Increasing evidence on the impact of sustainability standards

As more evidence emerges it continues to highlight the importance of innovating and collaborating to have greater sustainability impact.

Anyone working in the sustainability standards and certification field will have heard the phrase ‘beyond certification’. Initially coined to suggest that these systems should be abandoned in favour of other approaches, the phrase has now grown to encompass standards systems’ evolution, innovation and collaboration.

Voluntary sustainability standards have been the traditional approach to incentivise the adoption of sustainable production practices and bring multi-stakeholder governance, transparency, independent verification and traceability to supply chains. By doing so, these systems have played a pivotal role in driving sustainable sourcing across sectors.

As the scale of the global sustainability challenge grows exponentially, standards systems are evolving to achieve greater impact, efficiency and value.

The evidence state of play

However, how do we know if sustainability standards and certification work to drive impacts on pressing issues? The good news is that across the range of tools in use today, standards – specifically ISEAL member schemes – are the most studied sustainability approach.  

For a long time, we’ve heard that the evidence base to understand whether standards are delivering impacts is too weak. But, year on year, the number of studies on the impacts of standards systems is growing, particularly as standards are adopted in new sectors and become more efficient in collecting data on their impacts.

We’ve also seen an increase in impact evaluation studies backed up by strong research designs, which helps us to investigate the impacts question. This means we can understand how, and to what extent, standards are responsible for driving impacts on specific issues better.  

The idea that there is no evidence about standards just isn’t true anymore.

What does the evidence say?

The growing body of research evidence shows that standards systems can and do have positive impacts – including preventing the worst practices, improving profitability for smallholders and conserving biodiversity and tree cover.

However, not in every place, on every outcome, or every scale. This means we need to think carefully about what works well in what situations and what doesn’t work so well.

Standards are often multi-faceted and operate in complex environments. Different contexts and geographies, varied study aims and designs, and the complexity of the issues explored mean the literature cannot give simple yes or no answers when it comes to the impact of standards. The enabling environment, such as the laws, culture, and sector dynamics where a standard operates affect how well it works.

Working in partnership to address the most complex challenges

For some very complex issues, there are limits to how far standards can go alone – partnerships are essential to achieve the scale and depth of impact desired.

For example, improving farmer household income is a goal for many standards’ schemes working in the agriculture sector. Many factors affect household incomes and, while a considerable number of studies show that certified farmers earn a higher income for their certified crops than non-certified farmers, relatively few have found a significant difference when it comes to overall household income.

The contribution to overall household income from a certified crop may be small. And, in those cases, even if income from that crop increases, overall household income might not. We have to widen our focus beyond measuring certified crop income as an indicator of impact on farmer income at a household level. This way of thinking lies at the heart of the Living Income Community of Practice.

We need more nuanced conclusions for standards to learn from the research and to innovate and improve. Then, this kind of information can really help drive collaboration and help us to understand where working in partnership makes most sense.

Contributing to sustainable rural livelihoods

ISEAL’s Demonstrating and Improving Poverty Impacts (DIPI) project has provided a deeper understanding of the ways in which standards contribute to sustainable rural livelihoods and poverty alleviation.

Data and insight from empirical studies suggests that, while standards may be reaching poor farmers, they aren’t reaching the very poorest in rural economies. The world’s poorest are hard to reach and often tend to be landless wage labourers rather than landed smallholder farmers. Largely, the effectiveness of standards in these instances depends on having enabling conditions in place, such as the presence of formal land titles and access to resources and finance.

To incentivise improvements and accessibility, many standards organisations have put in place new strategies, such as adapting their models to fit small-scale operations better and developing new partnerships. For example, Fairtrade’s revised version of its standard for small-scale producers; and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’s (RSPO) recently released standard for independent smallholders, which offers a simpler process for meeting certification requirements while maintaining core sustainability principles.

Evidensia: making the research accessible and useful

We need to know what drives effectiveness and what delivers sustainability impacts if we're to advance and address the issues we are most concerned about. And, critically, we need to know where we have gaps in our evidence and understanding to make this progress.

In addition, businesses want to back up their sourcing decisions with impact evaluations: they need assurance that by procuring certified products they are reducing risks to their reputation and supporting their sustainability promises.

Up until now, it has been hard to identify and understand what information exists about the impacts and effectiveness of sustainability initiatives. So, the recent launch of Evidensia by ISEAL, WWF and the Rainforest Alliance has been very welcome.

Evidensia hosts evidence and information on the effectiveness and impacts of sustainability and supply chain tools and approaches all in one place. This means, business leaders, policy-makers and researchers have access to the information they need to understand what works where, why and how.

Where do we need to go next with the research?

Important research gaps still remain. For example, in sectors such as textiles, mining, manufacturing and green building. There is also a range of issues linked to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) where we need to improve our understanding of how standards operate and how they make a difference. For example, in terms of resilience, labour rights and wages. Finally, there are regions where standards are used, but have not been consistently studied, causing knowledge gaps.

Recognising a collaborative approach

Sustainability tools and initiatives are seeing the bigger picture, they’re widening their strategies and working together to go ‘beyond certification’: recognising that the responsibility goes way beyond any one approach to achieve a sustainable future.

To reflect this, research needs to move from absolute results to the combined effect of multiple interventions. To enable this, research needs to be better at integrating and understanding context and structure.

What we all want to know is, do standards systems make a difference? Do they have an impact on the issues that people care about? With the available evidence, we’re already starting to build that picture. As we fill the research gaps, we will be able to better answer these questions, as well as build a deeper understanding of what makes standards more effective in some places than others, and what elements of standards make the biggest difference.