Making Sense of the Complex Sustainability Landscape

Making Sense of the Complex Sustainability Landscape

Sustainability labels are everywhere, clamoring for attention and claiming benefits for nature and the future of humanity. How should the discerning customer evaluate these labels?
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Sustainability Labels 
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Concern over sustainable | Learn more on Commonshare | development in the 1980s led to a UN effort to study the problem and propose solutions. The core concept spans three different dimensions: social concerns (fair treatment of workers), economic concerns (increasing profits, improving quality of life), and environmental (managing land, water, and biodiversity). 
Over the years, different organizations tackled these problems for different sectors. 
Examples of sustainability labels
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The Rainforest Alliance standard, a certification with a label in the form of a small green frog, was originally established for coffee. It is concerned with getting farmers to increase tree cover on their plantations and ensuring fair treatment of workers, and other things. 
Fair trade certifications – there are a number of these – require farmers to make efficient use of water, prohibit bonded labor and offer safe working conditions. 
And the Smithsonian Bird Center’s Bird Friendly certification requires coffee farms to have at least 10 tree species and at least 40% shade cover on the plantation.
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Hundreds of Sustainability Standards 
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All in all, there are more than 400 different certifications for a wide variety of goods and services. All of these certifications claim, explicitly or implicitly, to be “sustainable.” 
The sheer number of these certifications resulted from the gradual realization that deliberate, top-down government policy was not working as a means of establishing sustainable standards. Accordingly, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), a variety of trade societies and private companies, stepped in and created their own standards. 
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Benefits and Shortcomings
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There are benefits and shortcomings of having so many standards. On the one hand, each standard must compete for relevance, and this market-driven competition helps to force the standards to be competitive and demonstrate their worth. 
On the other hand, too many similar or duplicate standards leads to wasted resources: transaction costs, manpower, verification work, fundraising, and advertising that would be more efficient if it was for a single standard. 
Another concern is that with so many organizations and so much competition, the competitive ratchet will work the other way. If an organization can come up with a sustainability certification that looks and sounds good but is actually very easy, and if that organization is not caught and called out, then there might well be a race to the bottom as other organizations loosen standards to stay relevant. 
Consumers an important line of defense 
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This means that consumers are an important line of defense for ensuring that sustainability certifications are meaningful and measure actual impacts. If consumers are vigilant, they can prioritize products and services certified with good sustainability standards, and punish those that are certified by poor ones. 
This means consumers have to be discerning, have to know the good standards from the bad.
The question, then, is how to best discern.
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Evaluating Sustainability Standards
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Until four or five years ago, it was difficult to evaluate the impact of standards. It is still difficult, but that is starting to change in some places. 
For example, one study found that in one province of Colombia, coffee farmers who were Rainforest Alliance-certified planted more trees on their farms than neighbors who were not. 
The observers also found that these farmers’ children had completed more years at school, for an interesting reason. The farmers, who were not literate, kept them at school for a few more years so that they could help with administering the forms and reports necessary for certification.  
Results different in different contexts 
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On the other hand, another team of researchers in Honduras found that very few of the Rainforest Alliance-certified farmers were expanding their fields into forests. On the other hand, the farmers certified by Fairtrade, UTZ, and 4C were causing deforestation.
Why were the results different? Because the context in Honduras is different – and because the teams were different and used different methods.
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Some Certification Standards Stand Out
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Certification standards sometimes distinguish themselves through accomplishments, standing out from the rest by virtue of their widespread adoption. 
Sometimes, certification standards become public policy. This very thing happened in Bolivia a few years ago: when the country decided to reform its forestry code, it used the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) because FSC-certified forests in Bolivia were productive and profitable. 
Large companies can also make a huge impact on certification standards. If a sufficiently large company says it will commit to eliminate tropical deforestation from its supply chain, that means that all of its palm oil | Learn more on Commonshare |, for example, must be deforestation-free. They might mandate certification from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), giving palm oil | Learn more on Commonshare | producers a powerful incentive to become certified. 
While there is often uncertainty, consumers can take it upon themselves to be informed about certification standards and prioritize the ones that have the most convincing results. The more customers reward good certification, the more pressure there will be for more companies to follow suit. 

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