Janina Grabs, Federico Cammelli, Sam Levy, and Rachael Garrett

How to find synergies between effectiveness and equity when designing supply chain sustainability policies

Companies with global supply chains are under growing pressure to ensure that their activities and sourcing patterns abroad do not contribute to environmental degradation and human rights abuses. In response, many businesses create supply chain sustainability policies. Such company-internal schemes, such as supplier codes of conduct or internal guidelines, specify companies’ commitments and expected supplier practices. These policies are then passed down through multiple tiers of the supply chain until they reach the relevant actors on the factory floor or at the farm level. A prominent example of such policies are zero-deforestation commitments, in which companies pledge to stop purchasing commodities that were grown on former forest land (Garrett et al., 2019). Such zero-deforestation supply chain commitments may contribute significantly to ecosystem conservation.

However, supply chain sustainability policies may also generate unintended outcomes (INOBU, 2016; Klooster, 2005; Pereira et al., 2016). This blog draws on a recently published article (Grabs et al., 2021) to argue that companies can make decisions during supply chain policy design, implementation, and enforcement that allow for synergies between effectiveness (in ecosystem conservation) and equity (in allowing all types of producers to access sustainable supply chains) and avoid trade-offs between the two goals.

Unintended consequences of supply chain sustainability policies? The risk of exclusion
One important example of unintended consequences of supply chain sustainability policies concerns producer exclusion. For instance, such policies may exclude smallholders and other producers with low capacities to adapt to changing supply chain requirements from the value chain. Such unintended exclusion can be prevented by ensuring access equity.

Access equity represents the equal opportunity of different groups of producers, particularly those with high and low adaptive capacities, to participate in sustainable supply chains (Pignataro 2012). Access equity safeguards the freedom of choice of producers to decide which markets they want to participate in. If the sustainable market offers improved prices or sales conditions, they will also be able to benefit from such perks.

But who is likely to be excluded? We suggest to use the concept of adaptive capacity to think about which producers may be inadvertently at a risk of exclusion. Adaptive capacity is any capability or asset that allows producers to rapidly adapt to changing market conditions and expectations. We find that such capabilities can be thought of in six broad categories: education and access to information; technological capacity; financial resources; legal standing; organizational scale and quality; and attitudes, values and norms. In each of these categories, producers with low adaptive capacities may encounter barriers that prevent them from adjusting their practices quickly enough to be kept in the value chain. However, corporate actors may help producers to overcome such barriers, for instance by creating awareness training, simplifying criteria, providing financial support and premium payments, or helping producers to attain necessary legal documents (see Table 1).

How to generate synergies between effectiveness and equity
In our work, we examine how companies may design supply chain sustainability policies in a way that avoids unintended producer exclusion, while still addressing the sustainability challenges at the center of the policy. As exclusion can pose reputational costs to companies, this can motivate companies to try to tackle this challenge. We find that there are a number of decisions at various points in the policy implementation process that allow for such synergies. Table 2 shows the different stages of the process and seven synergistic steps that companies – in conjunction with other policy makers – can take to ensure producer inclusion without limiting their policies’ effectiveness.

Some companies in key deforestation-risk commodities are already pursuing steps to this effect. For instance, palm oil companies such as Wilmar and Musim Mas have dedicated substantial resources toward widespread rule dissemination and the removal of barriers to compliance (steps 4 and 5). Wilmar’s training program on compliance with the Indonesian Palm Oil Standard reached 8,670 independent smallholders out of 18,100 farmers that directly supply their mills (Wilmar 2020). Lessons learned on scaling outreach efforts – such as train-the-trainer programs – are now also increasingly used to sensitize smallholder farmers on no-deforestation criteria and rules directly. Further, select farmers are aided in getting land titles and other types of legal alignment (step 5), albeit still on a pilot project level.

Cocoa companies, in contrast, support smallholder transformations by piloting community co-production (step 3) and payments for compliance (step 6). The Cocoa and Forests Initiative was launched in 2017 as a highly ambitious, sector-wide, public-private partnership that aimed to tackle the problem of commodity-driven deforestation in a holistic fashion (Carodenuto 2019). In a step-wise, multi-stakeholder approach, actors moved from statements of intent to joint action frameworks and implementation plans, which ensured a strong coordination between public and private actors (step 2). Although cocoa farmers were not strongly involved in policy development, some companies organized consultations in cocoa communities on the implementation of the framework (step 3). Furthermore, positive incentive-setting for conservation (step 6) was also integrated, as companies promoted payments for ecosystem services to protect and restore forested areas. However, such schemes are still at a small scale.

