Standards, certifications, and labels: do they still fit?
Written by: Heather Mak, Manager at SustainAbility
A sea change is under way in the standards, certifications and labels universe.
Energy Star, which began as a leadership standard/label by the US EPA and Department of Energy, has become painfully aware that it is now a cost of entry. After the Government Accountability Office unearthed that a gasoline powered alarm clock received the Energy Star label, the EPA/DOE realized that they had to evolve the scheme, and added on very costly third party certification requirements to ensure credibility. This ended up alienating many of the consumer electronics companies who were early supporters of Energy Star. In the world of seafood, earlier in 2012, eight of the largest Alaskan salmon fisheries who were early proponents of the MSC certification scheme stated that they no longer were going to use it. Over time, Alaskan salmon fisheries had built credibility as a sustainable source and had built a brand in their own right.
What is going on? In some cases, standards, certifications and labels have outlived their purpose for businesses, and there are many other tools to take their place. As part of SustainAbility’s research, Signed, Sealed…Delivered?, we looked at the value and challenges that businesses obtain from standards, certifications, and labels, and more importantly, how each of these would have to evolve to create actual impact, which is the focus of Textile Exchange’s Integrity Platform.
How should this happen?
We believe that standards should focus on being pre-competitive and adaptive. That is, we see the end of companies competing on their use of different standards. Witness what the Sustainable Apparel Coalition is creating with its index, a multi-stakeholder effort that merges previous initiatives to create a common, industry-wide tool for measuring the environmental and social performance of apparel products and the supply chains that produce them, with a focus on measurable impact. Similarly, standards will have to adapt quickly to new changes, while recognizing that producers have limitations as well – they cannot drop everything and change overnight. And most importantly, these standards will have to focus more strongly on outcomes instead of processes for real value to sustainability and the business.
In the certification space, new forms of assurance need to go beyond mere auditing, relying on different stakeholders such as social enterprises, NGOs and government. An example is LaborLink, a program from the non-profit organization Good World Solutions, which uses mobiles as a worker-centric platform to engage directly with workers. The mobiles are used to collect confidential data points on worker satisfaction, livelihoods, and social impact, or even communicating educational messages. This is a time and cost effective complement to audits. This is one example, but we think that assurance will take the form of partnerships, deeper relationships among unconventional partners, and may even be assisted by regulation.
And finally, we believe that labels will simply become a stamp of verification, acting as a mark of process for brands, instead of becoming brands themselves. For example, H&M has been experimenting with certified organic and recycled fibres in its clothing, without necessarily shouting from the rooftops about it. And in some cases – sustainability is used as a way to supplement the brand, such as what Indigenous Designs has done with its QR code tags to disclose the provenance of its Fair Trade garments.
The textiles value chain is a complicated one – and it will take some time to realize this sustainable value chain. But as it goes with clothing, we will have to keep trying all these tools until they fit.
The full report for Signed, Sealed…Delivered? can be read online at http://www.sustainability.com/library/signed-sealed-delivered-1.