The Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS) Assessment Toolkit was developed under the project “Fostering Green Exports through Voluntary Sustainability Standards in Asia and the Pacific” (DA1617AI).
To guide the identification of the challenges and perceptions behind the adoption of a VSS scheme, and to explore policy options to address them.
Local, national or regional government agencies, the private sector, standard setters, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), international donors, academia and cooperatives.
The VSS Assessment Toolkit in 5 steps
Value chain mapping
After the Toolkit
The VSS Assessment Toolkit relies on both objective and subjective (perception) data to develop a holistic analysis of the context for VSS uptake on the ground. The toolkit is meant to provide a simple standardized framework for analysis, but at the same time it is easily adapted to different value chains or countries.
This approach provides a novel way to assess whether and how VSS can indeed be a path to livelihood development and attainment of SDGs. There are number of other VSS-related analytical tools and frameworks that support the assessment of different aspects of VSS design, adoption, implementation and evaluation. The VSS Assessment Toolkit can be used as stand-alone tool or in combination with other VSS tools that have a different focus.
Step 1: Value Chain Mapping
Value chain mapping
Before starting, select a specific product, region or group and VSS. Then proceed to the first step of the VSS Assessment Toolkit: mapping the value chain.
Value chain mapping entails identifying: the stages in the production process of a good or service; the inputs and outputs involved in each stage; relevant contextual factors such as supporting functions, rules and regulations; and all actors along the production stages, including their roles and connections.
The questions on the right can be useful to map the chosen value chain, in particular with the intention of capturing aspects relevant to VSS in an agricultural value chain.
What are the main nodes?
First: identify the main nodes of the value chain – the stages in which value is added. Upstream nodes in an agricultural value chain include, for example, the input stage (e.g. sourcing seeds, fertilizers, machinery and labour) and the production stage (i.e. growing crops, extension support and sale of crops to broker or processors). Downstream nodes are, for example, processing and retail or sale.
Who are the key actors?
All actors in the value chain and their activities should be identified. This includes all actors involved in production activities (farmers, traders, etc.), but also all other actors that facilitate the functioning of the value chain (regulators, NGOs, etc.). It is important to understand who is doing what, and how.
How are they connected?
This is important to understand what actors have power over others and what their instruments are. For example, retailers often demand contracts that require the adoption of a VSS, thus determining quality, production methods and prices.
Among others, infrastructural and institutional elements that affect VSS benefits and challenges. E.g. the transportation infrastructure or existing development strategies, agricultural laws, etc.
Step 2: Interviews
After mapping the value chain, selected actors are interviewed. This provides an opportunity to learn more about the role of value chain actors, and their key challenges and perceptions in relation to the adoption and use of VSS.
The interviews consist of open-ended questions that aim to inquire deeper into the links between value chain actors, attempting to identify the challenges, power asymmetries, risk perceptions and priorities associated with the uptake and use of VSS.
The interview guidelines propose three separate exercises: questions on value chain organization power and governance; questions about challenges and opportunities of VSS uptake (both experienced and perceived) and a constellation of priorities (CoP) model.
Selection of interviewees
A number of different criteria are valid. One option is the “top-down process”: the most powerful actors are interviewed first (e.g. lead firms that make key decisions downstream) and then other smaller actors along the chain are covered. One can also choose to interview a few actors from each type identified in Step 1.
It is important to choose a method to record and manage interview data that fits time and budget constraints. Field notes are simple, quick, and inexpensive, but they can lead to loss of information or unintended interpretations. Digital recordings can avoid this, but they require additional processing work.
An alternative: focus group discussions
FGDs are time- and cost-saving, facilitate interviewing actors that are large in numbers, and allow for the observation of group norms and processes. The downside is that groups may become dominated by individuals and misinterpretation biases are more likely.
Step 3: Survey
Obtaining a representative sample in the context of an agricultural value chain in a developing country is not straightforward: sampling frames and additional data are usually not available. These limitations can be partially overcome by choosing an appropriate sampling strategy. In some instances a non-probabilistic sample may be the best feasible option. It is important to carefully consider what is most suitable for the case given the data available, what is known about the value chain, and time and budget constraints.
Adapt and pilot the survey
The template questionnaire provided here captures basic elements for the case of farmers in the coconut oil value chain. Additional or different elements can be added or modified for other value chains or actors. Pre-testing of the adapted questionnaire is critical, particularly after adjustments and translations, and to plan the duration of the survey.
