Labeling Sustainability: Is Certification Working?

The answer from this small seminar group of world experts on assessing the impact of sustainability standards — gathered by IVL, IISD, RFF and others to review the work of a big international research program called Entwined — is a qualified yes.

The “Yes” is interesting (and thanks to Erika Svensson of IVL for inviting me, so I could hear it) … but the qualifications are even more interesting.

For example, isn’t it amazing that it takes an independent, rigorous set of research programs just to find out whether these various voluntary standards are actually working? One of the findings of the State of Sustainability Initiatives annual assessment is that most of these standards — things like Forestry Stewardship Council certification, or Rainforest Alliance’s coffee labeling program — have no clue about the actual impact of what they are doing.

Or rather, the transparency of that impact is low (“red” on a slide displayed by Jason Potts of IISD). Standards organizations don’t have good numbers, and/or don’t publish them. So teams of researchers have been combing the market data, interviewing farmers, etc. to figure this out. Data is scarce. The data that does exist is fascinating (see my Twitter posts from this same seminar), such as the fact that Peru, with only 2 or 3% of the global coffee market, has 20% of the “sustainability certified” coffee market.

So, what are the findings? Researchers and data geeks will want to dig into the actual studies, but the executive summary is:  it’s an imperfect world, but standards and labeling does work. Environmental performance (comparing, for example, farmers that are certified to those that are not) improves.  It’s not that use of agro-chemicals drops to zero, of course, but — in one study for example, focused on coffee — that there was a 38% difference in the application of such chemicals between certified and non-certified farms. That’s actually a good result. (See the study, by Allen Blackman et al. at Resources for the Future)

Question time at the Entwined Seminar

Not only does it work environmentally, it works socially as well:  training programs work, capacity improves, even agricultural yields appear to go up as a result of that capacity building. Kids of sustainability-trained farmers in Vietnam, for example, appear to do better at school! (That tidbit from Daniele Giovannucci of COSA.)

That’s good news … because there are literally hundreds of these voluntary standards and certification systems in use around the world (600+ by one count), many at the producer level, many more at the consumer product level. It’s not about a fixed set of criteria, or setting up a label and then relaxing. “We see eco-labeling as a process,” says Caroline Hopkins of the Swedish Nature Conservation Society. She describes how that process works:  they move a voluntary standard into the market (say, removal of chlorine from paper production), and when critical mass is achieved and the technical/economic feasibility of this improved environmental behavior is proven, then they want to move the voluntary label into national legislation and regulation — and get out of the labeling business for that product. “So that we can move on to more urgent matters.”

What’s really happening here? In a quiet way, I think these standards and certification systems are a quiet way of practicing global governance. Phrases like “world government” usually get certain groups, especially in the United States, extremely upset. But we do have world government, of course, or at least “world governance”:  the UN, WTO, the vast body of international treaty law, etc. etc. But these globalized, voluntary standards for “greener” product development are also a form of global governance. What’s more, it is truly multi-stakeholder global governance:  data from IISD showed how the governing boards of these standard-setting groups are very nice mixtures of NGO and private sector, developed and developing country representatives, producers and consumers. This is “soft” stuff, in purely legal terms, because nobody actually has to do it. But as these labeling schemes reach critical mass, companies feel more or less required to participate.

Right now, there are protesters in the streets of many world cities demanding more democracy in the way the world’s economy is run. Ironically, it seems there might be a relatively new, inclusive, democratic, transparent process of economic global governance emerging right now, at least in a specific instance, and right under our noses:  on all those green labels in the supermarket.

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