Beyond certification: the systemic impacts of sustainability standards

Joshua Wickerham, ISEAL Policy & Outreach Manager, discusses the insights from a new white paper on the systemic impacts of voluntary sustainability standards.

In recent years, understanding of the impacts of sustainability standards has been increasing. ISEAL members have invested significantly in monitoring and evaluation systems, and various organisations have commissioned research into the impacts of standards and certification.

A growing body of evidence points to the positive changes that can occur when farms, forests, fisheries and other enterprises are certified against credible standards.

However, the impact of sustainability standards goes beyond the individual certified operations. Standards can also affect whole systems, in both large and small ways – by shaping government and private sector policies, sharing knowledge and training, raising consumer awareness or improving coordination across landscapes and sectors. This helps to create an enabling environment for production and consumption practices that benefit people and planet.

These systemic impacts have the potential to play a significant role in tackling the root causes of unsustainable practices and extending, deepening and sustaining the positive effects of certification. However, they can be challenging to identify and measure.

ISEAL and WWF commissioned sustainability consultancy Aidenvironment to explore this largely uncharted territory. The recently published white paper highlights a range of systemic impacts of ISEAL member standards, both tangible, such as the creation of new partnerships or knowledge products, and intangible, such as building trust and embedding principles of continuous improvement and learning.

Stakeholder collaboration

Sustainability standards can help to facilitate dialogue between multiple stakeholders across a sector. This can lead to improved coordination, strategies and partnerships to tackle key sustainability issues, while also helping to build trust, influence attitudes or empower those who are often excluded from decisions that affect them.

For example, in Sabah, Malaysia, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has helped bring together government, industry and civil society to improve practices at a jurisdictional level, and is supporting the state government in its commitment to certify all palm operations to the RSPO standard by 2025.

In Nicaragua, Bonsucro brokered dialogue in a dispute on workers’ health between an NGO and a large sugar mill. This led to the launch of Adelante, an industry-wide initiative that aims to improve farm labour practices and workers’ health nationally and regionally.

Knowledge and investments

Standards have helped expand the knowledge base and develop tools to support sustainable production. The high conservation value (HCV) approach, originally pioneered by the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC), has now been adopted by over 160 companies and financial institutions, helping to protect millions of hectares of old-growth forest and other important natural habitats and cultural sites.

And, seven ISEAL members formed the Global Living Wage Coalition (GLWC) to promote wages that enable workers and their families to afford a decent standard of living. The coalition’s tools and studies, publicly available online, have helped develop benchmarks for a living wage in several sectors.

Sustainability standards have also helped funnel investment into research, training and capacity building with widespread benefits. The Global Fisheries Sustainability Fund from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), for example, specifically funds projects that will have benefits beyond a single fishery.

Policies and behaviour

By engaging with businesses, government and the finance sector, standards influence policies in both public and private sectors, as well as corporate behaviour and public opinion.

Changes to public policy can be particularly significant, helping to eliminate the worst practices and create a level playing field for responsible operations. Many sustainability standards have influenced government policy and regulations in several countries and sectors – from aquaculture in Vietnam and coffee in Brazil to cotton in Mozambique and  forestry in Peru.

Standards can also serve as a basis for sustainable public procurement criteria, or to identify and mitigate environmental and social risks. For example, ABN Amro, Citibank Group, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, HSBC, Rabobank and UBS all require customers to be certified or have time-bound plans to become certified. These financial sector requirements shape market behaviour to deepen sustainability standards’ impacts.

Opportunities for sustainability standards systems

Voluntary sustainability standards truly have the potential to deliver impacts that go beyond individual supply chains and certified areas of operation – the examples discussed show how this is already happening. However, we need to do more to monitor these systemic impacts in order to inform future strategies.

There’s a strong argument for ISEAL members to put more emphasis on targeting these systemic impacts, to achieve broad and long-lasting benefits for people and nature. It’s an area we look forward to exploring more.