Toward Sustainability: State-of-Knowledge Assessment of Standards & Certification
On June 27, 2012, a 12-member Steering Committee composed of international business and civil society leaders and academic experts released its final report, Toward Sustainability: The Roles and Limitations of Certification. This consensus report describes what is known and what is most important to learn about the performance and potential of voluntary standards and certification. “This report marks a significant achievement,” said Committee Chair Patrick Mallet. “For the first time, the body of evidence for what we know about voluntary standards and certification has been pulled together and synthesized in one place. Voluntary standards are becoming increasingly prevalent, and this report provides directions for how we can make them more effective.”
Twenty years ago, civil society and business leaders launched a movement to establish market preference for sustainable goods. They led initiatives to certify forest products, seafood, chemicals, buildings, electronics, jewelry, and other materials and services. Over two decades, certifi ed products have become increasingly common in the marketplace. For example, recent studies have reported that 20 percent of world exports of bananas and 7 percent of global wild landings of fi sh for human consumption were certifi ed. As certifi cation and labeling systems have proliferated, interest in their impact and potential has also increased. In a globalized market where quality is diffi cult to assure and supplies are insecure, market-leading fi rms are developing business cases for improving social and environmental sustainability, including using standards and certifi cation in ways not foreseen a decade ago. This State-of-Knowledge Assessment sought to discover what is known and what is most important to learn about the performance and potential of voluntary standards and certifi cation. It found substantial evidence of improvements in social, environmental, and economic practices resulting from certifi cation at the site level, as well as some instances of unintended effects, positive and negative. However, much of the evidence is case specifi c, preventing generalizations, and in many cases, it is diffi cult to attribute outcomes directly to certifi cation. It appears that voluntary standards and certifi cation are most effective as part of a suite of integrated public and private sustainability tools. Standards and certifi cation can bring about rapid changes in production practices when fi rms use them to support better practice and performance by their suppliers. They can also complement regulation, by fi lling gaps and introducing mechanisms for adapting to technological and social change. The report concludes with recommendations that actors engaged in certifi cation redouble their efforts to improve the effectiveness of these tools, give more attention to designing them to work in concert with other approaches, and work together to research the impacts of certifi - cation and alternative or complementary approaches.