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Sustainable sourcing: Ethical considerations for agricultural buyers

Nov 24, 2023
9 min read

With the increasing demand for sustainable sourcing, retailers and agricultural buyers must have an understanding of ethical considerations.

At a glance:

  • Ethical sourcing in agriculture integrates labor, environment, and social impact, reflecting consumer values and bolstering sustainable business.
  • Agri-buyers must ensure just labor practices, environmental responsibility, transparency, animal welfare, and support for local farming.
  • Collaboration, continuous improvement, risk mitigation, and stakeholder engagement are pivotal for enduring ethical sourcing practices.

Ethical and sustainable choices have been increasingly driving consumer trends in retail. Thus, the importance of ethical considerations for agricultural buyers when sourcing agricultural products cannot be overstated. Ethical sourcing encompasses labor practices, environmental sustainability, and social responsibility.

These aspects not only reflect the values of a responsible global community but also make business sense. Consumers are increasingly opting for products that align with their ethical and environmental values. This article aims to set the stage for discussing key ethical considerations and best practices for agricultural buyers in the sourcing of agricultural products.

Understanding ethical sourcing

Essentially, ethical sourcing involves procurement practices that consider the well-being of workers, the environment, and the broader social impact. It aligns with current consumer trends and retail industry data, which reveal a growing demand for products that are sourced and produced with ethical and sustainable principles in mind.

As agri-buyers navigate the complex landscape of global food sourcing, they must recognize that ethical considerations have a far-reaching impact. Beyond regulatory standards adherence, these considerations encompass an overall commitment to responsible business practices that foster a positive global impact.

To gain a deeper understanding of these ethical considerations and ensure their implementation, agricultural buyers can leverage the power of data and analytics provided by platforms like Tridge Data & Analytics.

This strategy empowers them with unparalleled insights into market trends and supply-chain dynamics, enabling them to make informed decisions and confidently seize new opportunities. By integrating data-driven approaches with ethical sourcing practices, agricultural buyers can take significant steps toward a sustainable future.

Ethical considerations and best practices for agri-buyers

Ethically conscious buyers looking to incorporate sustainable sourcing in their lifestyles can follow these guiding principles.

Labor practices

One of the foundational pillars of ethical sourcing in agriculture is ensuring that labor practices are just and humane. Buyers should work with suppliers who prioritize fair wages, safe working conditions, and employee well-being.

Verify that suppliers adhere to labor laws and regulations before buying anything. The International Labor Organization (ILO) established labor standards and child labor in agriculture, which can give buyers insights into which suppliers they should support.

At a glance, child labor in agriculture is a pressing issue due to its under-regulation in many countries, resulting in lax safety standards for children working in this sector. To combat these issues, the ILO has established conventions.

Specifically, Convention No. 138 sets the minimum working age at 15 (with flexibility for some countries). In addition, Convention No. 182 prohibits the worst forms of child labor across all sectors.

To promote fair labor practices, agri-buyers can encourage collective bargaining and worker rights. This way, they not only guarantee that workers are treated with dignity and respect but they also strengthen the communities where farming operations are located.

Environmental sustainability

Environmental sustainability is a critical aspect of ethical sourcing in agriculture. Agri-buyers can demand environmentally responsible farming practices, which usually include reduced chemical usage, sustainable water management, and soil conservation.

Buyers sourcing products that are certified as organic, non-GMO (genetically modified organism), or produced through sustainable agriculture practices is a significant step in this direction.

Evaluating the supplier's environmental impact and their commitment to reducing it is also crucial. Buyers should prioritize suppliers who actively work to minimize their ecological footprint.


Transparency is key to ensuring ethical sourcing. Agri-buyers should establish clear and transparent supply chain traceability, allowing for the verification of the product's origins and production processes. Moreover, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says that transparency is vital role international agrifood trade.

According to FAO, transparency reduces uncertainty and promotes predictability and stability. Thus, various rules are in place under the World Trade Organization (WTO), encompassing the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) and the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) measures, among others.

These rules obligate governments to effectively communicate their policies and regulations that impact foreign trade. The WTO and FAO are actively engaged in enhancing transparency within agrifood trade. The WTO diligently monitors trade policies, while FAO's efforts in markets and trade significantly contribute to this overarching objective.

Collaborating with suppliers that are open to sharing information about their operations and supply chain partners is essential. By fostering transparency, buyers can build trust with their suppliers and provide consumers with confidence in the ethical sourcing of their products.

Animal welfare

For buyers sourcing animal-based products, ensuring that animals are treated humanely is paramount. Agri-buyers should support suppliers that adhere to animal welfare certification standards or guidelines. By promoting ethical treatment of animals, agricultural buyers contribute to a more humane and sustainable agriculture industry.

Adherence usually includes considering the conditions in which animals are raised, transported, and slaughtered. For example, Certified Animal Welfare Approved by AGW (A Greener World) is globally recognized for its rigorous standards in farm animal welfare and environmental sustainability, developed through collaboration with experts.

