Sustainability standards and certification

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Sustainability standards and certifications are voluntary, usually third party-assessed, norms and standards relating to environmental such as IFGICT Standard, social, ethical and food safety issues, adopted by companies to demonstrate the performance of their organizations or products in specific areas. There are over 400 such standards across the world. [1] The trend started in the late 1980s and 90s with the introduction of Ecolabels and standards for Organic food and other products. Most standards refer to the triple bottom line of environmental quality, social equity, and economic prosperity. [2] A standard is normally developed by a broad range of stakeholders and experts in a particular sector and includes a set of practices or criteria for how a crop should be sustainably grown or a resource should be ethically harvested. This might cover, for instance, responsible fishing practices that don't endanger marine biodiversity, or respect for human rights and the payment of fair wages on a coffee or tea plantation. Normally sustainability standards are accompanied by a verification process - often referred to as "certification" - to evaluate that an enterprise complies with a standard, as well as a traceability process for certified products to be sold along the supply chain, often resulting in a consumer-facing label. Certification programmes also focus on capacity building and working with partners and other organisations to support smallholders or disadvantaged producers to make the social and environmental improvements needed to meet the standard.


The basic premise of sustainability standards is twofold. Firstly, they emerged in areas where national and global legislation was weak but where the consumer and NGO movements around the globe demanded action. For example, campaigns by Global Exchange [3] and other NGOs against the purchase of goods from “sweatshop” factories by the likes of Nike, Inc., Levi Strauss & Co. and other leading brands led to the emergence of social welfare standards like the SA8000 and others. Secondly, leading brands selling to both consumers and to the B2B supply chain may wish to demonstrate the environmental or organic merits of their products, which has led to the emergence of hundreds of ecolabels[ citation needed ], organic and other standards. A leading example of a consumer standard is the Fairtrade movement, administered by FLO International and exhibiting huge sales growth around the world for ethically sourced produce. [4] An example of a B2B standard which has grown tremendously in the last few years is the Forest Stewardship Council’s standard (FSC) for forest products made from sustainable harvested trees.

However, the line between consumer and B2B sustainability standards is becoming blurred, with leading trade buyers increasingly demanding Fairtrade certification, for example, and consumers increasingly recognizing the FSC mark. In recent years, the business-to-business focus of sustainability standards has risen as it has become clear that consumer demand alone cannot drive the transformation of major sectors and industries[ citation needed ]. In commodities such as palm oil, soy, farmed seafood, and sugar, certification initiatives are targeting the mainstream adoption of better practices and precompetitive industry collaboration. Major brands and retailers are also starting to make commitments to certification in their whole supply chain or product offering, rather than a single product line or ingredient[ citation needed ] .

With the growth of standards and certification as the major tool for global production and trade to become more sustainable and for the private sector to demonstrate sustainability leadership, it is essential that there are ways to assess the legitimacy and performance of different initiatives. Company and government buyers, as well as NGOs and civil society groups committed to sustainable production, need clarity on which standards and ecolabels are delivering real social, environmental and economic results. The ISEAL Alliance has emerged as the authority on good practice for sustainability standards and its Codes of Good Practice represent the most widely recognised guidance on how standards should be set up and implemented in order to be effective[ citation needed ]. By complying with these Codes and working with other certification initiatives, ISEAL members demonstrate their credibility and work towards improving their positive impacts.

Attempts to address the problems caused by a multiplicity of certification initiatives led to the launch of The State of Sustainability Initiatives (SSI) project, facilitated by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) under the auspices of the Sustainable Commodity Initiative (SCI)[ citation needed ].

