The Next LEED? A Look at How Collaboration and Market Incentives are Driving Sustainable Standards
Interview by Holly Burns with Michael Arny and Amanda Raster of the Leonardo Academy
Issue 2 Winter 2009
Current industrial agriculture practices harm the ecosystem by depleting soil nutrients and demanding large quantities of water for irrigation. With a pressing population explosion and threats of water shortages, there is an urgent need for the adoption of sustainable farming techniques.
Sustainable agriculture methods ensure that farms consistently replenish fertile soil for crops without causing drastic or irreversible damage to the ecosystem. Leonardo Academy, an environmental consultancy, is working with stakeholders from across the U.S. food and farming industries to establish a national standard for sustainable practices. CATALYST editor Holly Burns sat down with Michael Arny and Amanda Raster to get the inside scoop on how the collaborative principles of strategic design are facilitating Leonardo Academy’s role in developing a standard for agricultural practices based on social, economic and environmental impact. This national effort may very well change how you buy food in the not-to-distant future.
Q: How did Leonardo Academy get its start?
Amanda: Prior to founding the Leonardo Academy, Michael Arny worked for the Wisconsin Public Service Commission. For 14 years, he worked in the energy and emissions sector and grew frustrated with all the bureaucratic tape that you had to go through to get anything done on a broad level. He felt that the free market would be a better place to make things happen environmentally under the premise that economic competition drives development forward. With that concept, he founded Leonardo Academy in 1997 with the purpose of advancing sustainability. The mission of the organization is to use the marketplace to drive incentive for improvement
CATALYST insight: Similar to strategic design practice, Leonardo Academy gathers stakeholders from across disciplines in order to inform a more holistic solution.
Q:What’s the meaning behind the name Leonardo Academy?
Amanda: It was named after the Leonardo da Vinci Academy, which was a non-profit founded by Gunnar Johansen in the mid-20th Century. Johansen was concerned that the fragmentation of human knowledge into separate disciplines was becoming a barrier to solving the world’s problems. He established the Leonardo da Vinci Academy to promote interdisciplinary approaches to problem solving. When Michael founded the Leonardo Academy in 1997, he recognized the need for interdisciplinary solutions to energy, environmental and overall sustainability issues.
“The mission of Leonardo Academy is to use the marketplace to drive incentive for improvement in the sustainability sector.”
Q: What are the main objectives of Leonardo Academy?
Amanda: We focus on addressing the three pillars of sustainability: environmental stewardship, social responsibility and economic prosperity. With every project we do, whether its green building certification, creating standards or working with an organization on its emissions footprint, we strive to have each of those segments work together to form a solid foundation for the sustainability strategy we are developing. We focus on creating tools that enable our clients to measure their sustainability progress so they always have a benchmark; they always have a way of knowing where they were and where they’re headed.
CATALYST insight: Leonardo follows a strategic design approach by first having clients define where they are, then define where they want to be, next explore how to get there and finally establish metrics by which to benchmark progress.
Q: What aspect of your job do you believe brings the most value to the sustainability movement?
Amanda: That’s a really good question. Ensuring that the sustainability tools and frameworks that are developed are rigorous and credible is very important. There is a lot of greenwashing out there and it’s hard to tell who is really practicing something that is sound and based in science. I think the more inclusive sustainability efforts are, the stronger their scientific foundation. Multi-stakeholder inclusion includes a vetting process where people deliberate whether the effort is needed, what sustainability principles need to be considered and addressed, whether the outcome that is developed will work and how the outcome can be modified in the future to account for changes in our knowledge about sustainability. Collaboration is critical, as is an allowance for the frameworks to be flexible and built with room for evolution.
Q: Are there current standards in place for sustainable agriculture?
Amanda: There are a lot of private initiatives in the works, some of which are still under development, others that have not been followed or implemented long enough to determine whether they are effective.
