Characterising sustainability certification standards in dairy production

K. McGarr-O'Brien*, J. Herron, L. Shalloo, I.J.M. De Boer, E.M. De Olde

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Despite the increasing use of private certification standards to meet the demand for sustainable dairy production, research into these standards is lacking. In this paper, we characterised sustainability certification standards currently used in dairy production. A literature search for dairy sustainability initiatives revealed one hundred-and-sixteen possible standards. In total, 19 of these were determined to qualify as ‘sustainability certification standards’ based on our selection criteria and were available in English or Dutch language. The standards were analysed using publicly available documents of the most recent version. The analysis included three key components: (i) general characteristics of the standard (such as the geographic origin, year founded, most recent updates), (ii) a thematic coverage analysis of the sustainability themes covered in each standard and (iii) evaluation of the inherent trade-offs within each standard utilising the opposing aspects of credibility, accessibility, and continuous improvement (the ‘devil's triangle’). The comparison of general characteristics of the 19 standards revealed a wide variation in the characteristics of standards such as organisation type (i.e. nongovernmental organisations, individual dairy processor or other dairy sector actors), the number of indicators included, but also in the sustainability themes they cover, and how they balance the credibility, accessibility, and continuous improvement. The environmental pillar is most frequently and comprehensively addressed, whereas the economic pillar is least frequently and least comprehensively addressed. The ‘devil's triangle’ trade-off analysis revealed that credibility and accessibility, from the standard's perspective, are often transparently described and assured within the documents of standards. In contrast, continuous improvement is infrequently focused upon by standards. Overall, the variability in standards may allow farmers to choose a standard that aligns with his/her conviction or stage of development but might also create consumer or farmer mistrust in standards.

Original languageEnglish
Article number100863
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2023


  • Assessment
  • Farming systems
  • Livestock
  • Milk
  • Sustainability programmes


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