Origin of global standards

Many of the international standards developed to help guide sustainability goals and certification schemes originate from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). [5] The FAO has promulgated a number of standards for certifying bodies to adhere to. In particular, the FAO has issued guidelines and standards designed to make agriculture, fisheries, and forestry more sustainable. Some of the sustainability standards were initiated by social movements in particular countries, such as Rainforest Alliance in the United States and Fairtrade in the Netherlands[ citation needed ]. Other standards were initiated by individual companies, such as Utz Certified (Ahold), Starbucks C.A.F.E. (Starbucks), and Nespresso AAA (Nespresso). Some standards were launched by coalitions of private firms, development agencies, NGOs, and other stakeholders, such as the Marine Stewardship Council, or MSC standard, developed as a collaboration between UniLever and the World Wildlife Fund . For example, the Common Code for the Coffee Community (4C) was initiated by an alliance of large American coffee roasters, including Kraft Foods, Sara Lee and Nestle, assisted by the German Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (GIZ). One important facilitator for the development of most global standards were series of local development projects involving NGOs, coffee roasters and producers in different developing countries. For example, the Fairtrade standard was developed based on pilot projects with Mexican farmers. 4C builds on development projects in Peru, Colombia and Vietnam, involving GIZ, major coffee roasters, and local producers. [6]

The most widely established and adopted standards are in agriculture, with 40% of global coffee production certified to one of the main schemes, and approximately 15-20% of cocoa and tea production being compliant with major international standards. Forestry and wild seafood are also sectors in which standards have been influential, with certified production pushing past 10% of the global share. Cotton, palm oil, soy, biofuels and farmed seafood are some of the commodities in which certification is growing the fastest, due in part to major roundtables that have been set up to bring the whole industry together. More recently, standards have started to emerge for mining and the extraction of metals - including gold, silver, aluminium, and oil and gas - as well as for cattle, electronics, plastics and tourism.

Evidence suggests that Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) adopted willingly by firms will be much more effective than government regulated CSR so global standards by private companies show promise for effective social impact. [7]

The creation of the ISEAL Alliance in 2002 was the first collaborative effort amongst a group of sustainability standards organisations to agree to follow common good practices in how their standards are implemented and also to work together to drive up the use of standards and certification globally.

Sustainability standards

Numerous sustainability standards have been developed in recent years to address issues of environmental quality, social equity, and economic prosperity of global production and trade practices. Despite similarities in major goals and certification procedures, there are some significant differences in terms of their historical development, target groups of adopters, geographical diffusion, and emphasis on environmental, social or economic issues. [8]

One of the major differences to be aware of is based on the level of strictness of the standard. Some standards set the bar high for a sector, promoting the strongest social and environmental practices and working with the top performers to constantly push up sustainability expectations[ citation needed ]. Other standards are more focused on the elimination of the worst practices and operate at more of an entry-level to get a large proportion of an industry working incrementally towards better practices. Often there are strategies between standards to move producers along this performance ladder of sustainability[ citation needed ]. Another important distinction is that some standards can be applied internationally (usually with mechanisms to ensure local relevance and appropriateness) whereas other standards are developed entirely with a regional or national focus[ citation needed ].

Additional differences between standards might relate to the certification process and whether it is conducted by a first, second or third party; the traceability system in place and whether it allows for the segregation or mixing of certified and non-certified materials; and the types of sustainability claims that are made on products.


The Fairtrade label was developed in the late 1980s by a Dutch development agency in collaboration with Mexican farmers[ citation needed ]. The initiative performs development work and promotes its political vision of an alternative economy, seeing its main objective in empowering small producers and providing these with access to and improving their position on global markets[ citation needed ]. The most distinguishing feature of the Fairtrade label is the guarantee of a minimum price and a social premium that goes to the cooperative and not to the producers directly. Recently[ citation needed ], Fairtrade also adopted environmental objectives as part of their certification system.

Rainforest Alliance

The Rainforest Alliance was created in the late 1980s from a social movement and is committed to conserving rainforests and their biodiversity. One key element of the standard is the compulsory elaboration and implementation of a detailed plan for the development of a sustainable farm management system to assist wildlife conservation. Another objective is to improve workers’ welfare by establishing and securing sustainable livelihoods. Producer prices may carry a premium. Yet instead of guaranteeing a fixed floor price, the standard seeks to improve the economic situation of producers through higher yields and enhanced cost efficiency[ citation needed ].

