What can sustainability labels do to contribute to the wider global sustainability goals that we seek? How can standards have an influence beyond those certified under them?
“A roadmap to change” was the theme for this year’s annual ISEAL Conference, held in Berlin from 20 – 22 May, and GECA’s Standards and Technical Manager, Shaila Divakarla, was there to join the discussion. The conference provided plenty of food for thought for everyone in attendance, and a few key themes emerged over the course of the event.
The conference was well attended, with representatives from advocacy and capacity-building groups (WWF, Greenpeace, Consumers International, NEPCon), standards organisations (including Rainforest Alliance, FSC, Fairtrade International, UTZ Certified, and many others), producers and industry bodies (IKEA, Marks and Spencer, Royal Ahold, 2 Degrees), auditors, government organisations, consultancies and experts.
Given the rapid pace of developmental activities currently taking place in the world, especially in emerging economies such as China and India, one of the big issues tackled at the conference was whether standards organisations should focus on raising the ceiling (rewarding the best) or lifting the floor (moving the rest). On one side, sustainability standards can choose to act as a distinguishing sign of industry best practice, rewarding only the best performers who pass set criteria, and representing a gold standard to strive for. Alternatively, standards can focus on encouraging improvements across the industry and be more inclusive by setting the bar lower.
There were some interesting as well as convincing arguments from both sides, lead primarily by WWF and Greenpeace, in this regard. However, there seemed to be no doubt that standard setters need to acknowledge this trend and look at creative ways to continue to maintain what they stand for, while at the same time be more inclusive if they wish to achieve their mission and the transformation they seek – and that is where the challenge lies.
It was also clear that smaller companies, who are often knowledge and resource poor, should be supported all along their journey towards a lower environmental impact, and standards organisations have an important role to play in capacity building. There also needs to be a greater understanding that change must come from within industry itself, rather than relying on consumers to drive transformation.
Sustainability labels should move beyond focussing on reducing impacts in the industry (“hot spots”) and instead look at creating value within it (“sweet spots”) to have a greater effect. Schemes can capitalise on the wide range of parallel schemes operating around the world by collaborating and partnering together to increase efficiency of time and resources, as well as providing greater clarity for consumers.