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What are sustainability claims?

Sustainability claims are the words or images that are used to set apart responsible products, processes, businesses or services. They can act as filters that provide people with information about the social and environmental attributes of a product or service, which may affect the decision whether to buy a particular product.

It is therefore important that these claims are truthful and that they convey what has actually been achieved.

What is behind a sustainability claim?

 

~ IT IS WORTH ASKING ~

 

1 – What product or service does the claim cover?

A COMPANY OR ORGANISATION

What it means

This refers to the overall performance or commitment of a company. The claim may appear on a product or elsewhere, but actually has a broader scope.

Examples of this type of claim:

'As of Jan 2015 we source 24% of our ingredients from sustainable sources; By 2022 we commit to sourcing 100% of our ingredients from sustainable sources'.

 

A SPECIFIC SITE OR PHYSICAL LOCATION

What it means

This type of claim refers to the activities at one site, or a group of sites (normally within a limited geographical area)

Examples of this type of claim:

This refers to the activities at one site, or a group of sites (normally within a limited geographical area).

 

A PRODUCT OR PARTIAL PRODUCT (INGREDIENT)

What it means

Refers to the item on which the claim is found, or one or more ingredients or components of the product. Typically, this does not usually also refer to the packaging.

Examples of this type of claim:

Examples may include an entire product, such as: this paper is fully sourced from sustainable wood; or may specify certain ingredients: the bananas in this smoothie are certified sustainable.

  • Intrinsic product value

What it means

Intrinsic product value describes a characteristic of a product that can be tested or verified, without knowledge of how it was produced.

Examples of this type of claim:

Here you may find claims such as GM free, CFC-free (organic claims can sit within this category, but it can also refer to the production method), made with recycled content.

  • Production method (including farming, fishing, manufacturing)

What it means

This describes the method used to produce a product. It may not normally be detectable just by looking at the product or even by testing the product later in the supply chain (like intrinsic product value).

Examples of this type of claim:

Think responsibly farmed, sustainably caught, manufactured responsibly with fair treatment of workers. Organic straddles this and intrinsic product value - e.g. produced in accordance with ABC organic farming standard).

  • Product use

What it means

This describes a sustainability benefit that is experienced during the use of the product, but does not describe its production.

Examples of this type of claim:

Energy efficient, uses less water, low emissions.

  • Life-cycle assessment information 

What it means

Life-cycle assessment (LCA) refers to the environmental performance across the whole life-cycle of a product. These are usually quantitative claims, sometimes given in reference to performance within a product category, based on a LCA and other relevant information. They can include product environmental declarations.

Examples of this type of claim:

Think carbon footprint (e.g. Xg CO2e/litre in dairy): using LCA to source materials with the lowest environmental impact.

  • End of life

What it means

Here we find the attributes relating to disposal of the product once it has reached the end of its use.

Examples of this type of claim:

The most common examples are recyclable or compostable.

 

PROCESS OR SERVICE

What it means

These claims refer to one or more qualities of the process or service being promoted.

Examples of this type of claim:

Operated by a responsible tour company.

 

PACKAGING

What it means

The claim refers to the packaging of the product specifically. This may or may not be used in conjunction with a claim about the product.

Examples of this type of claim:

Packaged with recycled materials. Packaging made from a minimum of x% post consumer material.

 

TRANSPORTATION OF PRODUCT

What it means

Refers to the means of transport for the product for at least one stage in the supply chain, sometimes for all.

Examples of this type of claim:

Ground transport, not air freighted. Powered by hybrid electric engines and biofuels.

 

OFFSET OR COMPENSATION

What it means

Here we may find commitment (to purchase of carbon credits) to offset carbon dioxide (Co2) or greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions made elsewhere. The claim may also involve commitment to an internal/in house carbon reduction programme, or supports climate/development projects.

Examples of this type of claim:

'Every tonne of CO2 we produce is offset through climate-friendly or forestry projects. Carbon neutral company (generally involves offsets, note CarbonNetural (one word) is copyrighted).

 

2 – What type of claim is being made?

 

PERFORMANCE THRESHOLD OR DEFINED REQUIREMENTS

What it means

This category includes standards, or other sets of minimum requirements that are pre-defined and must be reached before a claim can be made. It can be set and assessed in various ways, and by various bodies, including internal standards set by the company making the claim.

Examples of this type of claim:

It's interesting to note that with this type of claim it can be very difficult to tell which sub-type it is. This is usually because there are different approaches to allowing recognition for meeting a standard, and very different levels of complexity within them.

Single issue 

What it means

The simplest type of performance threshold. Describes only one requirement being met. Differs from 'absolute' in that absolute will consider several factors to result in a single bar (met/not met scenario). As with absolute claims, complexity can arise when defining the acceptable performance, even for a single issue.

Examples of this type of claim:

No animal testing, CFC free.

