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Sustainability scores, but how high?

Posted 10/11/2011 by sevans

Sustainability is a word that is much in vogue these days. So what does it actually mean? According to the much-quoted Brundtland definition: ‘Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ In other words, we need to be respectful of our impact on the planet and how this affects our children and those who come after them. Another popular definition, much cited of late by the agricultural community, is the concept ‘to do less, with more [resources]’.

At a press day at its headquarters in Ludwigshafen this week, the world’s leading chemical company BASF claimed to have attempted to have gone one step further by assigning a value to the concept – an overall sustainability score that the company says will provide a tool for farmers and other interested stakeholders to evaluate the merits of the company’s various agrochemical products and processes, as well as to inform its own R&D programmes and direct research spending. It is, in principle, a laudable idea and one that knowledge-hungry farmers will no doubt be eager to take on board, yet one can’t help wondering whether this is really the best way of going about things.

For all its talk about independent assurances – reportedly from the TUV SUD, DNV Business Assurance and NSF International – and about the transparent publication of all its various ‘AgBalance’ studies, several of which are already under way or nearing completion, BASF is at the end of the day a company interested in making money by selling its products. The final sustainability scores will ultimately be decided by what are the various inputs and by the relative weightings that each of these is then assigned – subjective values that will surely reflect the nature of the organisation(s) involved. A sustainability score for a particular product or process by AgBalance may – and indeed is very likely to be quite different from a sustainability rating for the same product or process from  a different set up involving, say, an NGO.  

Putting a score on sustainability is a nice idea but at the end of the day it may simply be perceived by some as a clever marketing exercise.

Cath O’Driscoll - Deputy editor

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