Sustainability standards and Eco labels: 20 years on (Jan 2011)

Jan 2011

In the last week of September 2010, London played host to several key conferences and meetings within the sustainability standards and eco labels community.  The heads of most of the leading schemes were present as were leading companies, NGOs and industry experts.  We round up a number of trends the discussions brought out.


There is now a demand by leading business users of the standards (i.e. large buyers) that the standards be transparent and show they are delivering the benefits they advertise.

Additionally, both consumers and B2B users are confused by the number and variety of standards on the market place.  One leading standards body commented at a recent London conference that the sector “would have consolidated via mergers” if it was a for-profit industry.

There is growing realisation that with a few exceptions (e.g. Fairtrade, FSC, Rainforest Alliance), consumer eco-labels have largely failed to gain traction.  This is especially true for most of the world’s government supported schemes like the EU Ecolabel.


Heeding these trends, a few leading global standards are emerging which are sector or issue specific.  They are building their brands and internal organizational structure accordingly.  The ISEAL Alliance has emerged as a multi-stakeholder group, based in London, whose role is to independently assess standards bodies and their schemes.  Its members are emerging as the leading global standards: FSC < > for forest products, MSC < > for fisheries, Fairtrade < > for ethically grown produce and SA 8000 < > for worker welfare to name a few.

Some industry watchers refer to a multi-tiered system where there is a “gold standard” of sustainability standards the leading suppliers aspire to – these will probably be the ISEAL Alliance members.  Other standards will co-exist and be used by suppliers who cannot achieve the higher-level standards.  In forestry, FSC is recognized as the leading global standard, with more than 15,000 certified companies around the world.  PEFC standards < > are generally less well regarding by CSR experts within buying organizations.  However, it is clear that the volume of FSC-certified produce is limited and buyers want means of evaluating non-FSC suppliers via third party audited standards. 


Similarly, in the textile sector, London based Made-By advises the fashion sector on sustainable sourcing.  It devises three categories of standards.  Class A includes SA 8000 and Fairwear < >.  Class B standards include FLA < > while Class C include WRAP < >. 

In terms of social issue such as unionisation, slave and child labour, one speaker at a recent London conference noted the actual conditions in manufacturing centres like China, Bangladesh and India are so far from what even some of the less recognised Western standards, a step wise approach is the only practical means for a realistic market mechanism.

On the issue of whether market-based sustainability standards are working to effect change and responding to claims that they are aiding green-washing, ISEAL Alliance Executive Director Sasha Courville noted these voluntary standards have emerged where national or international legislation has failed or does not exist.  Leading standards are taken up by small number of leading companies who tend to then raise awareness and the level of the entire supply chain.  Regarding green-washing claims, she noted that the alternative often advocated – trade boycotts - have almost always been shown to be ineffective in progressing real change.

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