March 30, 2012

Sustainability Standards and the New Credibility Landscape

By Kristin Komives, Monitoring & Evaluation Manager
ISEAL Alliance, London, UK

…we have examples of long-standing members refreshing their standards to address landscape issues, and new standards that address certification from a landscape lens.”

Faced with the challenge of reducing the social and environmental impact of agriculture, many businesses and governments have turned to certification to achieve their sustainability goals. Developed through multi-stakeholder processes, sustainability standards represent a practical approach to sustainability that is built up through improved production practices which are verified by third-party assessment. What began some twenty years ago as individual NGO efforts to make business practices more responsible, has evolved into a concerted global movement, with the volume and diversity of stakeholders engaged in certification rising daily.

The growth of the standards movement hinges on its continued credibility. My organisation, the ISEAL Alliance, was formed a decade ago by the leading sustainability standards (Including Fairtrade International, Forest Stewardship Council, Rainforest Alliance, and others) to bring enhanced credibility to the standards movement by defining best practice. ISEAL’s Codes of Good Practice ensure the credible development and implementation of standards according to principles such as multi-stakeholder participation and transparency.

Credibility in sustainability standards is also about learning and continual improvement. As a monitoring and evaluation expert, I am particularly interested in this dimension of credibility. At ISEAL, our Impacts Code helps members to implement monitoring and evaluation programmes that assess to what extent the certification systems are contributing to their desired sustainability impacts. A new ISEAL project funded by the Ford Foundation intends to demonstrate and improve the connection between certification and poverty alleviation. To date, the evidence base is weak and does not sufficiently explain the mechanisms through which certification can improve socioeconomic well-being. The Impacts Project will help ISEAL Members to develop common poverty indicators and refine their monitoring and evaluations systems to ensure that they provide information to facilitate learning and continuous improvement. 

As I work with sustainability standards to build and improve the effectiveness of their monitoring and evaluation systems, I am increasingly confronted with landscape approaches and landscape effects. Traditionally, the strength of standards has been their transformation of practices on a single production site, but the standards community is now more often thinking about social and environmental challenges that extend beyond these boundaries. Within the ISEAL Alliance we have examples of long-standing members refreshing their standards to address landscape issues, and new standards that address certification from a landscape lens.

In the last year, the 4C Association and Rainforest Alliance/Sustainable Agriculture Network have both added climate modules to their agricultural standards. These modules recognise practices that reduce GHG emissions as well as identify resources that farmers can use to adapt to climate impacts.

Water is another topic with landscape implications. With projections that at least half of the world’s population could be living in areas of high water stress by 2030, the Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) is developing its International Water Stewardship Standard to define actions for sustainable water use. Different from traditional farm-level approaches, the standard aims to address shared water risks and stimulate watershed-level change by making engagement and collaboration with other stakeholders a requirement for compliance. The first draft of the standard was released in March at the World Water Forum and is now open for public input. A final standard is expected in mid-2013.

ISEAL Associate Member Bonsucro, which has developed a standard for sugarcane production, also addresses water issues in an innovative way. Instead of requiring producers to apply certain management practices, the emphasis is on a set of environmental targets, including water quality. The standard allows flexibility for producers to decide how they will reach these water targets, which could potentially include actions outside the farm.

People are also beginning to think more strategically about where certification can be promoted to have the most significant global impact. World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) Market Transformation Initiative develops roundtables and dialogues for some of the world’s main commodities produced in sensitive ecological areas. The Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels and Round Table on Responsible Soy are among the initiatives that WWF has helped start.

Learning and responsiveness to new challenges have become essential components of a credible sustainability standard. Re-envisioning certification through different lenses, such as the landscape perspective, is one important component of exploring how the sustainability impacts of certification can be scaled up.

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