Last month a panel of business and civil society leaders and academics published the findings of a state-of-knowledge assessment of standards and certification. Chaired by ISEAL Credibility Director Patrick Mallet, the expert Steering Committee commissioned in-depth reviews into the certification of forestry products, wild-caught and aquaculture seafood and agricultural farming systems to assess its effectiveness at delivering on sustainability objectives.
Speaking about the report, Jan Kees Vis, Global Director of Sustainable Sourcing Development at Unilever, said, “[This] report gives us the best insight we’ve ever had into the actual, perceived, and potential impact of environmental and social labelling schemes.”
The panel, whose findings are compiled in the report Toward Sustainability: The Roles and Limitations of Certification, found substantial evidence of improvements in social, environmental and economic practices resulting from certification and that standards are most effective when complemented by other sustainability approaches and initiatives.
We asked Patrick Mallet about the findings from the report and what the future holds for sustainability standards and certification.
According to the report, one of the main goals when sustainability standards really started to emerge in the 1990s was to create the conditions for certification to become a de facto market requirement. How close are we to reaching this tipping point?
Patrick: In a few sectors like forestry, fishing, coffee and cocoa – the sectors analysed in this report - we are certainly coming close to a tipping point. A significant driver has been a commitment from key industry players to certification – like Mars in cocoa and Walmart in fish. When a leading company with strong influence in a sector decides to shift their whole supply chain to certified production, there is the potential to change what is considered normal business.
Entry-level standards such as those in palm oil have also been successful in bringing a significant number of companies on board with more sustainable practices at the production end.
One of the main thrusts of this report was to bring together the knowledge we have about certification’s impacts. What can we say today about their value as a sustainability tool?
Patrick: What we can say with confidence is that there is strong evidence of changes in practices that result from certification. We know that certification changes behaviour and is a sustainability tool. But this relates to short and medium term outcomes - better resource management; increased forest cover; stronger producer organisation; and improved labour rights. We know comparatively less about how these practices result in the long-term impact that a standard is aiming for – like overall ecosystem health and poverty reduction.
The challenge is to understand this connection between sustainable practices and long-term results. The report makes a clear call for the development of a coordinated research agenda to better understand the long-term results and this intersection with improved practices.
Are there alternatives emerging that could be better at delivering sustainability impacts?
Patrick: Actually, within sustainability standards there is a spectrum of models emerging. It’s become less about one traditional model and more about a range of approaches to standard-setting and certification that all have the potential to be effective.
For this report we decided to focus on standards in sectors where there is long track record of certification because there we have the broadest set of studies about impacts to draw from.
In the past companies were more driven by reputational concerns to adopt standards, but the report finds that companies are now being driven by much deeper concerns over the stability of their supply chains. Has this changed the way standards and businesses engage?
Patrick: Certainly it has. There is a much stronger partnership approach, and agriculture is the best example of this. A number of businesses are engaging with sustainability standards as partners or co-deliverers of supply chain security. So we see this merging of business and sustainability concerns. In some instances companies are taking on a much stronger role in the design and governance of standards.
The report identifies uptake by market-leading firms as critical for increasing certification. What do these companies need from sustainability standards to engage more closely?
Patrick: There are a number of things companies would like to see, but two important areas are credibility and impacts. Leading companies are coming together through industry platforms like the Consumer Goods Forum to understand which standards meet a core set of common issues. There are so many different standards and labels in the market and companies want to know which ones are credible.
They are also asking to see concrete results and impacts from certification. They want to know which standards will allow them to meet their sustainability objectives while strengthening the long-term security of their supply.
The report suggests that standards have indirect effects that potentially eclipse their direct impacts? Why do standards have the potential for broader influence?
Patrick: Sustainability standards helped to legitimise a new form of private, multi-stakeholder based regulation at a time when governments were either unwilling or unable to take strong action on sustainability issues. Rule-making has changed in society and other stakeholders have come in to complement government regulation. Sustainability standards have shown that non-government-led initiatives can achieve impact and this has really helped open the door for more collaborative, multi-stakeholder efforts in sustainability.
There are also knock-on effects where certification has created a normative change in what’s considered accepted practice by producers and enterprises. So many enterprises might actually adopt the practices required by a standard without becoming certified.
The report makes clear that certification offers a practical solution, but cannot act alone in transforming sustainable production and consumption. What else is necessary?
Patrick: Historically, certification has been better at reaching well-organised producers who are already close to complying with a standard. But at the other end many enterprises need technical and financial support before they are able to comply with even entry-level standards. This is where capacity building and government regulation come in as complementary tools just to get enterprises on the road to certification. A good example is the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, an NGO that works with restaurants and seafood retailers to help their suppliers make the improvements necessary to achieve Marine Stewardship Council certification.
Because producers operate at such diverse levels of performance, having different standards at those different performance levels can be useful. But we need a well structured process to move them up a sustainability ladder with the right incentives, rewards and support at each level. This is what is called a stepwise approach. It’s the bridge between low-performance and high-performance standards and we need to figure out the best way to move enterprises along this path.
What can standards do to ensure that they are complementary to other systems and sustainability tools to promote this collective action?
Patrick: Because things evolve so quickly, there needs to be flexibility built into standards systems and they need to be able to innovate to interact with other tools because actors are looking to use standards in a number of different ways. A good example is European regulations on timber and biofuels, where certification has been recognised as a means to comply with government regulations.
Governments and businesses have different tools at their disposal and often they are looking at how different tools can be coordinated or integrated to meet their objectives. For standards, their end-goal of delivering positive long-term social and environmental impact should stay the same, but they have to ensure that they are useful in practice and work well with other systems.
What are some things that standards can start coordinating on to become more efficient?
Patrick: In practice the starting points have been areas where sustainability standards have a common interest and where harmonising their efforts provides mutual benefits, either by reducing costs in overlapping areas of work or by enabling stronger action on particular issues.
Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance and UTZ Certified are working together on a project to build the capacity of West African cocoa producers in areas that are common to their standards. There has also been some early collaboration to agree on a list of acceptable pesticides. But these are comparatively small efforts. I would like to see a mapping of all aspects that are “pre-competitive” – areas on which standards do not differentiate because I think there is huge potential for collaboration and companies are really driving home the urgency for more meaningful collaboration between standards.
To read the full press release and report, Toward Sustainability: The Roles and Limitations of Certification, click here.