Utz Certified

UTZ Certified (formerly Utz Kapeh) was co-founded by the Dutch coffee roaster Ahold Coffee Company in 1997. It aims to create an open and transparent marketplace for socially and environmentally responsible agricultural products. Instruments include the UTZ Traceability System and the UTZ Code of Conduct. The traceability system makes certified products traceable from producer to final buyer and has stringent chains of custody requirements. The UTZ Code of Conduct emphasizes both environmental practices (e.g. biodiversity conservation, waste handling and water use) and social benefits (e.g. access to medical care, access to sanitary facilities at work).


The Organic standard was developed in the 1970s and is based on IFOAM Basic Standards[ citation needed ]. IFOAM stands for International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements and is the leading global umbrella organization for the organic farming movement. The IFOAM Basic Standards provide a framework of minimum requirements, including the omission of agrochemicals such as pesticides and chemical-synthetic fertilizers. The use of animal feeds is also strictly regulated. Genetic engineering and the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are forbidden[ citation needed ].


The trustea code is designed to evaluate the social, economic, agronomic and environmental performance of Indian tea estates, smallholders and Bought Leaf Factories (BLFs).

It is expected that the compliance with the code not only improves competitiveness of the tea farms but also facilitates the tea farms in achieving compliance with national regulations and international sustainability standards in a step-wise approach. The applicable control points under eleven chapters are required to be adhered to within a four-year period. The India tea code allows producers to show that they operate responsibly– producing quality tea according to strict social and environmental standards. The verification under the code provides manufacturers with the assurance of responsible production and provides opportunities to credibly demonstrate this to their customers.

SuRe® – The Standard for Sustainable and Resilient Infrastructure

SuRe® is a global voluntary standard which integrates key criteria of resilience and sustainability into infrastructure development, through various criteria across governance, social and environmental factors. [9] It is currently developed under ISEAL guidelines by the Swiss Global Infrastructure Basel Foundation (GIB) and the French bank Natixis. [10] GIB and Natixis launched the SuRe® standard at a COP21 event on 9 December 2015. [11]

Other examples

Other types of standards include sector-specific schemes such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO); standards for climate and development interventions like the Gold Standard, retailer-led sustainability certification initiatives such as GlobalGAP; Corporate own-brand sustainability initiatives such as Starbucks' CAFE Practices; and national programmes such as the Irish Food Board's 'Origin Green' scheme. [12]

The United Nations Forum on Sustainability Standards (UNFSS) is a joint initiative of FAO, UNEP, ITC, UNCTAD, and UNIDO on Sustainability Standards. [13]

See also

Related Research Articles

Fair trade Trade arrangement prioritizing the well-being of workers

Fair trade is an arrangement designed to help producers in developing countries achieve sustainable and equitable trade relationships. Members of the fair trade movement add the payment of higher prices to exporters, as well as improved social and environmental standards. The movement focuses in particular on commodities, or products which are typically exported from developing countries to developed countries, but also used in domestic markets most notably handicrafts, coffee, cocoa, wine, sugar, fruit, flowers and gold. The movement seeks to promote greater equity in international trading partnerships through dialogue, transparency, and respect. It promotes sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers in developing countries. Fair trade is grounded in three core beliefs; first, producers have the power to express unity with consumers. Secondly, the world trade practices that currently exist promote the unequal distribution of wealth between nations. Lastly, buying products from producers in developing countries at a fair price is a more efficient way of promoting sustainable development than traditional charity and aid.

