What Makes a Sustainability Certification System Successful?

Sustainability certifications now cover a wide variety of areas including Fair Trade and Organic for agricultural products, LEED for buildings, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) for wood and paper products, and B corporation for entire companies. The specific standards outlined by a certification system provide a framework for how to address environmental and social issues adherent to a specific product, project, or company. The accompanying independent certification allows companies to prove adherence to the standards. Certification systems use the market to internalize the negative effects of the way economies operate and transition to a more resource efficient and equitable society. The UN outlines the benefits of sustainability certifications for a number of stakeholders as part of this internalization:

  • For businesses: A way to measure performance and also communicate and market the environmental credentials of products.
  • For consumers: To guide their purchasing decisions by providing information about ‘the world’ behind the products.
  • For governments: Tools to encourage the behavioural change of producers and consumers towards long-term sustainability.

However, certification systems are not perfect. To create a system, whether it’s regional or striving for international acceptance, the path includes overcoming significant operational challenges. We can learn from the experiences of sustainability certifications that have paved the way in gaining consumer recognition and environmental and social impact as well as those that haven’t made it that far yet. Lessons learned can guide other sustainability certifications as part of the overall goal of improving the way businesses and economies operate. After a review of certifications across a wide variety of areas, here is a compilation of 7 factors that contribute to a successful system:

1. Stakeholder collaboration. Groups from various points in the supply chain need to be engaged to validate the framework for sustainability standards. The earlier that different perspectives are considered in the process the better. Whether facilitated through a nonprofit organization or a private company, getting stakeholders on board in the beginning contributes to the robustness and credibility of the standards. This is especially true for certifications that secure fair wages and conditions for workers in developing countries because there are complex and localized conditions to consider.

2. Clear and realistic criteria. Expectations of the participants need to be straight forward. It is also important to recognize that the company requesting certification may not initially be able to meet ideal expectations. A tiered approach, or different levels of adherence to the standards, facilitates entrants into the certification system. There is also an incentive created to leverage improvements and move up tiers over time. For example, certification of a certain percentage of materials/products or designations such as Gold, Silver, and Platinum can be employed.

3. Streamlined process. By front-loading information to potential adopters about expectations, procedures, and communication mechanisms of the system, the back-and-forth between parties can be reduced. The remainder of the process can be simplified to core elements and utilize user-friendly technology to cut down the time and resources requirements of the company requesting certification. The fewer hoops to jump through, the more companies will be willing to go through the entire process from adhering to the sustainability standards to receiving the final stamp of approval.

4. Support and assistance. Participants seeking the certification will probably have questions about how their specific situations fit in or can be interpreted according to the framework. This can be minimized by providing clear information in the beginning, but cannot be avoided. It is important for questions to be answered in a timely, free, and consistent manner across inquiring parties. The ability to receive support and assistance encourages the adoption of the certification and increases the quality of data. However, the certifying body needs to remain independent from the company it is certifying.

5. Sliding scale pricing. Receiving a sustainability certification has a price tag (yes, there are overhead costs that cannot be ignored). However, pricing of a certification should not deter smaller operations who do not have the big budgets of large companies. Making sustainability certifications affordable and accessible for a wide number of groups is key to scalable adoption and impact. Although getting larger companies on board can significantly spread the word about the certification, smaller groups are important too.

6. Audits. On-site audits ensure that certified companies adhere to the specific requirements of the standard and that they continue to do so in practice and over time. It’s usually not resource- or cost- effective to audit all companies, products, or projects that receive certification, but the possibility of an audit, even if it’s only 10% of companies, provides a strong incentive for compliance. Scheduled audits are the norm, but random audits are even better.

7. Impact evaluations. Building in the collection and analysis of empirical data provides a comprehensive understanding of the certification’s impact on environmental and social issues. Capturing both quantitative and qualitative information on its effectiveness and other structural considerations can help the certifying body promote certification to potential adopters and it can provide guidance on how to refine the system for further impact.

Although validating the legitimacy of a sustainability certification system is a huge task, the basic operations of such a system can assist in determining whether or not it will earn success and credibility in addressing the environmental and social issues it is taking on. These 7 factors are key to consider for any certification whether your role is a consumer choosing sustainable purchasing options or any other stakeholder along the supply chain.

–Featured on Huffington Post–


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