Navigating the Sea of Sustainability Standards (III of III)

Part III of our series, Navigating the Sea of Sustainability Standards, will round out our overview of the complex framework and standard marketplace. While this series may not be fully comprehensive, it presents food for thought concerning leading framework and sustainability evaluation tools across a number of relevant industries and trades.

Others continue to compile more complete databases, including very sector specific standards and certifications—one such database can be found at ecolabel index. We prefer to simply illustrate the importance for an organization to evaluate leading or relevant frameworks, certifications, and standards prior to selection and deployment—as the pursuit of any third party verification effort demands time and resources. Organizations should be sure the framework or certification they are pursuing will provide the most material benefit (illustrating opportunities for improvement or highlighting existing best practices), marketing value, and are directly relevant to a major component of an organization’s core operations.

With that, we wrap-up our series with a look at some leading process-focused standards covering a range of topics from lifecycle product manufacturing, responsible forest management to green cleaning. If you’ve missed the first two parts of this series, be sure to catch our summaries focused on Place and People -based certifications and reporting frameworks.

In many ways the Process-based standard marketplace contains the most variability and likely presents the most unclear picture of potential opportunities for an organization to consider regarding a product or process. The Place and People or [Organizational] -based standards we reviewed were fairly straightforward and focused on building construction and operations, or organizational transparency, governance, and positive corporate culture respectively. Process-based certifications can vary widely across sectors, may provide various environmental or social declarations or performance attributes, and can be applied to specific products, product lines, manufacturing processes, or supply chains.

We’ve broken them down in the following categories and then provided a description of a few leading process or product-based certifications in the marketplace.

Supply Chain: Wal-Mart Sustainability Scorecard, Worldwide Responsible Product Management (WRAP), EPEAT (Green Electronics)
Food: Certified Organic, Fair Trade, Local, Seafood Watch, Global Animal Partnership
Sector Specific: Forestry Stewardship Council, Certified Organic, Florscore, Green-e, Green Seal, Energy Star
Manufacturing Process Focused: ISO-14001, 5001, bluesign (textiles), Cradle to Cradle, EPEAT
Human Rights: Fair trade

Cradle to Cradle: In the cradle-to-cradle model, all materials used in industrial or commercial processes—such as metals, fibersdyes—are seen to fall into one of two categories: “technical” or “biological” nutrients. Technical nutrients are strictly limited to non-toxic, non-harmful synthetic materials that have no negative effects on the natural environment; they can be used in continuous cycles as the same product without losing their integrity or quality. In this manner these materials can be used over and over again instead of being “downcycled” into lesser products, ultimately becoming waste.

Biological Nutrients are organic materials that, once used, can be disposed of in any natural environment and decompose into the soil, providing food for small life forms without affecting the natural environment. This is dependent on the ecology of the region; for example, organic material from one country or landmass may be harmful to the ecology of another country or landmass.

ISO-14001 could be classified under people, but looks primarily at environmental impact of operations and processes, typically used by leading manufacturers. is a family of standards related to environmental management that exists to help organizations (a) minimize how their operations (processes etc.) negatively affect the environment (i.e. cause adverse changes to air, water, or land); (b) comply with applicable laws, regulations, and other environmentally oriented requirements, and (c) continually improve in the above.

Forestry Stewardship Council: The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is an international not for-profit, multi-stakeholder organization established in 1993 to promote responsible management of the world’s forests. Its main tools for achieving this are standard setting, independent certification and labeling of forest products. This offers customers around the world the ability to choose products from socially and environmentally responsible forestry.

There is no doubt that sustainability certifications and frameworks can improve existing business practices and serve as signals or even drivers of an emergent business paradigm. They will continue to play a powerful role for organizations looking to improve and or clarify sustainability performance. Many standards and certification will continue to represent and provide evidence of a commitment to sustainability to customers and the public.

Considerations for the Applying Organization…

That said, environmental or sustainability based declarations and certifications exist in a crowded marketplace of self promotion and green wash.  In order to best ensure your organization derives value from a particular certification, standard, or framework don’t forget to ask some key questions:

  • Does this standard or certification apply to a major aspect of my organization’s sustainability footprint?
  • Is this standard widely recognized by the markets we serve?
  • Does this standard or framework provide a set of clearly articulated requirements and outline detailed steps for achievement?
  • Can this standard or framework drive my organization to discover savings or improvements within existing practices?
  • Does this standard promote transparency within my marketplace?
  • Does this framework or certification represent leadership in the field which we operate? Will it differentiate us from our competitors?
  • Is this standard rigorous from a due diligence perspective, i.e. is it used by the market widely as an accepted standard or framework?

Considerations for Consumers…

As consumers we must continue to look critically at the value of third party certifications and demand greater transparency or better reporting if environmental proclamations can’t be confirmed by third party rating systems. The role of self proclamation around issues of sustainability and human health hurt all of us, as they distort an already difficult to understand marketplace and make consumers wary of the environmental or social value that certain products really are able to provide. So while we’d like to see a movement toward more openness and formal commitments by industry groups to use a particular standard or set of standards, for now consumers must continue to play the role of investigator. Perhaps the merging and acceptance of third party protocols by industries or governments will be a post for another time.
In the meantime, if you want to learn more about anything you’ve read here, be sure to contact us.

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