Sustainability standards, certification systems and ecolabels: Separating the wheat from the chaff

ISEAL is launching a global conversation to produce a broadly agreed set of Credibility Principles that represent the core values and characteristics of effective sustainability standards. The following article is provided by Norma Tregurtha, Senior Policy Manager of ISEAL Alliance, to introduce the draft principles.

While sustainability standards, certification systems and accompanying ecolabels have been around since the 1960s, it is only in the past decade that their market presence has become commonplace.  This is illustrated by recent data from Ecolabel Index, an organisation that monitors voluntary standards and labelling initiatives. At the end of 2011 Ecolabel Index found there were more than 420 operational sustainability labelling initiatives in 246 countries, covering 25 different industrial sectors of the economy. Figure 1 below charts the growth of labelling initiatives since the 1960s.[1]

For decision-makers who base their purchasing or investment decisions on certification, such as consumers and procurement officers, they need to know the integrity of the promises made by different standards and which of the many labels in the market they can trust.

Dealing with this question lies at the heart of the ISEAL Alliance’s mission.  ISEAL is the global association for sustainability standards. Its members can be considered the leading international sustainability standards – organisations such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and Fairtrade. ISEAL brings these different organisations together in a learning community to strengthen the credibility and effectiveness of the sustainability standards movement as a whole. As a collective, one of the major questions the ISEAL Alliance asks is: what makes a standard credible?

ISEAL works from the belief that the ultimate aim of a credible sustainability standard should be to bring about positive social, environmental and economic impacts.  A standard that has achieved its desired impacts is able to demonstrate, for one, that it brings about meaningful change on the ground (performance), and second, that there is uptake of the standard by a wide range of users, along the whole supply chain (uptake). 

To make this idea of credibility and its constituent elements performance and uptake more tangible, ISEAL is leading an inclusive global conversation to reach consensus on the core values and characteristics that underpin credible standards. These principles, currently in draft form, are intended to be an international reference – a signpost that directs decision-makers in their purchasing and sourcing decisions and their engagement with sustainability standards.

A.     Performance

The draft principles under the performance category are:

  1. Effectiveness: Does the standard have a programme in place for monitoring and evaluating impacts integrating this learning into improvements of the standard?
  2. Relevance: Are the highly important social and environmental challenges faced by the sector or industry being addressed by the standard?
  3. Rigour: Does the standard reflect best scientific understanding and does it reference relevant international norms? Does it require performance that measurable improves on the status quo?
  4. Accuracy:  Does the standard have a well-functioning system in place for providing an accurate picture of whether a producer or enterprise is in compliance with requirements?
  5. Impartiality: Are assessments of compliance objective such that there are no conflicts of interest and auditor and audit process are not inappropriately influenced in their decisions?
  6. Co-ordination: Does the standard build on existing standards where relevant and collaborate with other standards systems to improve consistency and efficiency in operating practices?
  7. Operational Efficiency: Does the standard have a sound business and financial model in place as well as an efficient governance system? 

B.      Uptake

The draft principles under the uptake category are:

  1. Engagement:  Was a representative group of stakeholders involved in the standards development process and are relevant stakeholders engaged in the assurance and impacts evaluation?
  2. Transparency: Is there accessible information about the content of the standard and the certification process, sustainability impacts and the various ways that stakeholders can engage?
  3. Truthfulness: Are claims and communications about the standard easy to understand, accurate about benefits and precise in their language?
  4. Accountability:  Does the standard have an independent complaints mechanism in place regarding its own activities and those of assurance providers?
  5. Accessibility: Is the standard equally applicable to all types of enterprises? Bearing in mind the end-user, is the assurance process no more onerous than necessary?
  6. Capacity: Does the standards systems facilitate training and access to resources for enterprises seeking assurance and to develop local assurance provision? 

If sustainability standards and certification schemes are going to continue to expand their reach and influence, all users and supporters of sustainable value chains will need to be brought into this credibility discussion.

The first step in finalising these principles is a public consultation, open from the 3 September until 7 December 2012, which included several ways to get involved. Please visit and select the option that works best for you.