Sustainability standards and certifications are voluntary, usually third party-assessed, norms and standards relating to environmental such as IFGICT Standard, social, ethical and food safety issues, adopted by companies to demonstrate the performance of their organizations or products in specific areas. There are over 400 such standards across the world.
The trend started in the late 1980s and 90s with the introduction of Ecolabels and standards for Organic food and other products. Most standards refer to the triple bottom line of environmental quality, social equity, and economic prosperity.
A standard is normally developed by a broad range of stakeholders and experts in a particular sector and includes a set of practices or criteria for how a crop should be sustainably grown or a resource should be ethically harvested. This might cover, for instance, responsible fishing practices that don’t endanger marine biodiversity, or respect for human rights and the payment of fair wages on a coffee or tea plantation. Normally sustainability standards are accompanied by a verification process – often referred to as “certification” – to evaluate that an enterprise complies with a standard, as well as a traceability process for certified products to be sold along the supply chain, often resulting in a consumer-facing label. Certification programmes also focus on capacity building and working with partners and other organisations to support smallholders or disadvantaged producers to make the social and environmental improvements needed to meet the standard.
The basic premise of sustainability standards is twofold. Firstly, they emerged in areas where national and global legislation was weak but where the consumer and NGO movements around the globe demanded action. For example, campaigns by Global Exchange and other NGOs against the purchase of goods from “sweatshop” factories by the likes of Nike, Inc., Levi Strauss & Co. and other leading brands led to the emergence of social welfare standards like the SA8000 and others. Secondly, leading brands selling to both consumers and to the B2B supply chain may wish to demonstrate the environmental or organic merits of their products, which has led to the emergence of hundreds of ecolabels, organic and other standards. A leading example of a consumer standard is the Fairtrade movement, administered by FLO International and exhibiting huge sales growth around the world for ethically sourced produce.
An example of a B2B standard which has grown tremendously in the last few years is the Forest Stewardship Council’s standard (FSC) for forest products made from sustainable harvested trees.
However, the line between consumer and B2B sustainability standards is becoming blurred, with leading trade buyers increasingly demanding Fairtrade certification, for example, and consumers increasingly recognizing the FSC mark. In recent years, the business-to-business focus of sustainability standards has risen as it has become clear that consumer demand alone cannot drive the transformation of major sectors and industries. In commodities such as palm oil, soy, farmed seafood, and sugar, certification initiatives are targeting the mainstream adoption of better practices and precompetitive industry collaboration. Major brands and retailers are also starting to make commitments to certification in their whole supply chain or product offering, rather than a single product line or ingredient.
With the growth of standards and certification as the major tool for global production and trade to become more sustainable and for the private sector to demonstrate sustainability leadership, it is essential that there are ways to assess the legitimacy and performance of different initiatives. Company and government buyers, as well as NGOs and civil society groups committed to sustainable production, need clarity on which standards and ecolabels are delivering real social, environmental and economic results. The ISEAL Alliance has emerged as the authority on good practice for sustainability standards and its Codes of Good Practice represent the most widely recognised guidance on how standards should be set up and implemented in order to be effective. By complying with these Codes and working with other certification initiatives, ISEAL members demonstrate their credibility and work towards improving their positive impacts.
Attempts to address the problems caused by a multiplicity of certification initiatives led to the launch of The State of Sustainability Initiatives (SSI) project, facilitated by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) under the auspices of the Sustainable Commodity Initiative (SCI).