We have seen the word everywhere. Sustainability, in its many forms, is at the grocery store, being driven by the big boxes and in the consumer press. But what exactly does the word mean? Can a grower who has adopted energy alternatives rightly market his crops as sustainable? What about the grower who sells his plants in biodegradable pots? Does a grower have to go organic to be considered sustainable or is reducing chemicals enough?
This is where Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) comes in. The organization is an independent certifier of environmental, sustainability, food quality and food purity claims, and runs a certification program called VeriFlora that emphasizes sustainability standards. Now available for the potted plants sector in the U.S. ornamental industry, VeriFlora is gaining ground with interest from growers, retailers, wholesalers and other distributors. And with sustainable practices becoming more important to consumers and a priority in many industries, proponents of sustainability certification are encouraging growers to take a hard look at their own production practices.
The idea behind setting a sustainability standard is to provide one clear definition to the industry so everyone is on the same page, says Linda Brown, SCS executive vice president.
“Having that will help to ensure that when people use the term sustainability to define their practices and products, that they are using the same meaning,” she says. “It will also have international ramifications because it will make sure that anybody making a sustainability claim on products sold in this country are being held to the same standard.”
So what is VeriFlora all about? Aside from using crop production practices that build soil fertility and control pests without the use of chemicals, such as practices found in organic production, the program also emphasizes wildlife protection; energy and water efficiency; reductions in greenhouse gases and wastes; and fair labor practices, among other facets (see “Elements Of Sustainability”). VeriFlora is the first sustainability program for cut flowers and potted plants that addresses all of these areas.
“In the past three years, VeriFlora has grown exponentially in the cut flower sector, from about 18 million stems to more than 750 million stems this year,” Brown says. “We are now beginning to see a surge in interest in the potted plant sector, fueled in part by growing retailer interest in sustainably grown products. As awareness of VeriFlora grows and general interest in sustainability grows, we expect a large segment of the industry to adopt sustainability practices and seek certification.”
While recognizing organic growers as the top tier in sustainable production, VeriFlora also requires conventional growers to develop a plan for converting to organic pest management and soil fertility practices over time. It also covers three other areas beyond organic practices: environmental and social responsibility and product quality.
“Sustainability is a larger umbrella than organic, and organic is contained within the scope of sustainability, but not the other way around,” Brown says. “So ultimately sustainability is the direction of the future. That’s why we need a comprehensive standard that takes all of these issues under one framework, and organic practices will thrive under a sustainability framework rather than being shoveled off to being something opposite.”
Growers interested in the VeriFlora certification start by filling out an application, which is available at www.veriflora.com. The initial process involves entering into a certification agreement, including confidentiality. Next, the applicant completes the Self-Assessment Checklist, a crucial step of the entire certification effort. The Self-Assessment Checklist helps growers identify areas in their businesses that need attention, Brown says.
“The checklist is really an educational tool inasmuch as it’s part of a certification process, because it shows people these are the things you need to pay attention to if you want to move toward a sustainable marketing claim.”
SCS reviews the grower’s Self-Assessment Checklist once submitted, and based on the review, determines whether the grower is ready to move toward certification on Track 2 or whether the grower needs to go through the set-up phase in Track 1.
“Depending on the readiness of the grower or handler, the timeframe for sustainability is two to six months,” Brown says. “Two months if sustainability practices are in place, six months or more if sustainability practices are not well documented or if corrective actions are required.”
Track 1 follows a set of steps specific to the individual grower, depending on the policies or practices the grower may need to write or implement. For example, a grower may not have a written policy on harassment in the workplace, a subject under the fair labor practices element. The grower would then need to draft and enact such a policy to move forward with certification.
For areas in which a grower needs assessment, SCS and the applicant together identify areas that are deficient to certification standards and a plan to correct these areas in current practices and procedures. SCS works with applicants to help them establish new practices, procedures and policy documents, and provides any necessary information. The organization will also visit growers on-site to provide training to key personnel and help managers develop written procedures and documentation.
“Achieving Track 1 sustainability is an incremental process, whereby a company tackles one issue at a time in a manner that is most cost effective and practical for its operations,” Brown says.
After all areas identified as needing attention are completed, the applicant submits an updated Self-Assessment Checklist and if approved, moves on to Track 2 toward certification.
In Track 2, SCS conducts an on-site inspection in which the auditor reviews documents, gathers evidence and interviews employees, and prepares an Audit Report that identifies any major or minor Corrective Action Requirements (CARs). Once CARs are completed, SCS reviews the grower’s steps to do so. Finally the SCS Certification Committee evaluates the applicant’s actions and policies and decides whether to issue a new certification, extend an existing certification or deny, suspend or revoke an existing certification, as the case may be.
“If this is an initial audit, CARs are identified. A major CAR must be corrected before certification can be granted, while a minor CAR generally must be implemented within a defined timeframe,” Brown says. “If this is a certification renewal inspection and major CARs are identified, then a certification may be suspended or revoked, unless immediate corrective action is undertaken.”
Generating Interest And Awareness
So far, one potted plant grower has become VeriFlora certified in the United States, Ball Tagawa in Arroyo Grande, Calif. The operation, a joint venture between Ball Horticultural Co. and Tagawa Greenhouses of Colorado that produces young plants for wholesale growers, was certified this past summer, following Ball’s lead. Ball Horticultural Co. has become certified sustainable, farm by farm, in each of the countries where it owns production operations, through VeriFlora in the United States and other similar sustainability certification programs worldwide, says Bill Doeckel, general manager of Ball Innovations, who is heading up many of the company’s efforts on sustainability. Ball has already been a big influence in the industry-wide sustainability movement.
“One of our goals as a company is to promote sustainability and to get more growers producing sustainably,” Doeckel says. “Certification does require a commitment on behalf of the grower. You have to decide what is important to you as a business. We think it’s important for the industry to move in that direction and that is why we have spent time volunteering on these different committees to move the effort forward.”
Currently, 13 growers in South America with a total of 32 farms are either certified or soon to be certified by VeriFlora. In the United States, six growers and a total of 18 farms are certified or soon to be certified, including industry leaders Sun Valley Group and B&H Flowers. In addition, certified handlers include three of the largest floral distributors in North America – Delaware Valley Floral Group, Savoir Fleur and Sierra Flower Trading, Ltd.
The newly forming VeriFlora Sustainability Council is an organization that will aim to promote the VeriFlora brand in the marketplace and educate the industry and consumer public about what it means to be sustainable and the importance of sustainable agriculture practices. Annie Gardiner, the council’s executive director, says the organization is looking to formalize its structure in the next 60 days.
“We are constituting ourselves as a legal entity and putting a membership structure in place and at the same time starting some of our mission-driven activities,” she says.
In addition to promotion and education, the council will provide certified members with support around their VeriFlora certified product and train them to talk to buyers about it, as well as work with retailers to set up appropriate merchandising to draw their customers’ interest in sustainable products. The council will also work to train retail sales staffs to sell VeriFlora certified product.
“There is a VeriFlora merchandising program so plants can be marketed at retail,” Gardiner says. “We also have the consumer Web site, www.veriflora.com, and are aggressively targeting the consumer press to get that pull through.”
The Future Of Sustainable Agriculture
Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) is working to take the tenets of VeriFlora to the next level by turning sustainable agriculture practices into a national standard through the American National Standard Institute (ANSI). At press time SCS was conducting open meetings in the San Francisco Bay area to glean interest and support for the Sustainable Agriculture Practice Draft National Standard for Trial Use.