Response to MSI Integrity report

MSI Integrity has published a report that investigates how effective Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives (MSIs) are at protecting human rights.

This is an important research report, which we are pleased to see published. Research into sustainability standards and similar systems is essential to monitor their effectiveness, identify weaknesses and drive improvements.  

Safeguarding human rights requires collective action

We agree that successfully safeguarding human rights requires the collective action of many actors, including sustainability standards. This report provides thoughtful views on the roles that standards are effectively playing, what more they could do, and where other actors need to step in.  

Sustainability standards are not a replacement for public regulation. However, they can contribute to achieving effective regulation. The report authors recognise the important role that MSIs, including sustainability standards, have played in positively influencing both government policy and the advocacy strategy of civil society organisations.  

Sustainability standards provide important opportunities for learning and relationship-building

The report also credits sustainability standards with providing important opportunities for learning, relationship-building and experimentation. The report could have gone further to highlight important differences between MSIs. 

Beyond the evaluation of MSIs, the report also makes an important contribution by highlighting worrisome trends that are working against corporate accountability, human rights protection and voice for rights holders. For example, corporate actors increasingly designing their own voluntary standards, with less oversight and stakeholder engagement.

More than 700 studies available on the impacts of sustainability standards

The research site hosts more than 700 studies on the impacts of sustainability standards and other market-based sustainability mechanisms. More public evidence is available about the impacts of sustainability standards than about other mechanisms, such as corporate sustainable sourcing codes. We would like to see more transparency about impacts and effectiveness across the board, so that we all understand the strengths and weaknesses of different mechanisms, and how the enabling environment such as laws, culture and sector dynamics, affects outcomes.

Evidence about sustainability standards has grown significantly in recent years, in part because ISEAL members commit to our Credibility Principles and are independently assessed against our three Codes of Good Practice: Standards-Setting Code, Assurance Code, and Impacts Code. The Impacts Code requires members to have an effective monitoring and evaluation system in place and to conduct or undergo impact evaluations. Our members welcome and actively support many independent research efforts.

Partnerships are essential to achieve the scale and depth of impact needed

The available evidence shows that sustainability standards can and do have positive impacts on many sustainability outcomes – including preventing the worst practices, improving profitability for smallholders and conserving biodiversity and tree cover. For very complex issues, such as human rights, there are limits to how far sustainability standards can go on their own. Partnerships are essential to achieve the scale and depth of impact needed. 

We need solid research with nuanced conclusions for sustainability standards to learn from the research and use the findings to innovate and improve. The MSI Integrity report includes important learning and many concrete suggestions. We will be drawing from these in our work to support and challenge ISEAL members to work towards an ever-greater contribution to addressing critical sustainability challenges, such as human rights protection.