This Fifth Trend involves business. Voluntary Standards Systems do not deliver to the full range of business needs so businesses are now engaged in developing additional tools to compensate.
Sustainability standards were developed to address a particular global issue and they brought together the stakeholders that cared about that issue to develop a standard that everybody could live with and then implement. For example, the Forestry Stewardship Council came out of a need to have clear global rules and frameworks around responsible forestry management and to reverse global deforestation challenges.
But we’re not just talking about one issue or one sector even, we’re talking about forestry, fisheries, agriculture in the north, in the south, issues of water, climate, labour rights, indigenous right issues, life cycle approaches — and no one instrument can really do that well.
So businesses are recognising that they need to comprehensively address all sustainability issues facing their operations and to do this they need to develop comprehensive tools that can address those different issues.
We know that if we’re talking about a retailer who deals with thousands of product categories and some of them are quite complex composite products then the range of sustainability issues you’re dealing with is mind-boggling. No single sustainability standard can address these issues and businesses are trying to develop new initiatives and new tools.
The Sustainability Consortium — supported by Walmart and increasingly a number of global supply chain and retail businesses — is trying to come up with an overarching framework for hundreds of thousands of different products and supply chains incorporating life cycle tools.
The strength of individual sustainability standards systems is in their focus, their ability to bring key stakeholders together to address a particular sustainability challenge and so the challenge is how do we not get lost in the need to understand a whole range of sustainability issues across supply chains and across global commodities
The Sixth Trend is a very specific example of Five, in that there is a trend in the emergence of consumer facing sustainability initiatives.
These show that there’s a clear demand and that retailers are seeing a need to make sustainability simple, to make communicating to consumers and making consumer decisions about sustainability easier. Efforts like Rewe’s Pro Planet or Albert Heijn’s “Puur & Eerlijk” (Pure & Honest) are tools that
show that retailers are committed and are trying to work through ways to make sustainability decisions easier for consumers.
At the moment, these umbrella initiatives are developed in different ways. For example the Pure & Honest programme covers Fairtrade, MSC, organic, free-range eggs and meat as well as the Blue Angel Programme from Germany and the Nordic Swan from Scandinavia. And so it combines these popular labels and sustainability claims under one overarching umbrella. But how do they decide that these were the right ones, what happens to other sustainability labels that are not in?
So I guess a big question is how do we ensure that the retailer frameworks are indeed credible as well? The standard systems have gone through rigourous multi-stakeholder processes compliant with the ISEAL Standards Code and now the Impacts Code, how do we ensure that the initiatives and systems that are driven by the retailers live up to that same rigour and how do we know that consumers can trust these kinds of tools? This is a potential challenge but also an opportunity that we need to look at how we can solve together.
Trend Seven shows that there is an increased thirst for knowledge about sustainability standards and a current growth in initiatives providing that information.
It’s clear that as sustainability standard systems have increased in terms of their popularity, there has been a strong demand to clearly show what are the impacts from the application of these standards. Businesses need to understand that these systems deliver in a cohesive, comprehensive, systematic way, as do donors who have been investing in standard systems for many years.
If we are going to escalate the scale of sustainability we have to know what the impacts are. So while there has been much recent research on the impact of standard systems, they’ve largely been case study-based or anecdotal and so we lack a large cohesive consistent set of data about the contributions to impacts that sustainability standard systems make, collected in a cohesive and systematic way.
Fortunately, this is an area where ISEAL has been working with our members for a number of years now and we have the ISEAL Impacts Code for assessing the contribution of impacts to sustainability standard systems.
This explosion of global information systems or “radical transparency tools” is an indication of the strength of the demand for information about the sustainability attributes of products, services and standards systems. So what we’re seeing at the moment is a whole raft of websites, portals, iPhone applications like GoodGuide that rates over 70,000 products for their social and environmental and health attributes, Ekobai which is a yellow pages linking certified suppliers and buyers and Ecolabel Index from Big Room that rates over 370 ecolabels.
Every day there’s more and more of these initiatives popping up and they hold great promise for increasing transparency and increasing information access about sustainable standard systems and sustainability attributes of products and services. One of the challenges with this explosion is that if all of these different information tools are using different metrics and organising their information in different ways, this could actually lead to even greater confusion on the part of consumers and other users who are trying to understand the landscape.
So what is urgently needed is to bring coherence and common agreement among these information systems so that they develop common rules for themselves to use, ensuring the integrity of the data and easy, consistent, readability from consumers.
Trend Eight concerns Climate Change. This has emerged as the most central cross-cutting issue facing global society.
This is the issue of our time and if sustainability standard systems are not addressing climate change there is a danger that they will be seen as irrelevant. Currently there are a whole range of new sustainability standard systems popping up to address climate change — carbon offsets, carbon footprinting and GHG accounting mechanisms.
Current debates in climate change are focusing on methodologies, including how we are going to monitor, report and verify various commitments made at a government or corporate level. Fortunately, the sustainability standards movement has significant experience in looking at monitoring and verification systems that have teeth and that provide real and effective assurance that the claims and the information that’s provided is accurate.
But it’s not just about climate change. It’s clearly a cross-cutting issue but so is water. We have to think how sustainability standards can address multiple issues either within a single standard or by combining standards or adding modules to existing standards in ways that are able to address critical cross-cutting issues.
At the moment, what we’re seeing is a number of ISEAL members creating modules that can add on specific carbon related requirements to their existing standards.
The counter danger is a fixation on climate change that excludes us seeing the relationship with other issues. We need to make linkages between climate change and poverty alleviation, for example, and most sustainability standard systems because they cover a range of issues for a given sector are able to address climate change while also addressing other issues. That holistic contribution is very powerful.
Trend Nine concerns the increasing engagement from governments in standard systems.
Governments can see that there’s a critical mass of support for standards and that they deliver in terms of linking sustainable production with sustainable consumption.
It’s now possible for governments to be able to play a greater role in supporting, using, overseeing and engaging sustainability standards. We don’t yet know how this will evolve but there are a number of possibilities. The easiest and most tangible is where governments develop sustainable public procurement frameworks. Government purchasing is a clear area where sustainability standard systems can be of direct and clear use.
Beyond that we’re also seeing within the topic of climate change — especially in the biofuels sector — governments (the EU renewable energy directive for example) explicitly using standards and certification systems as vehicles to deliver on requirements.
The final Top Ten Trend takes a long, hard look at the viability of voluntary standard organisations.
We need to see an effective and fast scaling up in the use of voluntary standards and we have to ask real questions about whether the current models we have for voluntary standard organisations are able to meet this challenge.
If you look at who is currently certified in the world you see that the best performers are already certified. So the next layer of certified producers will be harder to get, the next 10 per cent or 20 per cent or 30 per cent of world production in a given commodity or sector will be an exponentially difficult undertaking.
So we need to be thinking about ways in which you could combine different kinds of standards or have different kinds of standards fulfilling different needs. Quite significant resources have been invested in sustainability standard systems and we just can’t afford every single individual standard system to have every single function. For instance a standard system includes not only the standard-setting function, but also HR, IT, the accreditation and certification functions and oversight of those, the traceability systems, communications and marketing, capacity building, monitoring and evaluation — and because they belong to a global system these layers are not insignificant. It just doesn’t make sense to have each single sustainability standard system for one particular issue or sector covering all of those areas by itself.
Financially, it’s just not viable and this business model will not support them going forward. So we have to be looking at efficiencies both within systems and between and among systems. This will be a key challenge and an opportunity to reduce cost and increase the effectiveness and efficiencies of the sustainability standards movement.
Another topic is governance. Many standard systems were developed to ensure a balance of stakeholder interest as required by the ISEAL Standards Code but some standard systems embedded them in their governance structures and make quite formal divisions between different kinds of stakeholder bodies. These governance structures are their strength because they are balanced and powerful because they bring the stakeholders together and they strengthen that ownership in the system but it also makes it difficult to reach fast decisions and rapid evolution. We have to ensure the integrity of the governance systems and ensure the multi-stakeholder balance but we also need to be able to go fast, so what does this new form of democratic governance look like?