Ecolabels and certification schemes can be very useful in helping consumers choose products that are healthier for them, the earth or otherwise benefit farmers and supply chain actors. That said, despite the over 300 ecolabels worldwide, their overall impacts are relatively small when looking at the scale of global trade. Additionally, if ecolables and certification schemes are not done under a strong governance and compliance structure they can have unanticipated consequences including false claims, overburdening certain segments of the chain).
ISEAL Alliance, the global association that develops guidance and helps strengthen social and environmental standards, recently published The ISEAL 100 Survey - A Survey of Thought Leader Views on Sustainability Standards 2010 that summarizes responses from thought leaders across the spectrum of business (80 per cent of respondents), government and civil society (together making 20 per cent) about their views on product certification.
ISEAL makes four general conclusions from the report. Firstly, social and environmental standards (certifications) are becoming a widely used tool to implement corporate social and environmental responsibility. Secondly, credibility is a critical factor in deciding whether or not to use a standard system. Thirdly, standards drive operational improvements stem from the shared language and agreed processes to deliver sustainable results. Finally, standards should strive to build a coherent landscape by minimizing overlap and confusion over claims.
I commend ISEAL for conducting and sharing the results of the survey and support their conclusions. However, I came away with additional - perhaps equally relevant - conclusions. When you consider the survey was of companies that have taken a leadership role in sustainability, I would have expected a much higher level of standards support (only 73% of businesses would use more standards in the future) and rate of adoption (8% of these leading businesses don't use standards at all). But more surprising yet was that only 1 in 3 respondents mentioned the ultimate purpose of standards - to improve livelihoods, human rights, environmental protection - as a benefit of their use.
Many businesses cited the high cost of using standards, limited relevance to business, and the complexity and overlap in the standards landscape as areas of frustration. In addition, 48% of businesses said they needed to do more work within their organizations before committing to the strategic use of standards.
Ecolabels work well for specialty products that have a high-end value (buffering the price premium) and short supply chain (no or limited processing). Safety focused certifications in the food and drug industries make a lot of sense and can be easily understood by the average consumer.
However, certification schemes aimed at making social, environmental and economic impacts that require tracking through a complex supply chain (commodities) are cumbersome, costly and less understood (and valued) by the average consumer.
In order for the cotton industry to adopt a standard a clear business benefit must be demonstrated. Yet, only 21 percent and 15 percent of businesses evaluated financial benefits and farm-level impact assessments respectively, when considering the use of a standard. I feel that more attention should be given to building capacity at the ground level and the business benefits to the supply chain actors. This along with truthful and understandable communication of challenges and measured improvements will increase the credibility of standards - not only in the eyes of consumers but the industry and non-governmental organization as well.
Use of certifications, standards and ecolabels will likely increase over time. But if the goal is to make measurable improvements at ground level and engage and build trust among all members of the cotton industry than strong governance and industry collaboration is required.
BCI is a leading option but its success depends on full adoption
by the industry. With this said, there are other certifications schemes
operating in the cotton industry, namely Fairtrade, organic and Cotton made in
Will the cotton industry benefit from certification schemes? If so, would be it beneficial to consolidate existing schemes into one?