Fairtrade International voluntary association

Fairtrade International, or Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International e.V. (FLO) is a product-oriented multistakeholder group aimed at promoting the lives of farmers and workers through trade. Fairtrade's work is guided by a global strategy focused on ensuring that all farmers earn a living income, and agricultural workers earn a living wage. Fairtrade works with farmers and workers of more than 300 commodities. The main products promoted under the Fairtrade label are coffee, cocoa, banana, flowers, tea, and sugar.

Forest Stewardship Council Organisation promoting and certifying responsible management of forest

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is an international non-profit, multistakeholder organization established in 1993 that claims to promote responsible management of the world's forests.

Fairtrade certification Certification of fair trade compliance

The Fairtrade certification initiative was created to form a new method for economic trade. This method takes an ethical standpoint, and considers the producers first.

Ecolabel labeling systems for food and consumer products

Eco-labels and Green Stickers are labeling systems for food and consumer products. Ecolabels are voluntary, but green stickers are mandated by law; for example, in North America major appliances and automobiles use Energy Star. They are a form of sustainability measurement directed at consumers, intended to make it easy to take environmental concerns into account when shopping. Some labels quantify pollution or energy consumption by way of index scores or units of measurement, while others assert compliance with a set of practices or minimum requirements for sustainability or reduction of harm to the environment. Many ecolabels are focused on minimising the negative ecological impacts of primary production or resource extraction in a given sector or commodity through a set of good practices that are captured in a sustainability standard. Through a verification process, usually referred to as "certification", a farm, forest, fishery, or mine can show that it complies with a standard and earn the right to sell its products as certified through the supply chain, often resulting in a consumer-facing ecolabel.

The Fairtrade Foundation

The Fairtrade Foundation is a charity based in the United Kingdom that works to empower disadvantaged producers in developing countries by tackling injustice in conventional trade, in particular by promoting and licensing the Fairtrade Mark, a guarantee that products retailed in the UK have been produced in accordance with internationally agreed Fairtrade standards. The Foundation is the British member of FLO International, which unites FLO-CERT, 25 National Fairtrade Organisations and 3 Producer Networks across Europe, Asia, Latin America, North America, Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

A sustainable business, or a green business, is an enterprise that has minimal negative impact, or potentially a positive effect, on the global or local environment, community, society, or economy—a business that strives to meet the triple bottom line. They cluster under different groupings and the whole is sometimes referred to as "green capitalism". Often, sustainable businesses have progressive environmental and human rights policies. In general, business is described as green if it matches the following four criteria:

  1. It incorporates principles of sustainability into each of its business decisions.
  2. It supplies environmentally friendly products or services that replaces demand for nongreen products and/or services.
  3. It is greener than traditional competition.
  4. It has made an enduring commitment to environmental principles in its business operations.
Rainforest Alliance nonprofit organization in New York, United States

The Rainforest Alliance is an international non-governmental organization (NGO) based in New York City and Amsterdam, with operations in more than 60 countries. It was founded in 1987 by Daniel Katz, who serves as the Chair of the board of directors. Its main work is the provision of an environmental certification on sustainable forestry and agriculture and tourism. Its certificate seal gives information to consumers about business practices, based on certain standards they set.

International Fairtrade Certification Mark Certification mark

The International Fairtrade Certification Mark is an independent certification mark used in over 50 countries. It appears on products as an independent guarantee that a product has been produced according to Fairtrade political standards.

Fair Trade USA

Fair Trade USA, formerly "TransFair USA", is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, that sets standards, certifies, and labels products that promote sustainable livelihoods for farmers and workers and protect the environment.

Frans van der Hoff, or Francisco VanderHoff Boersma as he is called in Latin America, is a Dutch missionary who, in collaboration with Nico Roozen and ecumenical development agency Solidaridad, launched Max Havelaar, the first Fairtrade label in 1988. Van der Hoff's contacts with Mexican coffee producers were important in securing the supply and ensuring the success of the very first Fairtrade certification initiative.