As of right now there are no government standards that regulate sustainability, although certain federal departments are definitely talking about sustainability and others have had it on their radar for decades. For example, the USDA Office of the Chief Economist has developed an initiative on Sustainable Development and they have formed a Council on Sustainable Agriculture. The USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program has been working for more than two decades on issues related to sustainability in agriculture. Also, the USDA Office of Ecosystem Services and Market was launched at the end of last year with the goal of establishing guidelines that measure the environmental services benefits from conservation and land management activities – something that many sustainable agriculture efforts are exploring. I think the government is still trying to get a footing with respect to approaching it from a regulatory level.
The government should definitely be involved in the process to ensure that whatever is written into these standards does not violate federal law. I think that part of the reason why the government hasn’t directly taken on the responsibility of drafting federal sustainability standards is because we are all still grappling with what this concept means, both now and in the long-term. Also, it would not necessarily be cost effective for the government to put its resources in an area where so much is happening on the private level; they can participate as stakeholders in these initiatives and give their input without the cost of actually creating regulatory policy.
Q: How did Leonardo Academy get involved with the development of an agricultural standard and what are your responsibilities in the process?
Amanda: We were approached by an organization in California called Scientific Certification Systems, or SCS. SCS is a global leader in independent certification of environmental, sustainability, food quality and food purity claims. Their standards and certification programs focus on environmental improvement, social accountability and product performance in agriculture, food processing and handling, forestry, flowers and plants, green building and product manufacturing. A couple of years ago, many of SCS’ clients in the agriculture sector approached SCS with the concern that there were multiple sustainability standards they had to comply with in order to sell to a specific supplier or a retailer, and they were furthermore confused about the varying interpretations of ‘sustainability.’ Based on these conversations, SCS developed a draft national standard for sustainable agriculture to essentially give producers one set of sustainability ‘rules’ to follow and to resolve some of the discrepancies with competing definitions of sustainability. SCS felt that the best way for the standard to have national buyin would be to vet it through a public process, so they decided to develop the standard through the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). SCS asked Leonardo Academy, an ANSI accredited standard developer, if we would facilitate the process of developing their standard. Our role is to administer the process from a neutral perspective. We assembled a committee and a number of subcommittees that are responsible for developing the content of the standard, while we handle all of the administrative aspects of the process. We schedule all of the meetings and teleconferences, develop various tools to support the standards-writing process, do outreach to potential stakeholders, raise funds to support the process and document everything along the way. Our responsibilities are primarily to bring people together to talk about the issues and to move the development of the standard along. We make sure that everyone is following the ANSI process to create a national standard.
A lot of non-ANSI standard development initiatives are private or proprietary efforts that focus on a particular sector or group of stakeholders. As such, they are often able to produce an outcome much sooner, and with fewer issues to deliberate, because everyone is generally striving for the same end product. With a national standard, however, and especially a standard for the agriculture sector, the need for facilitation is much greater because there are so many more interests that are affected and so many more perspectives to consider. Leonardo Academy works hard to create space for all of these voices to be heard and for all perspectives to be taken into consideration as the standard content is developed.
Q: How do you foresee the framework for the standard evolving?
Amanda: The standards development committee has been working for over a year now. During its first meeting, the committee decided to set aside the standard drafted by SCS and to start with a thorough investigation as to whether a national sustainable agriculture standard is really needed, who should be involved, what areas of agriculture should be covered and what sustainability principles should be incorporated into the framework. Most of the committee members felt that they did not have any buy-in unless various stakeholders were given the opportunity to give input from the start. They were not satisfied with simply marking up an existing document. There were fundamental issues with the draft standard, such as the preferred use of organic practices and the restriction on which agricultural technologies would be considered ‘sustainable,’ that they felt needed to be looked at from a wide range of perspectives. The best way to move the process forward with support from all sides was to start with a blank document. After about six to eight months of exploring their questions, the committee is now in the process of beginning to develop the criteria that will make up the standard. This first phase will take about three years and includes developing the standard framework, constructing environmental, economic and social criteria and releasing the standard for public comment. A public comment period will occur after the committee agrees on the standard’s content, it will give the public the opportunity to weigh-in and make suggestions before we submit the standard to ANSI to get approved.
CATALYST insight: As is the goal for strategic designers, agricultural stakeholders took a step backward and questioned, “What is the underlying problem we are trying to solve?”
Q: What role does technology play in the sustainability framework?