  • Absolute

What it means

Describes a scenario where a set of performance requirements have been met. No improvement would be required over time.

Examples of this type of claim:

Meets the ABC standard for responsible business (note - no improvements would be required over time), Chemical free.

  • Minimum threshold – flexible 

What it means

Similar to absolute, but with allowances for meeting a subset of requirements, often combined with a plan for improvement over time.

Examples of this type of claim:

Meets the ABC Standard; minimum of 25% certified, increasing by 10% in 5 years; meets 80% of indicators, must meet 90% within 3 years

  • Percentage of the market 

What it means

Some thresholds are set to exclusively recognise the top performers within a category. As the category improves, the bar is raised, so that only a certain percent of the category will be able to meet the bar.

Examples of this type of claim:

Meets the ABC Standard. Meets the ABC Standard to recognise top performers in the XYZ category.

  • Tiered

What it means

Describes a series of absolute or minimum threshold performance levels arranged to move performance to the highest level over time, or to recognise performance at each level. It may be possible to make claims at each of the stages, or just at the top stage.

Examples of this type of claim:

Meets the ABC Standard - Bronze level, A++ rating.

 

ORIGIN OR LOCATION OF THE BUSINESS

What it means

Related to single issue under performance threshold, but with the focus being on the origin of the product or location of the business. It may refer to the origin ingredient or component production. Equally, it could refer to the manufacturing or processing of the product.

Examples of this type of claim

Grown locally, product of Canada.

 

MEMBERSHIP OR PARTICIPATION

What it means

Refers to the claimant being a member of an organisation or an initiative. There may or may not be performance or fee requirements for becoming a member.

Examples of this type of claim:

Member of the Sustainable Roundtable. Member of ABC Responsible Sourcing Initiative. Member of XYZ (membership NGO).

 

PARTNERSHIP / ENDORSEMENT / ASSOCIATION

What it means

Refers to a partnership, normally between an NGO and a business, where the NGO is working with the business to help improve their performance. There may or may not be published information about the details of the partnership, and the objectives.

Examples of this type of claim:

Our business works with XYZ to decrease our environmental footprint.

 

PHILANTHROPY

What it means

Here we may see the contribution of the claimant to a good cause, normally financial but can also be gifts in kind or other means of support (e.g. mentoring programme). May or may not be related to their own direct sustainability impacts (see relevance).

Examples of this type of claim:

2% of our profit goes to clean water projects, for each purchase of this product we will contribute 10 cents to ABC charity.

 

REPORTING

What it means

A sustainability report is a type of corporate or organisational report. A sustainability report conveys sustainability-related information in a way that is comparable with financial reporting.

Examples of this type of claim:

We recycled 30% of our waste last year.

 

LISTING IN AN INDEX OR GUIDE

What it means

This refers to inclusion in an index or guide listing environmental or sustainability reporting. May or may not refer to performance against certain criteria.

Examples of this type of claim:

We're listed in the Eco-book.

 

AWARD

What it means

Refers to the claimant having been given an award. There may or may not be stated criteria on which the award was based. Distinct from being 'awarded' certification, which would normally be covered under one of the performance threshold categories.

Examples of this type of claim:

Recipient of the Good Earth Award.

 

RELATIVE CLAIM

What it means

A relative claim refers to a scenario where the subject of the claim is compared to something else - it could be a previous version of itself, or a competitor's version of the same thing, or the industry or sector average, or a competitor's version.

Examples of this type of claim:

More energy efficient than…, less packaging than..., better than…

 

BRANDING

What it means

No evidence or basis for the claim, created internally for marketing purposes. Could include a graphic design that bears resemblance to a certification mark. If it is based on an internal standard, it would be considered a 'performance threshold' claim.

Examples of this type of claim:

ABC company cares about the earth.

 

3 – What sustainability attributes does the claim cover?

 

SOCIAL

What it means

This can refer to one or more of the various aspects of the 'social' pillar of sustainability. It could include labour rights, gender rights, cultural rights, social services including education, health care, clean water, etc.

Examples of this type of claim:

Empowering women, protecting children from child labour.

 

ENVIRONMENTAL

What it means

This can refer to one or more of the various aspects of the 'environmental' pillar of sustainability, including but not limited to water use/treatment, soil/land impact, protection of biodiversity, responsible use of natural resources, carbon and other energy considerations.

Examples of this type of claim

Protecting biodiversity by using non-chemical pest control methods.

 

ECONOMIC

What it means

Here we will have one or more of the various aspects of the 'economic' pillar of sustainability including income considerations, such as minimum or living wage, considerations of enterprise reilience, productivity/profitability, market access and security considerations, guaranteed pricing, etc.

Examples of this type of claim:

We commit to long term contracts with our farmers to help them to make the investments necessary to improve productivity on their farms.

 

4 – How is the claim verified?

