Over the last century, a wide range of approaches to achieve conservation have been implemented. These range from recovery planning for species and ecosystems to global scale inter-governmental policy developments such as the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. And, each of these approaches has their respective strengths and limitations.
Compared with the conservation movement, the concept of sustainability standards is relatively young, offering a complementary approach to address biodiversity conservation and sustainable development objectives by harnessing market forces.
Achieving conservation from smallholder farms to large landscapes
Policy Matters is a peer reviewed journal published by IUCN’s Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy (CEESP). This entire issue of Policy Matters examines the effectiveness of sustainability standards in an effort to help promote the strategic and effective use of finite resource to maintain the multiple components of biodiversity and to support human well-being.
The research found that conservation results from certification may be achieved at a range of scales, from smallholder farms to large landscapes, as either direct or indirect consequences of implementing sustainability standards. Thus, evaluation frameworks need to be nuanced to support understanding of effects on biodiversity across large certification portfolios. The authors lay out a clear framework, building from ISEAL’s Impacts Code, and provide examples of evidence and priority evidence gaps. They also suggest a clear logic for a collaborative, systematic, large-scale effort to monitor and adaptively manage sustainability standards to establish a feedback loop for continuous improvement and increased effectiveness.
The role of sustainability standards
The study also explores the role of certification as a positive force for improving rural livelihoods and meeting biodiversity conservation goals as a component of broader scale conservation planning and natural resource management strategies. The authors of the literature meta-review conclude that while there is a mismatch in stakeholder demand for profits, which has limited the establishment of concrete biodiversity guidelines and monitoring in certification schemes, there is potential for sustainability standards to address these problems with the inclusion of conservation premiums (e.g. payments for environmental services) complemented with good governance measure and focus on locally relevant species where possible.
The articles also highlight the broader governance role of sustainability standards as a means to complement and fill the gap left by national regulation. The authors present examples of how governments in specific commodity producing countries show an increased interest in using, collaborating with, and integrating sustainability standards into public policy and ‘co-regulation’. They advocate that partnerships between private and public institutions are needed to fully achieve the goal of biodiversity conservation.
Stakeholder engagement delivers the strongest changes in on-the-ground performance
Based on the investigation, the researchers conclude that a stakeholder engagement pathway delivers the strongest changes in on-the-ground performance. In particular, they highlight that certification is one of many tools that can be used to improve environmental and social sustainability within forest governance; with forest governance regimes and the interaction of various policy instruments, helping to achieve the overall goal of sustainable forestry.
The study goes on to provide an overview of the importance of the multi-stakeholder process of many sustainability standards as a means for developing principles, criteria and indicators and addressing national differences in legislation, environmental conditions, social and political contexts, and stakeholder expectations in developing forest management standards.
Partnerships important factors for achieving success
The authors credit sustainability standards as a useful means of gaining industry attention – driving action on sustainable sourcing. It is these partnerships with industry, civil society and government actors that are important factors for achieving success, with sustainability standards acting in a range of capacities such as supporting the implementation of laws, regulations and government policies as well as on-the-ground implementation of sustainable practices. The important point being that sustainability standards play a role in making space for experimentation in less-than-optimal situations.
In the final chapter, the researchers discuss how certification schemes seek to go beyond national legal and regulatory frameworks, but ultimately have to operate within these frameworks, many of which diminish indigenous rights. This creates difficulties for sustainability standards to fully uphold or remedy these rights violations. The authors point out that what is ultimately required is for national legal reform to secure indigenous rights. However, sustainability standards systems provide some limited protection of rights and scope for redress of violations. The authors conclude that to maximize sustainability standards’ effectiveness, schemes need to more directly support indigenous participation in all of their activities.
Innovating to meet the challenges of a changing landscape
Sustainability standards have proven themselves over the last two decades to be one of the most effective tools for harnessing the power of the market to deliver more sustainable production.
To increase efficiency, achieve scalable impacts and meet the challenges of a rapidly changing sustainability landscape, innovation is a high priority for all ISEAL members. Work is already underway with members to test new innovations. And, as we collaborate across the membership and with others across a number of areas, we are harnessing synergies to drive improvements in how standards systems operate and bring about change.