Marketing and Comms
How to Assess Credibility in a Sea of Ecolabels

More and more products on supermarket shelves bear sustainability claims, promising everything from biodegradable household cleaners to bird-friendly coffee. But with over 400 ecolabels on the market (according to the Ecolabel Index) it can be difficult for any company, consumer or government to know which to trust, given the array of promises and limited evidence of benefits.

In light of calamitous events such as the collapsed factories in Bangladesh, or scandals that shatter consumer confidence such as the horsemeat scandal in Britain, companies must be more diligent than ever in mitigating supply chain risks. Many business and government leaders are calling for a simple way to know which sustainability standards or certifications to trust. The Rainforest Alliance frog and Marine Stewardship Council blue seafood label are recognisable to many, and are among some of the most influential certification systems. But how does anyone know what lies behind these and other labels?

For the last year, ISEAL Alliance has led a global conversation with standard-setters, businesses, NGOs, governments, consumer organisations and others to agree on the core values that buyers should use as criteria when choosing labels and certifications. The result: The Credibility Principles, which buyers can use to assess the validity of an ecolabel’s claims and avoid those developed in so-called ‘closed door’ processes or with no oversight.

The Credibility Principles are 10 principles that make the link between action and sustainability impact to help identify credible ecolabels and certifications:

  • Sustainability
  • Improvement
  • Relevance
  • Rigour
  • Engagement
  • Impartiality
  • Transparency
  • Accessibility
  • Truthfulness
  • Efficiency

Mike Barry, Head of Sustainable Business of Marks & Spencer, told us at a recent gathering of sustainability leaders in London last month: “The Credibility Principles provide structure, allowing us to take a more systematic approach to considering how we make many dozens of different raw materials more sustainable.

“You see, a chocolate bar might have a label indicating that the cocoa beans were sustainably grown, but a supermarket’s procurement person can dig deeper, asking a standard-setting organisation if their system embraces relevance,” Barry went on. “For example, by addressing the main challenges in cocoa production — such as child labour and pesticides — or if they embrace the principle of improvement by having a monitoring system in place to measure whether their certification has a positive impact, such as poverty reduction or biodiversity conservation.”

With sustainability standards emerging in multiple sectors, from renewable energy and plastics to mining and tourism, the Credibility Principles can be applied universally to any standards system that assesses sustainability. They capture, at a broad level, what good certification looks like in any commodity or industry. They can also provide guidance for a company’s own internal codes or standards.

Assessing the long-term impacts of certification takes time, but if you know that a standards system is doing good work and can be trusted, you can reliably do business with them without having all the data in front of you.

Watch a two-minute video on the Credibility Principles and how to use them.

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