 

SELF-ASSESSED

What it means

Refers to the scenario where the claimant assesses their own performance against a set of criteria and makes the declaration. The claimant may or may not have the possibility of external checks to verify their assessment (for example with unannounced audits to determine where the claim is substantiated, or where evidence, etc could be requested).

Examples of this type of claim:

We are committed to producing X in line with the ABC standard, we regularly conduct internal checks to ensure we are producing X in line with the ABC standard.

 

AN INTERESTED PARTY

What it means

Refers to verification by someone with a relationship to the claimant and/or an interest in the outcome of the verification. It can include customer audits, peer reviews, or audits by industry associations. Sometimes referred to as a 'second party'.

Examples of this type of claim:

We have been assessed by peers and found to meet 'y' standard.

 

THIRD-PARTY

What it means

Refers to verification by a party that is independent of the claimant and that has no relationship with them (e.g. customer, etc), other than for the purposes of verifying the claim.

Examples of this type of claim

Certified against the ABC standard by an independent certifier.

 

CLAIM IS NOT VERIFIED

What it means

There is no consideration of having met any criteria, internally or otherwise, and the claim is made with no verification.

Examples of this type of claim:

Non-verified marketing initiatives - our company cares about the earth.

 

 

~ WITH A CREDIBLE CLAIM DETERMINING THESE IS EASY ~

 

THERE ARE FIVE UNIVERSAL TRUTHS TO SUSTAINABILITY CLAIMS

Credible sustainability claims are clear, accurate and relevant, and are backed up by systems that are transparent and robust.

 

1. CLEAR

The sustainability claim should be easily understood and free from misleading details.

HOW TO TELL

The claim conveys what it is referring to, the basis for the claim, which sustainability attributes are covered and how the claim was verified. In some cases not all of this information will be available within the claim itself, but it will be easy to find the answers to these questions elsewhere.

Ask yourself: was I left in doubt about the meaning of the claim, or what it applied to?

RESOURCES

Use the four questions

From looking at the claim, can you tell:

  • What the claim is referring to (product, packaging, ingredient, etc)?
  • What is the basis for making the claim (e.g. met a standard, member, etc)?
  • Which sustainability attributes are covered (social, environmental, and/or economic, and pieces within these)?
  • Whether and how the claim was verified?

If these were not clear, you can try to access further information from their website - then see 'transparency'.

How to check: Could you describe to a colleague what the claim meant, what it referred to and how it was checked?

 

2. ACCURATE

The claim must be truthful and based on substantiated evidence.

HOW TO TELL

The claim states information that has been substantiated, and evidence is or can be provided to verify the claim.

Ask yourself: Is the claim true? Is there evidence to back up the claim? Where did it come from? Do you trust it? Does it seem too good to be true?

A claim could be more accurate if it states which specific part/component/percentage of the product is sustainable. While more accurate, such claims still need to be backed up by verifiable evidence.

RESOURCES

An accurate claim clearly refers to the underlying evidence. Examples of the evidence behind a claim can be certificates, audit reports, test/lab results, impact reports or evaluations. Often claims are based on compliance with a standard - in which case the claim's accuracy depends on how it reflects compliance with this standard, and whether the product/producer is de facto in compliance with this standard.

Standards systems often publish a list of those that have met the standard, which makes it easy to check the validity of a claim. You can go directly to their website to find the list of permitted users of claims.

Some assurance providers also make a list of certificate holders available:
For example, the full list of companies and businesses which are FSC compliant can be found here.

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) publishes lists of all fisheries certified against its standard here.

 

3. RELEVANT

The claim should be about an issue that is material or significant to the product or business and not a distraction from bigger and more important issues. 

HOW TO TELL

Is the claim about one of the biggest sustainability issues for this product or service? Or is it trying to distract you with an ‘easy win’ while glossing over the bigger issues?
Use the resources here, or ask your supplier or a trusted NGO partner to provide information about what the biggest issues are for that product or service, and see if the claim helps to address those issues.

If the claim is based on a standard, the development of the standard should have included an assessment of the biggest issues for the product or process covered - these are sometimes called hotspots and can refer to certain activities or stages in the supply chain where sustainability risks are the highest. You should be able to find information on various standards bodies' websites about how they assessed the key impacts in the life cycle of the product they are addressing.

Remember there may be environmental, social and/or economic factors that are particularly important for each product or business - it's important to check all of these.

RESOURCES

Look directly at standards system's website for information about the issues the standard covers, and how they considered the most important issues when they set the standard.

Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council product category guidance describes the process for assessing most important business impacts, and then provides guidance within categories. You can download the document here - the category guidance is in Chapter 4, though it is worth following the whole process to consider your business's biggest impacts.

