Global Sustainability Standards Conference: Positioning credible standards as leaders in the new era of trust

In June 2017, more than 330 standards professionals and sustainability experts explored changing stakeholder perceptions and expectations around trust at the 8th Global Sustainability Standards Conference in Zürich, Switzerland.

Trust is a defining hallmark of sustainability standards and at this year’s Global Sustainability Standards Conference in June, we explored how the nature of that trust is changing and the implications for sustainability standards. Through a series of speeches, panels and interactive workshops we discussed how rapid innovation in technology is changing the rules of the game.  

Making the business case for standards

In his keynote speech, IKEA’s Greg Priest opened the conference by calling on the audience to drive business engagement with standards by making a strong case and demonstrating their impacts. Speakers throughout the conference subsequently highlighted the benefits for businesses with speeches from Pandora, UNIDO, SV Group and the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials that addressed benefits such as increased penetration of new markets, price premiums, expertise and guidance on supply chains and sustainability issues, and reputational benefits which attract customers and workers.

Standards can also support businesses to achieve their commitments to the global goals according to the breakout session ‘Stop talking, start acting!’, which focused on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.

Improving effectiveness through collaboration

Collaboration can make an idea or approach more effective, as highlighted by case studies shared at the conference. For example, Sustainable Food Lab, Lindt & Sprüngli, GIZ, UTZ and ISEAL shared how standards, governments, businesses and other stakeholders are working together towards a living income.

Delegates also heard about IDH Sustainable Trade Initiative’s collaboration with standard systems on the living wage, HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation’s collaborative initiative to address water issues in cotton and rice, Global Infrastructure Basel’s collaboration with the finance sector, the creation of the Swiss Platform for Sustainable Cocoa and the recently announced merger between Rainforest Alliance and UTZ.

Standards evolving and innovating

Standards are responding to the need to adapt and broaden what they offer, according to a panel where speakers from UNDP, Tata, International Trade Centre (ITC) and ICTSD discussed how standards are evolving to build trust. Examples of evolution and innovation were heard throughout the conference such as UTZ’s First Mile programme, which is making data from satellite imagery accessible so it can be used to improve the supply chain and better support farmers.

Standards are also adapting by going beyond their traditional scope to play roles in policy and advocacy, capacity building and training, according to speakers from Equitable Origin, LEAF, Social Accountability International, the Mexican National Association of Universities and Higher Education Institutions and the China State Forestry Administration. It is through these activities that standards are able to get to root causes or systemic issues in a sector.

Maintaining credibility at scale

Achieving scale whilst maintaining credibility was also high on the agenda during the conference. A fishbowl debate on low bar or high bar standards addressed how the call to increase accessibility for small holders is in conflict with the demand to raise the bar and ensure strict, robust content criteria. Speakers from Rainforest Alliance, Swisscontact, InFIT, and Lindt & Sprüngli discussed how it’s not about choosing one or the other; it’s more important to make the journey more cost effective, empowering, participatory and transparent, with a clear business case for the farmer.

At the same time, a session on responsible sourcing regions with speakers from Pepsico, Proforest, Bonsucro, Marks & Spencer and Unilever discussed how standards and initiatives need to be adaptive, responsive and flexible to address issues at local scale and create change within producing communities.

For Fairtrade Africa’s Nyagoy Nyong’o, standards’ ability to influence and shape the communities in which they are applied is a direct result of the trust that they have built through grassroots driven evolution. In her closing speech, she argued that the relationships standards hold with stakeholders is incredibly valuable in enabling standards to reach further and achieve more.

Whilst the nature of trust is changing, credible standards are continuing to maintain their position as leaders through strong partnerships, engagement with businesses, producers and local communities, and by being innovative and adaptive to the new era.

This is just a taster of some of the conversation at the Global Sustainability Standards Conference on 27-28 June 2017. Learn more from the resources and slides from the conference and stay informed about next year’s conference