Coconut products are much more sustainable than their reputation suggests

The following article was published in the German magazine “DEGA Gartenbau” in April 2024.
This article represents a translated version. 

Coconut products are much more sustainable than their reputation suggests

Based on third-party verification, HORTICERT certification guarantees that ecological, social and economic sustainability requirements for peat substitutes are met. Studies and own calculations show that the emissions of coconut-based peat substitutes are significantly lower than those of peat. This means that coconut-based peat substitutes with HORTICERT certification represent a sustainable alternative to peat and play an essential role in achieving the goal of a largely peat-free substrate industry with reduced GHG emissions, as the following information shows. 

Coconut-based peat substitutes (coir pith, fibers and chips) are playing an increasingly important role in the substrate industry. Since coconut-based peat substitutes are imported products, concerns about sustainability often arise. HORTICERT identifies possible sustainability risks and checks them with risk-based audits which are carried out by independent certification bodies. Coconut-based peat substitutes with HORTICERT certification therefore represent a sustainable alternative to peat. In January 2024, the Gütegemeinschaft Substrate für Pflanzen (Quality Association Substrates for Plants) made the following statement: “We hope that certification will reduce concerns about the use of coconut products as substrate components. Objectively verified compliance with defined social and ecological standards and the calculation of the CO2 footprint [as part of HORTICERT] can make a meaningful contribution to this.”

Most coconut-based peat substitutes used in Europe are imported from India and Sri Lanka by ship. Although the transport distance influences the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions  of a product, particularly the emissions from ship transport are often overestimated: Since large quantities of goods can be transported on a ship, the emissions per ton are significantly lower than from truck transport over the same distance. Also otheremissions resulting from cultivation as well as further processing steps are comparatively low. 

Coconut-based peat substitutes are made from coconut husks, which are by-products from the coconut industry. The majority of emissions from cultivation are therefore attributed to the coconuts as the main product, while significantly lower emissions are attributed to the husks. In addition, the further processing of coconut husks into peat substitutes is not very resource- and energy-intensive. For example, rainwater is often used for washing and the products are usually dried in the sun. Drying and subsequently pressing the material into blocks for export also reduces the weight and volume of the coconut-based peat substitutes and thus reduces transport emissions.

Coconut-based peat substitutes show significantly lower emissions than peat

Although transport emissions are not negligible, the total emissions of coconut-based peat substitutes are significantly lower than the emissions of peat. Studies suggest cradle-to-grave emission values of coconut-based peat substitutes between 70 and 142 kg CO2 eq/m3, considering emissions from all production steps, transport, use and post-use phases. More efficient production processes can further lower GHG values, as shown by the results of own calculations using the HORTICERT methodology. Overall, the cradle-to-grave emissions of coconut-based peat substitutes are significantly lower than those of black peat (310 kg CO2eq/m3) and white peat (167 kg CO2eq/m3).

Development of sustainability principles with NGOs

In addition to the methodology for greenhouse gas calculation, HORTICERT certification also includes seven sustainability principles that cover requirements for all three sustainability dimensions (ecological, social, and economic). The HORTICERT principles include, among other things, the protection of ecologically valuable areas, environmentally and climate-friendly practices in cultivation and production processes, the protection of human and labor rights, responsible community relations, legality, as well as economic stability and good management practices. The principles were developed in collaboration with three NGOs, the Bodensee Stiftung (Lake Constance Foundation), the Global Nature Fund, and Welthungerhilfe, each contributing with their specific expertise. In this context, the Global Nature Fund stated the following in January 2024: “We, the Global Nature Fund, have contributed to the integration of effective criteria for biodiversity protection and support the ecological and social principles of HORTICERT. By purchasing certified products, consumers can easily ensure choosing a product that does not further burden biodiversity and climate.” 

Sustainable procurements through HORTICERT

Together with NGOs and GRAS Global Risk Assessment Services GmbH, HORTICERT has conducted risk analyses for several production countries and various peat substitutes. For coconut-based products from both India and Sri Lanka, elevated ecological and social risk levels were identified, for example, in the area of water usage, sustainable use of fertilizers and pesticides, as well as in labor conditions and safety. Such a pre-determined, increased risk level in HORTICERT leads to a targeted and more intensive review of the sustainability requirements as part of risk-based audits, which are carried out by independent certification bodies. In the case of coconut-based products, this may entail a more comprehensive assessment of ecological and social sustainability criteria both in coconut cultivation and processing.

Thus, the HORTICERT certification serves as a tool to specifically identify and eliminate sustainability risks along international supply chains. The German Welthungerhilfe stated in January 2024: “Peat substitutes, especially those originating from the Global South, must meet the human rights requirements of a decent standard of living. With HORTICERT, an initial foundation is laid for a more sustainable procurement of peat substitutes, as it addresses not only ecological and economic issues but also social viability.”

We also provide this information in our downloadable coconut factsheet below: