Sustainability standards such as those represented in ISEAL address significant challenges in the world today and are one of the few proven vehicles for making production and trade more sustainable. But there remains a critical need to understand more about the effects and long-term outcomes of certification on the ground and for standards to improve in the areas where they could be performing better.
Demonstrating impact is the strongest demand from partners and standards users across all sectors and is widely agreed as an essential foundation of a credible standards system. Governments, companies and other stakeholders need to know that the standards they use are making a difference. Certification programmes that are not transparent about their impacts are unlikely to maintain trust.
Bulk of evidence is positive
Demonstrating impacts is a marathon, not a sprint, and until we have comprehensive evidence about the impacts of standards, the ISEAL Credibility Principles can serve as our best approximation of the core values that standards systems need to follow to be effective. We believe that by adopting principles such as transparency, relevance and rigour, standards are better positioned to deliver on their missions.
The evidence base is starting to grow, with many credible and comprehensive studies being conducted. Our hope is that stakeholders including standard-setters, companies, researchers, and governments will support the development of robust studies to help us all better understand the strengths and weaknesses of our work. Just in the past year, major studies have been released by the Committee on Sustainability Assessment, the Natural Resources Institute, the State of Sustainability Initiatives, and KPMG, and on average we are seeing that certification delivers positive economic, social and environmental benefits to producers, farmers and labourers, and their local environments and ecosystems. Some studies have shown mixed or negative results, and ISEAL supports the efforts of its members to use these findings to improve.
Community of practice on impacts
ISEAL members commit to implementing the ISEAL Impacts Code within a set time frame and many are now on this journey. The Code provides the building blocks for standard-setting organisations to become more systematic and results-oriented through developing a M&E system capable of tracking progress and driving improvement of the standard.
Along with the Impacts Code, ISEAL also brings together our members in a flourishing community of practice on impacts. Over the past few years ISEAL has helped its members to embrace an approach based on learning and improvement and focus more clearly on defining their goals and measuring their results. Many ISEAL members have released global impacts reports in the last year to begin to show their results and put in place the foundation for more comprehensive reports in the future.
Helping producers out of poverty
Through support from the Ford Foundation, a group of ISEAL members in agriculture and forestry (Forest Stewardship Council, Fairtrade International, 4C Association, Rainforest Alliance/Sustainable Agriculture Network, the Union for Ethical Bio Trade, and UTZ) have undertaken one of the strongest examples of collaboration in the certification movement. The aim of ISEAL’s Demonstrating and Improving Poverty Impacts project is to give certification leaders need a more complete picture of how their programmes contribute to sustainable rural livelihoods and pro-poor development practices. ISEAL members have come to agreement on a set of common poverty indicators, developed and tested M&E systems, and shaped a common research.
ISEAL members will soon report on their collective poverty impacts and conduct impact evaluation projects to assess the effects of certification on rural livelihoods and pro-poor development. Ultimately, our hope is that this project will confirm that sustainability standards are making a positive impact on livelihoods and poverty, and will help standards systems improve their impacts over time.
For more information about the Impacts Code click here.