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Certification and Eco-Labels: Alive and Kicking?

By 3p Contributor

By Lara Koritzke

Over the last 20 years, sustainability standards have been used successfully across many industries -- supporting millions of workers and tens of thousands of companies that are committed to working responsibly.

However, in recent years it became clear that there is no single solution to the sustainability challenges we all face. Certification is one of the most proven tools in the toolbox. But the planet is still suffering, and we need a range of approaches to completely reverse the trajectory.

So, certification leaders are building on what’s good, innovating to respond to new challenges, and also adding other approaches to the mix. They already have a good solid base to build on – and we need this.

True cost to planet and society lower

The sustainability movement must break through when it comes to taking and making things from our Earth. And, despite some criticism, certification is doing just this.

Several reports show certification brings benefits compared with business as usual. A recent (and fairly cool) set of reports by True Price and IDH even show the cost to people and the environment is considerably lower with certified farming. New reports also indicate certification has yet to reach its limits. The State of Sustainable Markets report showed that some eco-labels saw six-fold, seven-fold and even 30-fold growth in a recent period.

The tipping points are getting up there too. According to research by ISEAL, the global umbrella group for the sustainability standards movement, 12 percent of the world's cotton is now Better Cotton; coffee has reached 38 percent of the global market certified; forestry is at 30 percent; seafood is at 14 percent; and palm oil is at 17 percent.

But now comes the hard part. All sustainability tools, including certification, need to engage the companies that are the late-comers. Yes, I mean those companies with lower scores on the Oxfam Behind the Brands Scorecards and low ratings (or lack of response) on the WWF Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard. Sadly, they are probably not reading this blog. And it will require new laws for some to take any steps. It also means that certification schemes need to evolve, ensuring they are accessible to small producers and developing partnerships to maximize collective strength.

Credible certification organizations are doing this already. To help, the Swiss government recently announced a major investment in testing certification innovations.

Certainly, some criticism of certification remains. However, many industry leaders are not fazed, and instead are newly discovering the approach -- one that may have emerged two decades ago but which seems to be more popular than ever.

New standards emerging: From steel to eels

Multi-stakeholder initiatives are popping up all over the globe, working to define what responsibility looks like for everything from leather, goose down and scrap metal to adult undergarments. Will they succeed in greening these industries? Well, if they follow an open process that consults with stakeholders, they are more likely to have meaningful requirements in their standards. If they have independent, transparent certification, they will more likely assure people that changes are real.

This month, a group of 21 certification organizations will embark on a campaign to remind people what good certification looks like. Groups such as the Forest Stewardship Council, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, Rainforest Alliance, UTZ, and others are reminding companies, governments and other stakeholders that they are ‘making a real mark’ on the world, while at the same time continuing to improve. And, they launched a new one minute video (see below) to make their point.

New public website on impacts

Businesses are responding as well. Two recent surveys show that the majority of companies plan to increase their use of certification in the future. Now a new website hosted by ISEAL is trying to pull all the credible impact reports – both positive and negative – together on certification. The site allows visitors to search by sector, topic, or region and get resources such as videos and infographics, as well as full reports by researchers or by certification organizations.

Soon we will have 9 billion people on the planet. If we don’t look after our resources now, we will create serious problems for future generations. We tell our children to learn from their mistakes, and in life we make decisions based on past experiences. So, as we look to the future we need to learn from the past. Let’s build on what’s working – and make good even better.


Image courtesy of Marks & Spencer

Lara Koritzke is Director of Development & Communications at the ISEAL Alliance. Prior to joining ISEAL in 2011, she spent 11 years with Rainforest Alliance, where she developed global strategy for partnerships. She is based in Toronto.

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