Behind Certifications and Beyond Labels

09 Nov 2011Mark Lee

SustainAbility is thrilled to be on the cusp of launching our latest research report, Signed, Sealed…Delivered? In addition to the global public release online and in print November 16th, we will host in-person launch events in Washington, DC and London on November 16th and 18th, respectively, where our findings will be debated and dissected in workshop format with representatives from certification and labeling initiatives, engaged businesses and other stakeholders.

Sign of the Times

Signed, Sealed…Delivered? looks ‘behind certifications and beyond labels,’ at how these tools and the performance standards that underpin them create business value.

But our decision to explore the experience of business with marks and movements like Energy Star, Fairtrade, Marine Stewardship Council and Rainforest Alliance had a larger purpose, asking: What has been learned about the best ways to improve supply chain performance, increase trust among value chain partners, and change customer and consumer behavior? What lessons can be extrapolated to the challenge of scaling sustainability overall?

Sealing the Deal

Signed, Sealed…Delivered? applauds the ways certifications, labels and standards have advanced more sustainable business practices. They empower customers and consumers, powerfully combine standards-setting and branding, and deliver credibility and transparency via independent assurance. Businesses use them to define, deliver, demonstrate and create demand for better sustainability outcomes. And they have improved lives and livelihoods in supply chains while helping preserve and regenerate resources.

Guaranteed Delivery?

We also conclude we are reaching limits in terms of scale. Certification and labeling are time and money intensive; we can’t – we shouldn’t – certify and label everything. The aim behind certifications and the aspiration beyond labels is the creation of organizations and market systems that are just and sustainable in their entirety. Rather than certifications and labels driving endless incremental improvement, we anticipate – we hope for – a future built on increasingly rigorous, pre-competitive standards for sustainability performance, above which brands compete to make sustainability intrinsic, where new business models emerge with factors previously requiring certification now part of their DNA, and where civil society finds more effective and efficient ways of holding business accountable.

What’s Next

Certifications and labels have been pioneers in building a more sustainable economy. Some will continue to define leading edges while others form crucial minimum performance floors in future markets. Their continued roles are welcome and required, even as we hope overtaken by the emergence of a more sustainable economic model overall.

Confidence in the future of certifications and labels is underscored by the diversity of approaches we see among business applying these tools today. This is illustrated by Signed, Sealed…Delivered? case studies and experience including:

  • Cafédirect, whose portfolio has been 100% Fairtrade since inception in 1989, and today seeks to differentiate through the unique investments it makes beyond base certification requirements including its Gold Standard (which specifies that at least one-third of profits be re-invested in the supply chain);
  • Mars, which employs multiple different cocoa certification schemes for different brands – Fairtrade for Maltesers in the UK; Utz Certified for Germany’s Balisto; and Rainforest Alliance for the UK’s best-selling Galaxy and Australian Mars Bars – in its quest to deliver on its 2010 100% certified cocoa pledge;
  • Method, where certifications like Cradle to Cradle are applied first and foremost as product design tools;
  • Nestlé, which emphasizes its own responsible sourcing platform while using certification as a means to assess progress against its commitments; and,
  • Starbucks, who in addition to buying more certified coffee of different kinds (including Fairtrade, organic and shade grown) than nearly anyone, has also itself developed a comprehensive certification program, Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) Practices as part of its means of pursuing 100% ethically sourced coffee by 2015.

This tremendous variety of approaches indicates how much we still have to learn about responsible sourcing on the one hand and making more sustainable production meaningful to customers and consumers on the other. Also, various survey data confirms that, irrespective of any shortcomings, third-party certifications are still far more trusted than company product and brand claims alone. A future where brands embody sustainability without certification is we think desirable and necessary to scaling sustainable practices economy-wide, but we have not reached that point yet and need certifications and labels to continue to help map the forward journey.

Thanks and Invitations

We are endlessly grateful to our sponsors – Starbucks, Mars, Brown-Forman and Office Depot – and many collaborators. We also are keenly interested in your reaction to Signed, Sealed…Delivered? To that end, we invite your comments on this blog and, especially of course, on the report itself when it is released next week.

For those potentially interested in joining one of the launch events in DC or London (where, forewarned, space is already extremely limited), or for press inquiries, please contact Frances Buckingham at Buckingham@sustainability.com.

Finally, congratulations and my deep thanks to the core Signed, Sealed…Delivered? team, Patrin Watanatada, project director, from whose mind this first sprang, and Heather Mak.

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