It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that, because 'sustainability' includes multiple factors and evolving priorities, it is somehow too vague a term to be important.
The same could be said of 'health', but most of us consider our bodies to be worthy of attention.
The fact that further definition is implicit in the term does not disqualify it from consideration.
But it should come as no surprise that food ingredient supply chain partners and other stakeholders are currently engaged in vigorous negotiation about the meaning of sustainability, how it should be measured and monitored, and what role consumer choice should play in it.
Take palm oil. A lot has changed in this much- criticised industry over the past eight years. Global supply chain organisation the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) fires off a barrage of numbers to illustrate this: 34 plantations and 157 mills worldwide audited and certified under its eight principles and 39 practical criteria.
Since 2008, these principles and criteria (P&C) have above all been ensuring the fundamental rights of local communities and safeguarding environmentally sensitive habitats, says the RSPO.
Secretary general Darrel Webber details some specific issues: "Among the social side-effects of increasing palm oil cultivation have been the displacement of communities that used to farm or live in the area." Violations of workers' rights have been another problem.
"Expansion has led, in some cases, to the cultivation of land previously covered with peat-swamp forests, primary forests or other high conservation value areas," says Webber. He goes on to claim: "The RSPO P&C tackle these issues, and ensure that sustainable palm oil is produced without these side-effects."
More progress needed
One organisation pushing the sustainability agenda with regard to palm oil has been Greenpeace. According to forest campaigner Ian Duff, there has been progress, but there needs to be more. "It would be unfair to paint the entire change agenda as being merely greenwash," he says. "On the whole, there is momentum in breaking the link between palm oil and deforestation. But how rapid is that change?"
The story you hear about sustainable palm oil depends on who you talk to. "From a corporate point of view, brandowners such as Unilever and retailers such as Sainsbury will say they're moving, and have targets in place to source only RSPO-certified oil by 2015," says Duff.
"At the same time, producers will say they've upped their game at great cost and effort, but they're not rewarded," he reports. "Customers aren't buying their RSPO-certified palm oil."
Greenpeace's story is very different. "The RSPO standard isn't strong enough, and doesn't meet our definition of 'sustainability'," says Duff. "The focus has been on high conservation value forests and wildlife, and areas of special cultural value. But for four or five years, we've been calling for the RSPO to recognise and mitigate the impact of deforestation on greenhouse gas emissions (GGE) ."
There seem to be elements of a mismatch between what Greenpeace says should happen and what the RSPO says is happening already. Meanwhile, Indonesian supplier Golden Agri Resources, squeezed between Nestlé as a customer and Greenpeace as a GGE lobby group, has undertaken not to convert forest sequestering more than 35t of carbon per hectare. Now the heat is on other RSPO signatories to do likewise as part of a still tentative plan called RSPO+. The Roundtable would only say: "Carbon footprint criteria are part of the P&C review discussions."
Another ingredient coming under increasing scrutiny from a sustainability perspective is soy. Cert ID was set up around 12 years ago at the height of the tabloid-driven backlash against genetically modified (GM) foods, certifying non-GM crops even before the EU introduced its own regulation in this area.
Chief executive of Cert ID Europe Richard Werran explains how the more broadly-based ProTerra standard grew out of the 2003 Basel Criteria, which looked at environmental and social impacts beyond GM. Earlier this year, the various stakeholders including Cert ID Europe established the ProTerra Foundation: a not-for-profit organisation in the Netherlands.
"The Basel Criteria were a wish-list rather than a certification programme," says Werran. "We were able to develop them into something concrete." The first ProTerra standard materialised in 2005, and is now in its third version.
He describes how the sustainability debate over the past decade has led to a cascading of criteria, from carbon footprint to water consumption, deforestation and the uprooting of indigenous peoples. "But now, the concept of sustainability and social responsibility has solidified to a far greater extent," he argues.
More complex supply chains
The third version of the standard tackles some of the challenges of fragmented supply. More complex supply chains, whether in soy or other crops such as maize and sugar, may involve a large number of smaller farmers. "How do you bring them all up to speed?" Werran asks.
"These supply chains tend to follow the Pareto principle, with 20% supplying 80% of material. So at the beginning of the three-year monitoring period we concentrate on that 20%, since not everyone can be visited and assessed early on."
There are precedents for the use of an independent, not-for-profit foundation to help establish authority and international relevance. Building on recognition levels in the adult population of around 70%, the Fairtrade Foundation is eager to talk about the broader sustainability benefits of its programme.
"The best custodians of the local environment are the producers," says head of product management Richard Anstead. He cites the Kenyan Gikanda coffee collective, which brought together some 2,700 smallholders.
"They were certified in 2006, and are a regular supplier to Marks & Spencer, which has also done good work there through its Plan A scheme. They've built a stronger co-operative, including schools and other social infrastructure," he says. But they have since moved on to tackling environmental issues. "This includes improvements to soak pits for waste water, for instance, which is quite an issue in coffee."
He does not exclude the idea that wider sustainability objectives will, at a future date, be more formally integrated into some sort of 'Fairtrade+' mark.
One of the challenges with certification schemes is that there will inevitably be gaps in the ingredients that meet their criteria. Even with a single product such as palm oil, this can be a problem. "One of the overriding messages you'll hear from buyers is that it's very hard to go 100% RSPO," says Duff at Greenpeace. "Some derivatives are notoriously difficult to source in RSPO grades."
For teams working on developing a Fairtrade product, the barriers can be even greater. "Our policy for composite products is that everything that can be Fairtrade should be," says Anstead. "So for a Kit Kat, for example, that might include cocoa, sugar and vanilla. But there comes a point when it might be interesting to look beyond that."
Could it have been the example of Fairtrade which whetted the appetite of among others ProTerra and the RSPO for consumer-facing marks of their own? The RSPO introduced its trademark last year, and ProTerra has its own logo.
"We expect a leading international brand to adopt it over the next six months," says Cert ID's Werran. "It will be accompanied by a consumer outreach programme."
Nonetheless, he claims that ProTerra will remain a largely business-to-business brand.
Greenpeace, for its part, is wary about the role of on-pack logos. "My feeling on labelling is that it puts the onus back on the consumer, letting them decide whether they want sustainable palm oil or not," says Duff. "Also, there comes a point when the pack is saturated with claims."
There are more serious implications for the campaigning group. "Why are retailers outsourcing their decisions on product supply?" he asks. "And for suppliers, does this mean that, if there isn't a call from consumers to reduce the impacts of deforestation, that you won't do that?"
Meanwhile, there are other barriers on the road to sustainable food supply, not least the price tag for each certification scheme. "It is true that the supply chain invariably ends up covering the cost," says Werran at Cert ID. But in most countries, there are larger intermediaries which help to spread the cost to individual farmers.
But he adds: "In five or 10 years' time, this sort of standard will be the norm. People are talking far less about hard quality issues and more about soft quality issues, especially sustainability."
Werran uses a lot of language about sands shifting and jungle drums not being heard. "It's a huge opportunity," he says. "But unfortunately, most of the ingredients industry seems to still be asleep at the wheel. They need to look beyond the food manufacturers to what the retailers are saying and doing."