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Sustainability is bigger than social licence

The expectations that consumers and the community have for how food is produced, and who they trust to produce it, are changing.

Lately the terms ‘social licence’ and ‘sustainable development’ have been used interchangeably by Australian agriculture in talk about how to keep the community’s trust.

However, they are not the same. Social licence is about building trust and sustainable development is about being sustainable. Not everyone sees the distinction.

Although an improvement to social licence is an outcome from being transparent about progress with sustainable development, trust is not the end-game of being sustainable.

Agriculture is sustainable when agricultural production meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

In Australia several agricultural commodities have frameworks or strategies for sustainable production. They have been developed to guide investment in research, keep access to markets and investors, engage with influential stakeholders and tell stories. To date, one commodity has set goals and targets for progress. Others are set to follow.

‘Transparency and engagement’ has been the catch-cry of agriculture’s first-movers on sustainability. The reports produced from these frameworks and strategies are valued by industry as ‘credentials documents’ that contain evidence of responsible practice.

So it’s not surprising that sustainability frameworks were referenced as initiatives supporting community trust at ABARES Outlook 2019. Indeed attempting to maintain social licence without a sustainability framework is risky. Yet the purpose of a sustainability framework is broader than that. A sustainability framework is a tool for doing business better.

The backbone of a sustainability framework is a materiality review. This review identifies those sustainability risks which are assessed as affecting the value of an industry. These risks are of interest to stakeholders and have a material impact on the industry.

Materiality is a key, founding principle of several sustainability and sustainability-related standards, including the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and the AA1000 Assurance Standard (AA1000 AS).

If you don’t do a materiality review you won’t have an approach to sustainability that meets standards for reporting risks which are accepted by customers and investors worldwide.

Sustainability risks can present a downside risk (destroying value) or a positive risk (upside opportunity). In sustainable development, risk and opportunity are two sides of the same coin.

One report calculates $US12 trillion in opportunities (as well as 380 million new jobs) for 60% of the global economy if the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are achieved by 2030. Fourteen new market opportunities are identified for food and agriculture.

In Australian agriculture material sustainability risks include climate change, market access, product integrity, industry profitability, human nutrition and resource scarcity.

My view is shaped by work on sustainable development with the Australian beef and dairy sectors, The World Bank, SAI Platform (Australia) and the Banksia Foundation.

For the National Farmers Federation’s (NFF), growing agriculture sustainably goes beyond winning the hearts and minds of consumers and the wider community.

In the NFF’s 2030 Roadmap a key deliverable by 2025 is a cross-sectoral agricultural sustainability framework. This milestone is linked to an objective to drive on-farm productivity and profitability, while recognising and rewarding environmental stewardship.

Importantly, in this plan to grow the value of Australian farm production to $100 billion by 2030, the NFF sees the distinction between sustainability and social licence.

So the challenge now – for each commodity sector – is to view social licence and sustainable development as separate, yet connected, outcomes from sustainable production.

When this happens, Australian agriculture will produce our food and fibre in a way that meets community expectations and rewards businesses along the value chain.

About Mark Paterson

Mark’s first job was milking cows. An award-winning career in journalism followed. These days when he's not trying to save coral reefs in Indonesia, dreaming about playing tennis on the Masters circuit or raising three kids in a blended family he thrives on consulting work that connects profit with people and planet. The son of corgi breeders, Mark would like to change the world for the better. Read more posts by Mark.


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