The WWF has identified the main environmental and social risks for 12 soft commodity sectors (Aquaculture, Beef, Bioenergy, Cotton, Dairy, Palm Oil, Soy, Sugar, Timber, Pulp & Paper, Wild-Caught Fish, Other Terrestrial) in its '2050 Criteria' report. You can download the full report or an overview sheet showing the issues with each commodity, or scroll down to click on each commodity in turn. After you click a commodity, scroll down and on the right is a very helpful one-pager highlighting the issues for that commodity. 

Forced- and Child Labour specific:

The non-profit Verite has compiled a 'Forced Labor Commodity Atlas'. It provides a brief analysis of the risk of forced labour for 19 commodities such as cacao, palm oil, bricks, charcoal, diamonds, and rubber. The Atlas also summarizes case-studies and lists further relevant documentation per commodity. Click on the pictures, or select a commodity from the list below.

The US Department of Labour's 'List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor' allows businesses to assess if a product from a certain country has a high risk of being produced by child labour or forced labour. The list can be sorted by country or by type of good/product.

 

~ BASED ON A SYSTEM THAT IS ~

 

4. TRANSPARENT

Information about the system behind the sustainability claim must be freely available and easily accessible.

HOW TO TELL

The development and content of the criteria the claim is based on, how the system is governed, how the claim was verified, information about impact of the system and how stakeholders can engage in the system, must be freely available for anyone interested to learn more.
When you visit the website linked to the claim (standard owner, company, assurance provider), are you able to easily find more information about the claim (e.g. information about what the claim is based on, who decides whether the claim can be used, how the system is governed, how the claims was verified, is the system having impact, how can stakeholders engage, etc)?

RESOURCES

Look directly at the website linked to the claim (standard owner, company, assurance providers, etc), to find answers to these questions. Some claims are based on environmental product declarations, which should be publicly available as well.

If a claim is based on a standard system, code of conduct or other system, information on transparency can be extracted from the ITC Standards Map, a tool that is also useful to verify if the claim is robust. When using the tool, first select the standard you want to check, then click 'Quick Scan'. Once you click the 'Processes' tab, info about the transparency of the scheme is available when scrolling down towards the bottom of the list. (See further information about StandardsMap in the Robust section below).

 

5. ROBUST

There are controls in place regarding when the claim can be used and by whom, and clear criteria to be met before a claim can be used.

HOW TO TELL

Ask - are there any controls on who can use the claim? Are there set criteria before the claim can be used?

There are many approaches that can be taken to achieve a robust system. To assess whether a system is robust you may have defined your own internal policies, or you may wish to consult with a credible third party, such as an NGO, a government agency, a standards body or other environmental expert for guidance on what makes a robust claim.

RESOURCES

If your claim is based on a sustainability standard, there are two main bodies that work on the credibility of sustainability standards - ISEAL and the Global Ecolabelling Network.

ISEAL Code Compliant members comply with ISEAL’s three Codes of Good Practice. You can learn more about ISEAL membership here.

ISEAL has also led a global consultation to develop a Sustainability Claims Good Practice Guide for standards systems in setting and controlling the claims about their systems. This is a useful for resource for any organisation that sets a standard that claims are made against. 

The Global Ecolabelling Network criteria and product category differ amongst its members, reflecting local and regional variables, but all standards address multiple environmental attributes. The standards are developed to minimise environmental impacts across the entire life cycle of a product or service.

Additional useful resources include:

The ITC's (International Trade Centre) T4SD (Trade for Sustainable Development) database contains information on the scope and functioning of approx. 170 standards and codes of conduct, which are often at the basis of sustainability claims. The information in the database has been made available through two main tools: the ITC Standards Map and the Sustainability Compass. Both can provide information about the robustness of claims by looking in detail at the underlying systems - the Sustainability Compass provides a lower level of detail.

The Ecolabel Index is an online database on sustainability standards and labels which currently covers more than 450 initiatives. Only limited info is available for non-paying users (N.B. check the date to ensure information is current).

 

ABOUT CHALLENGE THE LABEL

Sustainability claims have become widespread in the modern marketplace, and with it greenwashing has expanded. The practice of making empty, unfounded or exaggerated sustainability claims risks alienating buyers committed to sustainable development. Not all claims are equal, and the systems behind claims are diverse - claims based on sustainability standards and certification are just one type. For governments, businesses or customers, navigating the claims landscape can feel like a jungle - or even a minefield – full of non-credible options.

The Challenge the Label webpage is a tool for claims users to detangle this busy space and distinguish between credible and non-credible claims. It aims to improve educated decision-making by leading people through the key questions in understanding a claim or label. The Challenge the Label initiative was set up by ISEAL, the global membership organisation for ambitious, collaborative and transparent sustainability systems. ISEAL convened a multi-stakeholder Steering Committee to oversee the development of its guidance on sustainability claims. The Committee consists of sustainability experts from government, business, the consumer movement, and leading NGOs and certification initiatives.