Amanda: Technology is definitely one of the biggest points of contention in this process and it has been from the start. Part of the reason is because the draft standard written by SCS excluded all forms of emerging technology (for example, biotechnology and nanotechnology) and focused on using the organic principles as the baseline for the technology that is allowable. A big concern coming from certain agricultural sectors is that, if you do not include biotechnology in a sustainability framework, then 95% of American production agriculture is automatically discounted from participating in any sort of sustainability framework because some of the large commodity crops (corn, soy, cotton) rely on genetically engineered seeds to ward off disease or to reduce pesticide and herbicide use. At the last committee meeting, the members agreed to create a standard that allows for any technologies that demonstrate that they increase sustainability. What this is saying is that the committee is going to create the metrics that are going to measure whether or not certain technologies are in fact sustainable. It will be years down the road and require a lot of testing of these metrics before certain technologies are deemed as sustainable or not, but that was the compromise that they made right now to make sure that every kind of technology is part of the discussion and assessed properly.
“The standard may call for change, and change can be difficult to adapt to, but it always creates opportunity”
Q: What kinds of rewards will be offered to farmers who adopt sustainable agriculture practices?
Amanda: Right now, it is still on the table whether or not the standard will be a certification standard. If it is, then there may be built-in incentive to certification. If products are identified as ‘sustainable’ on the label, that is a direct communication to the consumer about how it was produced. There are a growing number of consumers who are willing to pay more for products that they know are produced locally, or sustainably, or organically…anything that’s environmentally friendly or health-friendly. If that mentality continues to spread and we end up developing a certification standard, the incentive will be that some consumers might pay more for these products. However, some retailers are not willing to pay more for products that were produced sustainably, but they want to charge more for them. So the producer does not always see the benefits of incorporating environmentally or socially-conscious practices to produce a ‘sustainable product.’ This, too, is a problem we will need to address.
Michael joined the call.
Michael: To expand on Amanda’s answers — I really see these things as being market-driven. With any of these standards, the reward to participants is that they can sell their products to consumers or retailers who are interested in performance relative to these metrics. Whether or not this turns into a certification standard, I believe it will be used particularly by retailers in their purchasing specifications for the things they buy and that means that farmers and producers who are following this standard will have access to that segment of the marketplace where as those who are not following the standard will not. That is ultimately the reward: the ability to sell one’s products to the retailers or consumers who are interested in these concepts and use them in their specifications for purchases.
Amanda: But there still is a problem — Let’s say Wal-Mart wants to sell a sustainable product, but is not willing to pay the farmer for the cost of sustainable production because they think that sustainability should be common practice and that sustainability characteristics should be implicit. This issue is going to have to be addressed in the standard somehow to ensure that it is economically feasible for a farmer to produce this way and be rewarded for it. Also, beyond the marketplace, there are some government programs in place that provide technical and financial assistance to producers or farmers, that implement certain conservation measures on their farmland. These types of incentives would also fit well into a sustainability framework. It’s an on-farm action but the societal benefits can be rewarded through policy.
CATALYST insight: A customer’s perceived value (based on quality, brand or a certification system like what Leonardo Academy may develop), informs the design decisions of a strategic designer.
Q: What will be the next step after the first phase of your project is completed?
Amanda: After that, we will have to do a lot of public education, informing farmers and farm organizations that the standard is available and even providing guidance on how to use it.
Michael: We will be encouraging producers to consider stepping up to use the standard and identify the benefits of incorporating sustainable practices in their operations. We will be promoting an increase in supply of products that meet the standard and working with retailers and consumers to increase the demand for agricultural products that meet the standard, as well as the never-ending task of ongoing improvement of the standard.
Amanda: Right. I think essentially, after it’s developed and issued for use, there is going to be a lot of pilot testing to identify how well it works. Feedback from growers, and anyone else along the supply chain who is affected by the standard, will be critical in measuring its effectiveness.
CATALYST insight: Strategic design builds in a process for feedback and improvement based on evolving needs and unforeseen weaknesses.
Q: What economic impact do you see the standard having on American agriculture in the short and long term?