It focuses on natural animal behavior, covering major livestock and poultry, while exclusively accrediting independent farmers. Standards encompass all lifecycle aspects, which it regularly updates for the latest research.

AGW has a program that includes commonly domesticated animals, with additional species it considers for accreditation only if indigenous to the production country. For instance, in the U.S., bison is eligible. However, it excludes non-indigenous species like yak, water buffalo, ratites, llamas, and alpacas. AGW experts continually review their standards for economic farm viability.

Local and small-scale farming

Supporting local and small-scale farming operations is ethical and environmentally responsible. It strengthens local communities and reduces the carbon footprint associated with long-distance transportation of agricultural products.

For example, a case study in Suburban Shanghai, China discussed whether small-scale organic farming solutions contribute to the local environment. The article underscores that supporting local and small-scale farming operations aligns with ethical principles and is environmentally responsible.

These practices contribute to a healthier environment, reduced negative impacts on nature, and better public health, all of which are crucial components of ethical and responsible food production. By encouraging local sourcing, buyers can play a crucial role in reducing the environmental impact of their supply chain.

Agri-buyers can also leverage online platforms like the Social Marketplace to connect with local farmers and small-scale producers. This way, they can source ethically, sustainably, and easily.

Certifications and standards

Buyers should look for products that carry certifications and relevant standards in their industry. Certifications provide a clear indication that the products have met rigorous ethical and environmental standards, giving consumers confidence in the products they purchase.

Some examples include Fair Trade, USDA Organic, Rainforest Alliance, and NQA.  Understanding the specific requirements and commitments associated with these certifications is essential.

Ethical trading practices

Ethical sourcing extends to the business side of transactions as well. Agri-buyers should practice fair and ethical trading, which includes making timely payments to suppliers and establishing long-term partnerships that benefit both parties.

According to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), ethical trade lacks a precise definition but generally refers to a holistic and ethical approach to doing business that values social and environmental impact and aims to reshape North-South relations.

This broad concept encompasses social, environmental, and economic aspects of trade and allows for a wide range of initiatives, including organic agriculture standards, to coexist under its umbrella. For instance:

  1. Social responsibility: Ethical trading ensures fair wages and working conditions for farmers and workers, often through certifications like Fair Trade. Supporting local and small-scale farming not only aids in ethical sourcing but also strengthens and sustains local communities' growth.
  2. Environmental sustainability: Buyers encourage ethical sourcing by promoting organic farming practices. These practices improve soil health and biodiversity while reducing chemical usage. Prioritizing suppliers using sustainable water management and supporting local farming operations helps cut down the carbon footprint linked to long-distance transportation.
  3. Economic aspects: Ethical trading thrives on establishing fair, long-term partnerships between buyers and suppliers, benefiting both parties. Ensuring timely payments to suppliers maintains financial stability and supports their ongoing operations.

Continuous monitoring and improvement

Ethical sourcing is an ongoing commitment. Buyers should regularly assess the ethical performance of their suppliers through audits, on-site visits, and feedback mechanisms. This continuous monitoring and improvement process ensures suppliers meet ethical standards for the long-term.

Buyers can collaborate with suppliers to address and rectify any identified ethical issues. Through their partnership, it is vital to stay updated on the latest advancements in ethical standards and incorporating them into the supply chain accordingly. Additionally, continuous monitoring and improvement involves innovation to tackle emerging ethical challenges.  

Risk mitigation

Buyers should develop contingency plans for potential ethical issues that may arise in their supply chain. This practice includes planning for supply chain disruptions due to labor disputes, environmental disasters, or regulatory changes.

Proactive risk mitigation strategies ensure that ethical standards are not compromised even in challenging situations. By having well-thought-out strategies and contingency plans in place, buyers can uphold their commitment to ethical practices.

These measures not only protect the reputation of the buyers but also contribute to the long-term sustainability of the supply chain and the well-being of the people and environments involved.

Stakeholder collaboration

Ethical sourcing is not a solitary endeavor. Agri-buyers should work with industry associations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and other stakeholders to develop and promote ethical sourcing practices and standards. Collaborative efforts can have a more substantial impact than individual actions.

Stakeholder collaboration enhances the collective impact of ethical sourcing efforts, fosters innovation, and creates a network of support for buyers committed to ethical practices in the agricultural industry.

It acknowledges the interconnectedness of various players in the supply chain and the broader community. All players work together to achieve a more sustainable and responsible future for the industry.


As consumer trends in retail favor ethical and sustainable sourcing practices, agri-buyers play a pivotal role in shaping the future of the agriculture industry. Ethical considerations, encompassing labor practices, environmental sustainability, transparency, and community engagement, are integral to the responsible sourcing of agricultural products.

By adhering to these considerations and best practices, agricultural buyers can promote a more ethical and sustainable agriculture industry. Sustainability is not a one-time commitment but an ongoing dedication to responsible business practices that benefit not only the bottom line but also the planet and its people.

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