Fairtrade Canada National non-profit certification and public education organization

Fairtrade Canada, formerly TransFair Canada, is a national non-profit certification and public education organization promoting Fairtrade certified products in Canada to improve the livelihood of developing world farmers and workers. It is the Canadian member of FLO International, which unites 24 fair trade producer and certification initiatives across Europe, Asia, Latin America, North America, Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Fair Trade Association of Australia and New Zealand

The Fair Trade Association of Australia and New Zealand is a member-based organization that supports two systems of fair trade. The first is the Australia and New Zealand member of FLO International, which unites Fairtrade producer and labeling initiatives across Europe, Asia, Latin America, North America, Africa, Australia and New Zealand. The second, is the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO), of over 450 worldwide members, to which the Fair Trade Association is one. Fairtrade refers to FLO certified commodity and associated products. Fair trade encompasses the wider Fair Trade movement, including the Fairtrade commodities and other artisan craft products.

UTZ Certified

UTZ, formerly called UTZ Certified, is a program and a label for sustainable farming. The UTZ label is featured on more than 10,000 product packages in over 116 countries. From 2014, UTZ is the largest program for sustainable farming of coffee and cocoa in the world. The UTZ program comprises a reasonable handling of agricultural practices, social and living conditions, farm management, and the environment.

The Sustainable Commodity Initiative (SCI) is a joint initiative launched by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in 2003. The SCI works closely with the international community to discover ways to ensure that sustainable practices are adopted into commodity production and trade that enhance social, environmental and economic welfare on a global scale. The SCI was formed to facilitate the development of sustainable commodity production and trade sectors. The initiative works collaboratively with producers and producer organizations, voluntary sustainability initiatives (VSI's), the private sector, government institutions and development focussed NGO’s. The initiative receives project funding from numerous governments worldwide, United Nations agencies, foundations, the private sector and individual donors.

Fair trade coffee

Fair trade coffee is coffee that is certified as having been produced to fair trade standards by fair trade organizations, which create trading partnerships that are based on dialogue, transparency and respect, with the goal of achieving greater equity in international trade. These partnerships contribute to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to coffee bean farmers. Fair trade organizations support producers and sustainable environmental farming practices and prohibit child labor or forced labor.

Fair trade certification

A fair trade certification is a product certification within the market-based movement fair trade. The most widely used fair trade certification is FLO International's, the International Fairtrade Certification Mark, used in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Fair Trade Certified Mark is the North American equivalent of the International Fairtrade Certification Mark. As of January 2011, there were over 1000 companies certified to the FLO International's certification and a further 1000 or so certified to other ethical and fairtrade certification schemes around the world.

Sustainable coffee is coffee that is grown and marketed for its sustainability. This includes coffee certified as organic, fair trade, and Rainforest Alliance. Coffee has a number of classifications used to determine the participation of growers in various combinations of social, environmental, and economic standards. Coffees fitting such categories and that are independently certified or verified by an accredited third party have been collectively termed "sustainable coffees". This term has entered the lexicon and this segment has quickly grown into a multibillion-dollar industry of its own with potentially significant implications for other commodities as demand and awareness expand.

Committee on Sustainability Assessment organization

The Committee on Sustainability Assessment (COSA) is a global consortium of development institutions that work collaboratively to advance the systematic and science-based measurement of sustainability in agriculture. COSA applies a pragmatic and collective approach for using scientific methods to develop indicators and tools to measure sustainability through performance monitoring, evaluation, and impact assessment. These sustainability measurements assess the distinct social, environmental and economic impacts of agricultural practices.

The Ethical Tea Partnership is a Private Limited Company that has been working with tea producers and tea companies to improve the sustainability of the tea industry since 1997. This industry-wide initiative, which was originally called the Tea Sourcing Partnership, was established by a number of large UK tea packing companies who took the decision to work together to improve the social conditions in their supply chains. Later on, ETP membership opened up to non UK-based tea packers, and extended the scheme to include environmental issues as well.


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