In an age of multiplicity of approaches to sustainability, the question arises time and again of which of these embody credibility and deliver impact, and what engenders such outcomes. Karin Kreider, Executive Director at ISEAL, considers some of the key elements of credible sustainability standards in a series of blogs, starting with the value of multi-stakeholder standard-setting.
Sustainability efforts are more credible when relevant organisations, such as businesses, NGOs, governments, producer communities and research institutions, are encouraged to represent their experience and focus areas, thus giving a broader and more meaningful perspective. This experience is particularly necessary in the area of standard-setting to ensure the required sustainable practices are both effective and attainable.
Meaningful stakeholder engagement
Analysis of 181 standards based on ITC Standards Map shows that stakeholder engagement is most frequently found in the area of standard-setting and review .
By insisting on multi-stakeholder participation, ISEAL promotes an approach that can lead to positive social and environmental impacts, while also being practically and economically viable for large-scale uptake. Sustainability standards can do this by proactively engaging with stakeholder groups that are likely to have an interest in the standard or be affected by its implementation, and providing them with mechanisms for participation that are appropriate and accessible. Multi-stakeholder standard setting is one of the requirements for standards systems to become members of ISEAL.
For example, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a global, multi-stakeholder initiative on sustainable palm oil. Many different organisations are represented in its membership, including plantation companies, processors and traders, consumer goods manufacturers and retailers of palm oil products, financial institutions, environmental NGOs and social NGOs, from many countries that produce or use palm oil. Likewise, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) works with a range of stakeholders ensuring balance and preventing the dominance of single interests. Agreeing on a set of principles for sustainable fishing takes place through a series of meetings around the world with key stakeholders – scientists, activists, industry representatives, and policy-makers. Where gaps are identified, measures are taken to strengthen multi-stakeholder engagement and consultation.
Encouraging sector-wide improvements
This collaboration among stakeholders provides many benefits. It increases understanding of the sustainability challenges among the various players and creates consensus to define good practice within a sector, encouraging sector-wide improvements. In addition, a multi-stakeholder approach helps to increase transparency; and, as highlighted in a 2017 GlobeScan report ‘Trust and Transparency in the Supply Chain’, increased transparency is a key driver of trust. These factors contribute to greater positive change.
Beyond the initial standard-setting, as new issues emerge, the stakeholder group can update the standards to meet new challenges. Where necessary, a stakeholder can take the role of a critical friend, highlighting how the standard’s criteria does not yet meet the sustainability challenges and prompting continual improvement. Recognising and responding to developments in the sector ensures standards keep up with the evolution of critical issues and sustainable practices.
The Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) is reaping the benefits of multi-stakeholder standard-setting. By design, ASC is a multi-stakeholder concept. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) initiated and co-ordinated the Aquaculture Dialogues, a multi-stakeholder roundtable formally started in 2004. The multi-cultural, multi-stakeholder dialogues took place over more than a decade and the resulting standards reflected the direct input of more than 2,000 NGOs, scientists, farmers, retailers and other important stakeholders within the aquaculture industry. In 2010, IDH (the Sustainable Trade Initiative) joined forces with WWF Netherlands to create the ASC to take responsibility for stewarding the standards into the future.
This approach was taken because the range of stakeholders needed to promote more responsible aquaculture is both diverse and varied. In some countries, governments are influential in aquaculture, whereas in others businesses and NGOs are more involved. There are also different cultural values in different countries. By developing a programme which is relevant to varied stakeholders, ASC has benefitted from increased ownership by those diverse stakeholders. By being involved and seeing the value of the programme, they are more likely to welcome it, leading to greater uptake.
Helping sustainability standards navigate and respond to change
Having the ongoing involvement of multiple stakeholders helps sustainability standards successfully navigate and respond to change. The varied input helps standards keep up with the evolution of thinking and developments in the sector, ensuring that criteria and processes are regularly updated. This continual improvement cycle has proved to be a compelling driver in how credible standards make a real difference.
In 2014, ISEAL defined credibility with the ISEAL Credibility Principles, a set of ten core values that capture how standards and certification should operate in any sector to be effective.
Next time: How credible standards lead to capacity building
 Social and environmental standards: Contributing to more sustainable value chains. International Trade Centre and European University Institute, 2016