Which Comes First, Legitimacy or Impact? A Look at the Roundtables for Sustainable Beef

22 April 2019
Kristy Buckley

In an era where beef and animal protein are gaining attention for their sustainability impacts, voluntary sustainability efforts like the Roundtables for Sustainable Beef (RSBs) have emerged as key players in the global effort to define sustainability for beef production. To do this, RSBs are pulling together diverse groups—NGOs, ranchers, corporations—to discuss pathways for enhancing sustainability. Their efforts have spurred a Global Roundtable and half a dozen national roundtables from Canada to Brazil, with several more on the horizon.

RSBs, like other voluntary sustainability approaches, face challenges regarding the perceived legitimacy of the effort. But what is legitimacy in volunteer initiatives such as the RSBs? Some would define this as when diverse stakeholders—traders, NGOs, producers—accept the collective community’s rule and view it as appropriate and justified to maximize effectiveness and impact.  Yet, the path to legitimacy can present a chicken-or-egg paradox: to be seen as legitimate in the eyes of many stakeholders, RSBs must demonstrate real sustainability impact; to achieve real impact, they must be seen as legitimate.

How can RSBs achieve results and dispel concerns about legitimacy? A fundamental characteristic of beef roundtables is their multi-stakeholder composition. Since consensus decisions among RSB participants set the parameters for improving sustainability, they ultimately determine the impact a RSB can have.

Many roundtable stakeholders view the diversity of their stakeholders as a strength which lends credibility and rigor to the sustainability metrics it upholds for the sector—thereby enhancing RSBs legitimacy. However, some RSB stakeholders view competing interests and lack of stakeholder commitment as barriers to advancing sustainability, arguing that an industry-only group would make decisions and achieve impact more efficiently.

As a professional convener, I sometimes hear critiques of consensus outcomes as the “lowest common denominator.” This observation tends to discount the sense of legitimacy that comes from having many different people, often with competing interests, come to agreement and stand behind something collectively. Unilateral decision-making can be more efficient, but it comes at a cost. Broader adoption, credibility, and support for systems change are potential benefits of a consensus outcome produced by a diverse multi-stakeholder groups.

As the world continues to grapple with sustainable animal protein, there is merit in comparing evolving RSB governance approaches through the lenses of efficiency, impact, and perceived legitimacy. Some of the national RSBs—Mexico and Colombia, for instance—directly engage policymakers which could present a fast-track way to create informed policies, thereby avoiding the potential legitimacy-impact paradox of a purely voluntary approach. In the absence of clear policy incentives for sustainability, the commitment by all roundtable stakeholders can foster greater legitimacy, enabling real sustainability impact sooner.

For those wanting to do go deeper, please see the full article: Pursuing Sustainability Through Multi-stakeholder Collaboration: A description of the governance, actions, and perceived impacts of the roundtables for sustainable beef.

What We've Learned

Funders asked us to explore beef sustainability. We shared our reflections.