Roll out options
Step 4: Analysis
The VSS Assessment Toolkit seeks to to provide a systematic way to understand the conditions needed for VSS to realize their potential as a channel for greener exports and SDG attainment.
In line with this, the analysis suggested in Step 4 offers simple diagnostics to inform the policy discussion on VSS. Observations from the value chain mapping (Step 1), the interviews (Step 2) and the survey (Step 3) are processed and brought together to identify:
(i) production challenges and relationships within the value chain: this component can shed light on power structures, group dynamics, gender participation and the availability of and access to information, infrastructure and extension services.
(ii) economic, social and environmental outcomes: some of the outcomes observed relate to productivity changes of capital and labour, value addition, income and expenditure patterns, participation in farmer groups, gender inclusion and empowerment, etc.
(iii) and preferences and perceptions of actors in connection to VSS: this component covers a range of subjective aspects, from the complexity of the certification process, to the expected benefits and others.
The VSS Assessment Toolkit is designed to be a diagnostic tool to guide policy discussions on VSS. Even when results are informative, their non-experimental nature implies that they do not identify the impact of certification. Methodologies designed to address this issue are beyond the goals of this toolkit.
A number of suggestions to process qualitative and quantitative data are provided in the VSS Assessment Toolkit . Please see the corresponding section, as guidelines are specific to different parts of Steps 2 and 3. You can download this simple Stata do file to assist in the process of analysing the information. This file can easily be adapted to changes in the questionnaire.
The analysis suggested focuses on descriptive statistics on the challenges and perceived benefits of VSS adoption, comparing them across users and non-users or other groups of interest. Further analysis may be possible, depending on the data collected.
Second round interviews
Findings from Steps 1, 2, and 3 can be combined and compared, complementing and validating each other. In some cases, findings may not be consistent across methods, or unexpected patterns may arise in results (unexpected results, major deviation from expectation, lack of clarity on specific issues, suspicion of invalid or incorrect data, etc.). In such cases, a second round of interviews, or a follow-up or clarification instance, can be useful or even necessary.
Links to SDGs
- Do not only present the data, analyse it.
- Clearly link your findings to the qualitative or quantitative data you processed.
- Address potential caveats and alternative interpretations.
- Summarize your findings, perhaps in a table format, specifying what actors are affected and, when necessary, whose point of view they represent.
Step 5: Policy Options
The final step of the VSS Assessment Toolkit is the analysis of policy options to match the diagnostic reached in the previous step.
Toolkit users may want to start by assessing what aspects identified in the previous step could benefit from policies to address them. Once this is determined, a list of potential policy pathways for them can be drawn. Such a list could be sourced from local experience in other value chains, previous experiences in the same value chain, successful options in other regions or countries, research outcomes or even spontaneous suggestions.
When weighing the list of potential policies to address an issue, it is important to contemplate pros, cons, trade-offs, feasibility, predictable outcomes, limitations or reservations, current economic climate, existing strategies and legislation, and others. Considering there are so many aspects to be considered, it is advisable to adopt a structure to assist in the analysis. There are multiple frameworks that can assist in the assessment of policies required for this step: a PEST framework, a SWOT analysis of each policy option, etc.
At the end of this step, users should have a weighted list of policy options matching all issues identified in the previous steps. Where possible, suggestions as to the implementation should also be included, e.g. timeframes (short or long term), potential executing agencies, etc.
After the VSS Assessment Toolkit
After the Toolkit
The guidelines of the VSS Assessment Toolkit end with the identification of policy options in step 5. However, policy options should eventually become policy decisions that are incorporated into agents’ workplans and implemented. Discussions and decision making regarding the policy options identified in step 5 can take place in a number of scenarios.
In the context of the project “Fostering Green Exports”, the policy options that emerged from the toolkit were discussed in multi-stakeholder workshops. These workshops validated or added to the policy options identified by the toolkit and built consensus around specific actions aligned with the country’s sustainable development strategies. As a result of this process, stakeholders:
(i) increased their understanding of the impact of domestic and international VSS on “green” exports and sustainable development objectives;
(ii) improved their capacity to jointly design, assess and implement strategic options to leverage VSS to develop sustainable exports.
Multi-stakeholder workshops are not the only path available to translate policy options into concrete action plans. Ultimately, it is up to the actors involved to identify how best to incorporate the findings of the report in their policy choices. It is advisable that this be reflected upon even before deploying the VSS Assessment Toolkit.