The way forward
In conclusion, businesses need to be part of global solutions to meet the complex and multidimensional sustainability challenges of our time. However, ad-hoc or naive approaches may cause unintended consequences and have adverse livelihood impacts on the most vulnerable global value chain members. Companies can avoid such drawbacks, and thereby avoid reputational cost, by closely considering the likely effects of sustainable supply chain policies on diverse actors in a businesses’ value chain, and adjusting their rules and support structures in response. In this way, they can generate synergies between the effectiveness and equity of their supply chain sustainability policies. At the same time, companies cannot do it alone – there is an urgent need for greater cooperation and alignment by public policymakers in producing and consuming regions to provide the regulatory space and resources for the steps outlined above (e.g. a clear land tenure system) and to contribute to a more equal playing field (e.g. by providing financial incentives for more inclusive supply chains and disincentivizing smallholder exclusion). In the long run, moving toward more diversified, sustainable economies may be the best bet for tropical countries that aim to pursue sustainable livelihoods and development while preserving vital ecosystems.


Carodenuto, S. (2019). Governance of zero deforestation cocoa in West Africa: New forms of public–private interaction. Environmental Policy and Governance, 29(1), 55–66.

ETHZ-EPL (2021) Guide for effective and equitable zero-deforestation supply chain policies. Environmental Policy Lab, ETH Zurich.

Garrett, R. D., Levy, S., Carlson, K. M., Gardner, T. A., Godar, J., Clapp, J., et al. (2019). Criteria for effective zero-deforestation commitments. Global Environmental Change, 54, 135–147.

Grabs, J., Cammelli, F., Levy, S. A., & Garrett, R. D. (2021). Designing effective and equitable zero-deforestation supply chain policies. Global Environmental Change, 70, 102357.

INOBU. (2016). A Profile of Small-scale Oil Palm Farmers and The Challenges of Farming Independently. Jakarta: Institut Penelitian Inovasi Bumi.

Klooster, D. (2005). Environmental certification of forests: The evolution of environmental governance in a commodity network. Journal of Rural Studies, 21(4), 403–417.

Pereira, R., Simmons, C. S., & Walker, R. (2016). Smallholders, Agrarian Reform, and Globalization in the Brazilian Amazon: Cattle versus the Environment. Land, 5(3), 24.

Pignataro, G. (2012). Equality of Opportunity: Policy and Measurement Paradigms. Journal of Economic Surveys, 26(5), 800–834.

Wilmar. (2020). Sustainability Report 2019 – Sustainable Sourcing. Wilmar International.

Contributors from our Network

Janina Grabs

Janina Grabs
ESADE Business School and Environmental Policy Lab, Department of Humanities, Social and Political Sciences, ETH Zürich

Janina Grabs is an Assistant Professor of Business and Society at the Department of Society, Politics and Sustainability at ESADE Business School, Barcelona. She received her PhD in Political Science from the University of Münster, Germany, and previously was a post-doctoral researcher at ETH Zurich and visiting researcher at Yale University. Her work focuses on the private governance of sustainability in global value chains, with a special focus on tropical agricultural commodities such as coffee and palm oil. Her work on the effectiveness of private sustainability governance in the coffee sector has been widely recognized, inter alia with ESG’s Oran R. Young Prize, APSA’s Virginia M. Walsh Dissertation Award, and ECPR’s Giandomenico Majone Prize, and is published in the book “Selling Sustainability Short? The Private Governance of Labor and the Environment in the Coffee Sector” (2020, Cambridge University Press), which received the AoM 2021 ONE Book Award. She has further published in leading peer-reviewed journals including Regulation & Governance, Business Strategy and the Environment, New Political Economy, the Journal of Economic Geography, Ecological Economics, and the Journal of Environmental Management. Janina is also a research fellow of the Earth System Governance project, is the Earth System Governance Journal’s Book Review Editor, serves on the Outreach Committee of the International Studies Association’s Environmental Studies Section, is a founding member of the ECPR Standing Group on Regulatory Governance’s Early Career Network, and sits on the Standing Group on Regulatory Governance’s Steering Committee.

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Rachael D. Garrett

Rachael D. Garrett
Environmental Policy Lab, Department of Humanities, Social and Political Sciences, ETH Zürich

Rachael Garrett is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Policy at ETH Zürich (Switzerland). Dr. Garrett's research examines interactions between land use, ecosystem services, and economic development at multiple spatial and temporal scales to better understand the drivers and impacts of land change and the effectiveness of existing conservation policies and practices. She is particularly interested in how commodity supply chains interact with environmental institutions to shape land use processes, resource distribution, and trade. Her research has largely focused on land change processes in agriculture-forest frontiers and sustainable intensification of pastures in the tropics. More recently she is leading a pan-tropical analysis of the effectiveness and equity of forest-focused supply chain policies with funding from the Swiss National Science Foundation and an ERC Starting Grant. This work involves coordinated research in Brazil, Ghana, Indonesia, and Ivory Coast on beef cattle, cocoa, oil palm, and soybean supply chains. Dr. Garrett received her doctorate at Stanford University and did her post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard University. Prior to working at ETH Zürich she was an Assistant Professor at Boston University.

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Federico Cammelli

Federico Cammelli
Environmental Policy Lab, Department of Humanities, Social and Political Sciences, ETH Zürich

Federico Cammelli is a postdoctoral researcher at the Environmental Policy Lab of ETH Zurich. He received his PhD in Economics from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU). His research focuses on designing and assessing public and private policies to mitigate commodity driven deforestation and forest degradation in the Brazilian Amazon, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire.

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