Michael: I tend to see things from a competitive market and opportunity perspective. What the standard will do is give the players in commercial agriculture the opportunity to cater to and serve the market that is interested in sustainable food products. To me, that’s a huge opportunity. These things always involve change so that can be a challenge, but I think there’s going to be a growing segment of the population that is interested in having a sustainable food supply and that means there’s going to be demand for the kinds of products that meet a sustainability standard. This will create a huge opportunity for those producers who step up to meet those standards.
I’ll give you a comparative example: Leonardo Academy has done a lot of work on a green building rating system called LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). What the U.S. Green Building Council has succeeded in doing with the LEED rating system, is to create essentially a language of commerce for building sustainability. Before there was LEED, if you wanted a sustainable building you needed a stack of paper two or three feet high to specify exactly what a sustainable building was. With the LEED rating system in place, now you can just say, “I want a LEED certified new building and I would like it to be at the Gold Level.” And you’ve replaced that two or three feet of paper specifying what you want with one sentence because there are clear specifications in place for what constitutes a ‘Gold’ level certified building. LEED has revolutionized the building industry by creating a way to address the needs of people who want to make their buildings sustainable. It has created the opportunity to buy and sell sustainable buildings simply. It has also provided sustainable architectural product service providers a language and set of metrics to describe what they offer to building owners. Just simplifying the process of specifying, purchasing or selling sustainability relative to buildings has created a tremendous market and I really see the same thing happening in the agricultural sector as soon as there is an easy way to specify it. For example, for a retailer to specify that it wants food that meets tier three of the sustainable agriculture standard, is a lot easier than specifying the exact sustainability criteria it wants a producer to meet.
I think both the U.S. and global markets are going to be more and more interested in sustainability of their food supply and this standard will create tremendous opportunity throughout all parts of the supply chain. There are some tenets of sustainability that challenge common ways of thinking about agriculture. The standard may call for change, and change can be difficult to adapt to, but it always creates opportunity.
CATALYST insight: Strategic design builds on successful predecessors instead of constantly reinventing the wheel.
STRATEGIES IN ACTION:
Developing Sustainable Standards
START by asking simple questions such as:
Why is the standard necessary?
Who are the stakeholders?
INCLUDE all stakeholders in the development process. Collaboration is essential for buy-in and large-scale adoption.
IDENTIFY criteria on which the standards will be built.
BUILD rigorous and credible, yet flexible frameworks.
INCLUDE a public comment period. Encourage feedback.
About the Authors:
Michael Arny, President
Michael Arny founded Leonardo Academy in 1997. He has worked on energy and environmental issues his entire career. After earning a BS and MS in mechanical engineering and a BA in Psychology and Russian language at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Michael worked for the Wisconsin Public Service Commission for 14 years. He chaired the State of Wisconsin committee that developed the State of Wisconsin Greenhouse Gas emissions inventory, emission reduction cost analysis and the economic benefits analysis for emission reductions. Michael attended the first meeting that launched the development of the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED for Existing Buildings (LEED-EB) rating system in 2000. Michael served as Chair of the LEED-EB Committee from 2001-2005, where he guided LEED-EB through the development, pilot testing, refinement and balloting process. He is a registered professional engineer in the State of Wisconsin and is a LEED® Accredited Professional.
Amanda Raster , Sustainability Standards Development
Amanda Raster joined Leonardo Academy in 2007 and leads the organization’s efforts to develop sustainability standards for accreditation under the American National Standard Institute (ANSI). She is actively managing the process of establishing a national consensus standard for sustainable agriculture, as well as a standard for life-cycle impact declarations. Prior to joining Leonardo Academy, Amanda managed a 350-member, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA ) program at Homegrown Wisconsin, a Madison-based farmers’ cooperative. She earned a BA in Anthropology and Conservation Biology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an academic certificate from the Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies. Through her work, education and agricultural background, Amanda has a broad understanding of the socio-environmental interface of various sustainability issues.
Global G.A.P. established an integrated, modular standard for sustainable agriculture
The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education organization
Sustainable Agriculture Network in association with the Rainforest Alliance
Find local, organic farms on www.localharvest.org