Around the world, governments, companies and consumers are thirsty for ways to support responsible business practice and to trust that the products they endorse are making a measurable difference for people and the planet. With so many options now at their disposal, one of the big questions is: Which tools provide the highest return on investment, the biggest sustainability bang for one’s buck?
Standards and certifications that follow credible practices are one of the few sustainability models to demonstrate their contribution to a more just and viable future. Pioneering ethical and environmental standards emerged a few decades ago, and in recent years, certification has begun to enter the mainstream in sectors such as forestry and seafood, and has taken root in challenging areas such as mining and electronics.
Looking at what’s been accomplished, we are not talking about a small group of consumers buying coffee from boutique stores. In agriculture, we are talking about several million certified farms and tens of billions of annual sales in coffee, tea, cocoa, sugar, fruit and other commodities that meet Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance or UTZ Certified standards. In seafood, over 20,000 different products bear the blue Marine Stewardship Council seal. Worldwide 180 million hectares of forest meet Forest Stewardship Council standards for responsible forestry.
The uptake of certification by businesses should be turning heads. Earlier this year, McDonald’s announced that it would be selling exclusively MSC-certified fish products in its 14,000 U.S. restaurants. FSC has secured commitments from no less than 20,000 companies, the biggest of which include Kimberly-Clark and Office Depot, which explicitly favour FSC-certified products in their procurement policies. With promises from powerful chocolate companies such as Hershey to certify 100% of its supply chain in the next few years, estimates show that upwards of 30% of global cocoa production could be certified by 2020. Then there is the success of the London 2012 Olympics, where all tea, coffee, sugar, and bananas were Fairtrade certified.
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But uptake does not necessarily equate to impact, and certification organisations have sharpened their focus on uncovering what their efforts have truly accomplished. It might take years before we have the comprehensive data we need, but the anecdotal evidence we have is promising. Scientific studies and MSC’s own 2013 Global Impacts Report, which analysed the performance all of its 188 fisheries, have found that certification is improving the status of marine ecosystems, with the health of MSC-certified fish stocks exceeding that of non-certified ones. An analysis of the cocoa sector has shown yield improvements of over 90% in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire resulting from certification. A recent report revealed that Colombian coffee farmers participating in a Rainforest Alliance/Nespresso initiative received 87% higher incomes than non-participants, while Fairtrade certification has been linked to better working conditions and an ability to plan for the future.
The impacts extend beyond the ecolabels that you are likely to recognise on supermarket shelves. In South Asia, GoodWeave has helped to bring child labour in carpet looms down from 1 million to 250,000 through its child-labour-free standard for rug production. Then there are results that are less easy to measure, such as the impact of standards on strengthening government legislation and the unknown numbers of producers that have improved their practices due to the influence of standards, buthave not become certified.
Inevitably as certification captures a greater share of the market and becomes active in places where ecosystems are fragile or respect for human rights is tenuous, there will be risks. Companies will look to misuse labels and operations will look for shortcuts. FSC’s decision to disassociate from a formerly certified forest company working in the Congo, as well as the factory fires in Bangladesh and Pakistan, are sobering reminders that standards need to be constantly self-evaluating to ensure credibility and effectiveness.
But we must also accept that delivering enduring social and environmental change is a marathon. The positive impacts of certification are being established and these help to validate the decades of work spent evolving the certification model and refining it to different settings and sectors. With wider support and scaling up, this progress can lead to transformation.