Sustainability standards meeting focuses on China (June 2011)

Jun 2011

By Dylan Tanner, Ekobai

The ISEAL Alliance held its annual conference on June 8-10 in Zurich, a meeting designed to allow standards bodies, companies, government bodies and NGOs to share information on developments in the marketplace for sustainably certified products.

At the forefront of the meeting was the growing importance of China (and also India, Brazil and Russia) in the development of global sustainability standards. Several Chinese insiders were invited to present on the development of FSC, Fairtrade, organic and food safety standards in the world’s most populous and leading manufacturing nation. Some key trends and developments to emerge were:

  • Martin Ma, China Director for Social Accountability International (SAI), the organization behind the leading social standard SA 8000 noted that while China’s population of manufacturing workers was around 200 million, only 300,000 or so worked in factories certified to international social standards – thus the starting point is low.
  • Voluntary sustainability standards in China, unlike in Europe and North America, necessarily need the support of the Chinese government. Standards bodies are experimenting with a number of differing models. Leading forestry standard FS has established a market presence in China, focusing on serving the huge number of exporting firms. While it has a close relationship with the government, it operates in China independently. Chinese forestry officials, mirroring efforts in Malaysia and Costa Rica in the last ten years are now establishing their own forest products standard – CFCC China. Market watchers believe such a domestically driven standard has little chance of catching on in the global market place.
  • Food safety standards are critical in China given recent contamination scandals and concerns. International food safety standard GlobalGap has adopted an approach whereby they are cooperating with the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture in operating ‘China Gap’, with the condition that GlobalGap will apply should any participating companies want to use a standard for export purposes. Thus China Gap will attempt to improve the safety and quality of China’s vast domestic food industry.
  • The Alliance for Water Stewardship is an emerging platform that could potentially develop a sustainable water-use standard. This is the first such major initiative which has involved China as a major and important stakeholder early on. A key gripe of the Chinese government is that sustainability standards are ‘imposed’ on Chinese industry after being developed in the West.
  • It is clear China will become on of the world’s largest markets for sustainability standards and the two sides, the Chinese government and West-centric standards bodies, will need to compromise and experiment with various models if both want to get the most out of the development of such systems in China.




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