Benchmarking sustainability standards systems

Benchmarking is a critical activity within ISEAL, helping us to ensure that sustainability standards are credible, effective and bringing about the change they claim to deliver. All of ISEAL’s Codes of Good Practice and our work to support our members is driven by the goal of ensuring they are making a difference and delivering impact.

As well as ISEAL members there are hundreds of other sustainability standards out there, which can be confusing for businesses, governments, consumers and other stakeholders, especially when a lot of these standards focus on very similar issues.

The importance of the structure and compliance processes

A while ago ISEAL released An introduction to comparing and benchmarking sustainability standards systems. This guide highlights, from our perspective, the importance of the structure and compliance processes behind standards systems, aligning with our Codes of Good Practice.

Many standards comparisons focus on a standards’ content, however, we are now seeing a growing interest in and awareness of the way the systems are implemented. When comparing or benchmarking standards, it is important to cover both the standards’ content and the structure behind the system, such as scheme management, standards-setting, claims and labelling, chain of custody and, in particular, the assurance process.

When we compare standards it can be easy to have a check box exercise asking if something is covered or not. However, for meaningful results, the comparison needs to be deeper, such as degrees of obligation of a requirement; for example, is it a recommendation, aspirational goal, part of an audit check etc? When we consider processes, we have to think about the system behind the standard: how is the scheme managed? How are stakeholders engaged in standards-setting? What is the frequency of the audit? People need to be confident that there is something substantial behind the claim.

Understanding whether a standard is likely to deliver on its goals

There has been growing interest to better understand the differences between sustainability standards. Businesses are collaborating at a sectoral level, working together specifically on benchmarking tools and methodologies, and we’re starting to see some of these emerge in sectors such as fish and agriculture. There is also more interest around businesses considering standards as risk management tools – asking “which of these standards can I trust?”. The goal here is often to make it easier for companies and other stakeholders to understand which of the available standards are credible.

Sustainability standards provide a roadmap to help businesses to deliver against their sustainability goals and help protect their reputation. Understanding how a standards system is structured and how credibly its practices are implemented can provide a strong indication of whether the standard is likely to deliver on its social and environmental goals.

Credible claims

There is a challenge for certification and labelling schemes to make it clear for consumers, to be transparent and illustrate how their systems are credible and robust. ISEAL’s Challenge the Label tool, www.challengethelabel.eco, features five universal truths of credible sustainability claims, encompassing concepts such as relevance, accuracy and transparency, among others.

Consumers and supply chain buyers need clear information to help them navigate the claims landscape and make credible choices in their sourcing decisions. Whether it’s benchmarking or navigating the claims landscape, the comparisons need to be credible by taking into account those elements of a standards system that ensure it is delivering real change on the ground.