commodity production, private and voluntary modes of sustainability governance have proliferated. Following several decades of growth, voluntary sustainability standards and associated systems of supply chain certification and assurance have become a dominant model of global sustainability governance. In major internationally traded commodity sectors such as coffee, palm oil, and cocoa, significant percentages of both production volumes and cultivated land are now certified as sustainable under one of the major global standard-setting and certification systems, such as Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade or commodity-specific certification programs such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

Yet despite the increasing use of such schemes, voluntary standard-setting and certification initiatives have often been criticised for creating islands of sustainability that fail to address big structurally entrenched problems such as deforestation, land use conflict, and food and income insecurity for marginalised workers, farmers and communities. 

In response to such concerns, there has been a recent surge of attempts to ‘scale-up’ the impacts of sustainability certification by developing approaches that reach beyond the boundaries of corporate supply chains to promote sustainability governance at sectoral, landscape or jurisdictional scales. As well as seeking to expand impact by increasing the market share of voluntary certification programs, these strategies pursue ‘transformative’ changes to commodity production, trade and governance by means such as creating new organizational capacities amongst local producers, strengthening farmer access to sustainable buyers and market services, influencing government policies relating to sustainable landscape governance, and expanding collaboration and coordination with national and international development programs and planning processes. 

Examples of such scaled up, ‘sector transformation’ approaches are rapidly proliferating. The international multi-stakeholder governance body the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil is currently trialling sustainability certification at the scale of entire administrative jurisdictions; certification bodies working in the coffee and cocoa sectors are experimenting with new landscape-oriented approaches that develop standards and assurance tools applicable to the scale of an entire landscape; while other multi-stakeholder initiatives aim to connect market-based interventions with broader government and international donor-led programs promoting environmental conservation and sustainable rural livelihoods.

While scaled-up approaches to transnational multi-stakeholder sustainable commodity governance vary widely with regard to their aims, organisational structures, policy and regulatory instruments, and patterns of multi-stakeholder participation, they share in common a broad aspiration to shift market-driven sustainable commodity governance beyond certification

Yet despite the explosion of interest in ‘beyond certification’ approaches, the implementation of initiatives designed to scale-up sustainability impacts continues to be impeded by a lack of empirical and theoretical guidance regarding potential pathways through which more systemic impacts can be achieved.


In response to the above concerns, this project aims to understand how global sustainability regulation is changing in response to beyond certification trends, how scaled-up interventions can contribute productively to sustainability transformations at sectoral, landscape or jurisdictional scales, and under what conditions varying intervention strategies are most likely to succeed or fail. 

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