The future of assurance is data

New technologies and the increase in available data to aid decision-making are transforming how we drive sustainability and assess its progress. 

Sustainability standards recognise the fundamental shift in expectations and practice and are adapting their systems to become better data managers. Assurance practice is at the centre of opportunities to reduce the cost of standards compliance and increase its value to clients, by harnessing insights from data and information.

In January 2018, the ISEAL board of directors approved version 2 of the ISEAL Assurance Code after a year-long consultation process. The consultation highlighted the need for the Code to reflect the evolution of assurance systems and the growing range of innovations in assurance practice. These innovations include better integration of data in assurance decision-making such as identifying performance anomalies to target high risk issues; the use of new sources of data, from satellites to factory worker texts; and the provision of new assurance services such as performance dashboards for certifying enterprises.

The ISEAL Assurance Code v2 incorporates requirements for standards systems to strengthen data management practice to support learning and improvement. While traditional assurance strategies such as competent assessors, consistent assessments, and credible oversight remain highly relevant, new requirements ensure that the whole assurance system is consistently monitored for risks and potential improvements to effectiveness. The Code now requires sustainability standards to put in place an information management system that provides insight into what clients need from evaluations and engagements with standards.  The revised requirements will help ensure that scheme owners and clients alike derive greater value from the assurance process.   

The evolution in assurance practice will bolster ISEAL members’ ongoing explorations of a range of data innovations to achieve greater value. Innovations include pilots for the use of blockchain, the creation of sustainability data platforms to provide one-stop information sources for topics like pesticides and forced labour, and exploration of risk management approaches that can allow standards to provide a useful flow of information to actors across the value chain.

Successful innovations will call on ISEAL members to stay current on the rapid changes in data and technology and to work collectively to share value from information. The changes impacting members’ work include data science and analytics approaches and tools. They will enable members to collect and use data more easily, and at lower cost, which will enable a new focus on where their collective objectives and efforts are aligned. This catalyses the design of more efficient and targeted solutions to multiply the value of sustainability initiatives for a range of stakeholder groups. The General Data Protection Regulation will also bring focus to how information is managed so that personal data from enterprises is protected but also used to provide tailored resources and information to clients. As new digital era trends emerge, standards will be able to work more closely together and grow the range of sustainability data they can provide and harness for impact.

On 22 February 2018, ISEAL introduced the Assurance Code v2 in a public webinar “The future of assurance is data” (recording available via link on the right). This webinar explored how a focus on data and information management in assurance can improve both the effectiveness of the assurance process and the value of that process for certifying enterprises, supply chain actors and the scheme owners themselves. Taking a data-focused approach to assurance can help us better take advantage of opportunities and manage risks in pursuit of our sustainability ambitions.