Every now and then, there’s an outcry about an ecolabel. “FSC certified forests are clearcut in Sweden”, complains a TV report [1]. “The Atlantic Pollack fishery is deteriorating despite certification”, warn scientists [2]. “Child labour can be found on Fairtrade certified farms”, claim critics [3].

A systemic problem? No, quite the contrary. The stories above are examples of standards systems in action – and of their specific communications challenges.

I like to think of sustainability standards as living experiments in market governance. In their most basic form, they consist of a set of rules, written by committee. These rules define acceptable thresholds for certifications and the means of verifying compliance. Set them too low, and their impact on people and planet will be negligible; set them too high, and not many will use them. The rules are as good as they get, but never perfect.

So what is the problem in the cases above? They are examples for the three points of conflict inherent in each standards system:

  1. Setting the Rules at the Right Level
    This is an ongoing discussion. Certification criteria undergo a regular review to see whether they still represent best practice and achieve their intended impacts effectively. Reviews can take quite a bit of time to ensure that all stakeholders are heard, but they are the best place to address systemic concerns.
  2. Application of Rules
    Standards systems deal with thousands of certificate holders, each of which is independently audited at regular intervals. When non-compliances are found during and audit, the company has a chance to correct the shortcoming within a few months or lose the certificate. Thanks to audits, standards systems have plenty of information on certified producers – including those that might not meet the criteria at a given point in time.
  3. (Mis-)Understanding Rules
    In addition to the general principles and criteria, many standards systems maintain local or crop-specific adaptations. It can be easy to misunderstand which rule applies where. There is a clear need for standards systems to explain their systems better – and to simplify where possible. At the same time, it is easy for stakeholders to call on the certification scheme to solve all possible problems, even if they might be out of scope.

I am fascinated by the amount of misunderstanding around sustainability standards. Has the sector become too complex to understand? What do you think are the causes of confusion? What strategies would you recommend going forward?

[1] Report Mainz, February 2011 / Forest Stewardship Council response
[2] Nature, September 2010 as quoted in Treehugger / Marine Stewardship Council response
[3] BBC Panorama, March 2010 / Fairtrade Foundation response

Points of Conflict around Ecolabels

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