Striking a balance: improvement and credibility

Over the past year, ISEAL has explored how standards can work as enablers of progress within their sector or industry, and how they use a range of strategies to drive continual improvement at scale. At the Global Sustainability Standards Conference we will be sharing and discussing these findings publicly for the first time. Here’s a taster of what will be on the agenda.

There are some perceptions that standards systems focus solely on separating the ‘good’ from the ‘bad’ and that companies must use other tools if they are in search of continual improvement. However, our work over the last year has found that continual improvement is central to both standards systems and businesses alike for identifying and making changes that result in better sustainability outcomes. In fact, all of ISEAL’s 19 standard-setting members[1] refer to continual improvement in their standard.

Strategies to drive improvement

ISEAL’s Continual Improvement Task Force has identified six key strategies that standards systems use to drive uptake of good practices and improvement over time. These six strategies often work in concert:

  • Stepwise approaches, which enable enterprises to gradually move towards improved social and/or environmental performance
  • Rewards and incentives, which spur desired actions, usually through the expectation of a reward
  • Capacity building and improvement programmes
  • Business model transformations to better understand both ends of the value chain
  • Performance assessment tools to measure an enterprise’s compliance with a standard’s requirements but also broader sustainability performance
  • Partnerships as an option to leverage resources to drive continual improvement at scale.

Making better use of data

Standard systems can make better use of their data to create more value for enterprises and supply chain actors by packaging and making information available in different forms. For example, some ISEAL members are developing performance assessment tools which offer businesses the opportunity to benchmark or improve their sustainability performance, such as MSC’s approach to multi-fishery pre-assessment, which includes a benchmarking and tracking index that provides a simple numeric score from 0 to 1 and tracks overall progress towards compliance.

Increasing uptake of continual improvement programmes

It's important to explore the conditions that need to be in place to ensure these strategies are accepted and developed in an enterprise. For instance, actors along the supply chain with a learning and improvement mind set instead of a compliance culture, or using effective feedback loops on sustainability performance, are more likely to be open to a continual improvement approach.

One way to reimagine performance against a standard would be to use different terminology and position the standard as a framework with enterprises earning ‘credits’ as opposed to complying with requirements[2].

Another debate is whether a standard should set both a minimum certification bar and steps for continual improvement. The answer to this could depend on a number of variables, such as the commodity in question and societal expectations on acceptable behaviour. Indeed, some issues are contentious: should child labour only be considered in zero tolerance, pass/fail terms? Or are remedial, stepwise approaches more realistic and supportive of vulnerable children? We need to strike a balance: as well as working on continual improvement, initiatives must have a credible, robust system in place to address the hotspot issues in the supply chain.

Next steps

ISEAL is working on what credible progress looks like, drawing from the ISEAL Codes of Good Practice and the Credibility Principles, to guide members and other sustainability tools through this transition.

Want to learn more? Join the ISEAL community and be part of the conversation at the Community Day where Patrick Mallet, Innovations Director, will be joined by Field To Market, Marine Stewardship Council and GEO Foundation to share insights and practical experiences.


[1] Numbers from January 2018

[2] “Incentives for Sustainability Improvements: Emphasizing performance and social dynamics” Aidenvironment Report, 2017, page 24

Sustainable Rice Platform and the International Insetting Platform an example of such a framework