20 years of change – and driving change

ISEAL turns 20 this year. And it’s amazing to see how far we’ve come in that time.

The last two decades have seen big changes. But what further changes do we need to see for sustainability systems to have an even greater impact in the years ahead?

In 2002, there were a handful of sustainability standards and certification schemes. And very few businesses were looking to systematically address their environmental and social impacts. No one in the world of finance was talking about ESG ratings, and no one in government was talking about Sustainable Development Goals.

In our webinar, 20 years of ISEAL: Insights, innovations and the future of collective action, we looked back and looked ahead at some of these changes. And in our follow up webinar, ‘Transforming the way sustainability systems work’, on 19 July, we will discuss how data, digitisation and technology are providing value and transforming approaches to sustainability in supply chains. 

Understanding impacts

When sustainability standards first came along, the assumption was that becoming certified would inevitably lead to better outcomes. Today, we have a growing body of evidence showing that standards do have positive impacts – but that the big issues, such as the climate emergency and persistent poverty, are highly complex. 

All credible sustainability systems now have monitoring and evaluation processes in place – a major change over the last 20 years. That’s giving us important insights into what’s working and what needs improving, which is vital for continuous improvement and driving greater impacts on these complex issues. 

The evolution of data

Our understanding of impacts has been transformed by an explosion in data and technology, which is enabling us to do things we couldn’t dream of 20 years ago. Back then, what data sustainability systems did have was usually stuck in PDFs or printed reports from auditors. Today, ISEAL members have become proficient at gathering, managing and sharing data, aligning and combining information from multiple sources.

This has provided us with a mass of information and insights, which is beginning to add real value throughout the supply chain. For example, a sustainability scheme can use this data to show producers where they are in comparison with their peers, and the steps they can take to improve. Or auditors, downstream companies, and sustainability systems themselves can use it to identify where the risks are and prioritise compliance and capacity building efforts accordingly. Looking forward there will be many more opportunities to add value through data and technology.

Expanding impact strategies

With a better understanding of their impacts, many sustainability systems have taken a step back to look at the bigger picture of sustainability and their role within it. While standards and certification have led to improved outcomes, more needs to be done to transform whole sectors and to tackle complex sustainability issues.

As a result, sustainability systems are taking a more holistic view, looking at how they can help to create the enabling conditions for long-lasting change. For many, convening stakeholders, issue-based collaboration, capacity building and local engagement are becoming every bit as important as standard setting or assurance.

Related to this is the rise of landscape and jurisdictional approaches and sector-wide collaborations, which aim to drive change at scale through collective action, rather than seeking to raise performance at the level of individual farms or factories. 

Working with governments

In seeking to influence the enabling environment and drive change at scale, voluntary sustainability systems are increasingly engaging with governments. This is another big change during ISEAL’s lifetime. In the early days, few multistakeholder standards sought to engage governments, or vice versa. A handful of governments incorporating certification schemes into rules around forest management concessions were very much the exception.

Now, governments on every continent are proactively engaging with sustainability systems in a mutually supportive way. On the side of production, for example, governments can reach far greater numbers of smallholders and set mandatory baselines, while voluntary standards offer a pathway for producers to move up to a higher level of sustainability. We’ve seen this in the palm oil sector, where the work of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil led both Indonesia and Malaysia to set up their own sustainability standards, and where jurisdictions such as Sabah in Malaysia and countries including Ecuador have committed to 100 percent sustainable production.

We’re seeing increasing use of voluntary standards by governments to address consumption as well – first in procurement policy, and more recently in due diligence legislation, such as the EU’s proposed regulation on deforestation-free products. Sustainability systems are also beginning to play a part in bilateral trade deals – a far cry from 20 years ago.

At ISEAL, we’re proud to have been part of this journey of innovation and transformation over the last two decades. We know that sustainability challenges are accelerating, and it is ever more urgent that our collective efforts result in positive change. What’s clear to me from more than 20 years of working in this field is that, while there is no silver bullet, I believe that credible, effective sustainability systems have a vital role to play as part of collective efforts to create a fair, sustainable future for all. 

Join the discussion on 19 July, 15:00 UTC+1: Transforming the way sustainability systems work