The NRI Programme on Sustainable Trade and Responsible Business draws upon our long-standing expertise in smallholder agriculture, natural resources management, economic development and rural livelihoods in innovative research and practice. In collaboration with diverse partners, we seek to generate knowledge on changing patterns of global and regional production, trade and consumption, and practical insights on how to advance more sustainable solutions.
Lessons are being generated to inform civil society, companies, community-based and workers’ organisations, governments and consumers on responsible business and sustainable trade, to improve their development and environmental impact. There is also a need for an evidence-informed debate in international development to establish whether and when complementary or alternative measures are required to achieve public goods, such as tackling biodiversity loss and climate change, achieving food and livelihood security, eliminating poverty and addressing inequality.
Theme 1: Regenerative and Circular Economy
Within the world of responsible business, a movement has already been growing which focuses upon ‘regenerative business’, ‘regenerative economy, and on ‘regenerative agriculture’. Essentially, anything regenerative is something that restores, renews, revitalizes or regrows the source of its energy and materials. Current crises (COVID-19 and climate and environmental) throw into sharp relief the imperative of more regenerative politics, economics and cultures. The term regenerative, like any good buzzword, is being interpreted in different ways, and is perhaps a catch-all for many existing approaches and concepts. But it may also be an idea whose time has come, given the current context, especially where it refocuses attention and investment appropriately in local and place-based solutions, and addresses issue of community accountability and empowerment. Research and practice on circular economy is proliferating, aiming to shift away from linear economic models involving high levels of waste, to circularity in which waste is eliminated and the continual use of resources becomes the focus, but there are outstanding research questions and a need for urgent action. Research on both of these interlinked, but divergent themes, is on-going.
Theme 2: Inclusive, sustainable value chain development
Integrated sustainability analysis (financial, social, environmental) of value chains and implementation of capacity strengthening for supply chain actors, especially smallholders and local communities, to enhance pro-poor and inclusion outcomes.
Theme 3: Sustainable landscapes
Research and evaluation of sustainable landscape initiatives which seek to balance multiple stakeholder interests for environmental sustainability and social goals, and many of which are driven by private sector interests and resources. A specific focus is on Forest-Landscape initiatives, which are based upon produce-protect mechanisms, as well as restoration and high value, low intensity forest product value chain development
Theme 4: Responsible business and global value chains
Assessing the effectiveness and impact of different sustainable supply chain initiatives, including sustainability standards, responsible business initiatives, responsible land investments, forest-landscape approaches and sector transformation programming, especially in forestry and agriculture and apparel.
Applied studies focusing on advancing understanding and responses to specific sustainability issues, such as child labour, climate change, or ocean plastics.
Theme 5: Sustainability governance and power relations
Understanding the root causes of social and environmental sustainability challenges in global, regional and domestic value chains and production networks, and the impacts of business and trade on poor people, communities and environments, particularly in Africa, Latin America and Asia.
Conceptualising the evolving nature of private and public responses (e.g. initiatives, standards, programmes, procurement policies, legislation, new organisational forms, benchmarking, digital technologies) to sustainability challenges in production, trade and consumption, especially sustainability standards and other supply chain sustainability initiatives.
Theme 6: Sustainability standards and supply chain initiatives
Assessing the impact of sustainability standards and supply chain initiatives to identify practical improvements and necessary complementary or alternative measures.
Theme 7: Fairtrade effectiveness and impacts
Action research and assessing the poverty and environmental impacts of Fairtrade to identify potential strategic improvements and alternatives.
Achievements to date:
- Forest landscapes: Interest in forest landscapes initiatives is currently extremely high because many threatened forests are climate critical and essential for biodiversity and people’s livelihoods, especially indigenous peoples. Research on sustainable landscapes explores the mechanisms employed by public, private and civic actors to transform not only farm systems, but sectors and latterly entire landscapes. Issues relating to sustainable sourcing and jurisdictional approaches have been explored, and evaluations of donor initiatives unpack their transformative potential. Thematic studies and evaluations have been conducted on enabling conditions, demand side measures and sectoral or landscape based forest partnerships involving combinations of interventions, including non-timber forest product development, produce-protect mechanisms, and restoration business models.
- Responsible Land Investments and Land Rights: Specifically, in agriculture and forestry, recent work is focusing on advancing land and natural resources rights in responsible land investments and research and evaluation of forest-landscape approaches to tackle deforestation and support livelihoods.
- Responsible Business and Private-Sector Led Development Evaluation: More recently, NRI has undertaken evaluations of complex donor programmes aimed at facilitating private-sector led development which integrates social and environmental issues as core business concerns, identifying key policy recommendations.
- Natural Product Value Chains: NRI is known for its work on natural product value chains, particularly in Southern Africa. This research and practice have revolved around developing successful value chains for wild harvested natural products, collaborating with local NGOs, governments, communities and buyers to develop platforms and business partnership models that protect plant species in situ and motivate conservation and income generation. Work on non-timber forest products (NTFP) has been a longstanding area of interest, and in recent years, evaluations of new NTFP initiatives, linked to sustainable finance and landscape governance have informed policy and practice.
- Value Chain Analysis and Development: NRI has long-standing experience in value chain analysis and development, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as Latin America and Asia. NRI work has advanced understanding of how to effectively support more inclusive value chain development in practice, for local, national, regional and international markets. This includes community-based enterprises in natural product trade, staple food crops, such as cassava, and in export crops, such as tomatoes and green vegetables. NRI work has highlighted the need for adaptive approaches in coordinating chain actors and building their capacity to cope with uncertainty.
- Governance of Sustainability: Our research on the governance of public and private sustainability standards, supply chain sustainability initiatives and multi-stakeholder initiatives in agribusiness has unpacked the changing dynamics of sustainability governance in emerging global production networks and value chains. We have highlighted the concentration of power in global value chains, which limits the effectiveness of private sustainability standards and contributed to a new field of study on private governance and hybrid public-private governance in relation to sustainability issues. In recent years, we have explored forest-landscape initiatives (see above).
- Corporate Codes of Practice: NRI was the first to undertake a major study of the impact of corporate codes of practices and social auditing, which revealed both impacts and areas of no-change, especially for temporary workers and on empowerment indicators, and raised issues of power inequalities leading to unfair purchasing practices in global value chains which undermine supplier capacity to implement improvements.
- Fairtrade and Sustainability Standards: NRI work in this field began in the late 1990s. NRI researchers were the first to assess the impact of Fairtrade and sustainability standards. Our work has contributed to changes in strategy by Fairtrade and sustainability standards, including improvements in their own monitoring, evaluation and learning systems, but also supported a sea-change in understanding more widely of the limits of sustainability standards, amongst donors, companies, civil society and governments, and of the need for alternative and complementary measures to achieve poverty impact and environmental sustainability.