Certification and standards offer one method of implementing sustainability commitments and encouraging producers to change their practices.


As companies consider sustainable purchasing decisions, they may seek to purchase certified or labeled products that have been audited against third-party environmental standards. Some certified producers and enterprises already meet these environmental standards before they become certified. In these cases, purchasing of certified products sends a signal to producers that there is a market demand for them to maintain good environmental practice. In other cases, producers will need to shift their practices to be less environmentally harmful before achieving certification. The assumption is that improved production practices will result in desired conservation. However, existing research on environmental outcomes is limited, particularly when trying to understand causality of certification and standards leading to conservation outcomes.

Researchers sought to explore the evidence associated with this assumption by asking:

What evidence exists that certification, standards, eco-labeling, and rating systems result in conservation outcomes?


Conservation Impacts of Voluntary Sustainability Standards: How Has Our Understanding Changed Since the 2012 Publication of ‘Towards Sustainability: The Roles and Limitations of Certification’?

A research team summarized the current state of knowledge about the conservation impacts and future research needs on voluntary sustainability standards in the agriculture, forestry, and marine sectors.

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Lead Authors:

Kristin Komives, Ellen Baker, and Elizabeth Kennedy (ISEAL Alliance); Ashleigh Arton and Catherine Longo (Marine Stewardship Council); Deanna Newsom (Rainforest Alliance), Alexander Pfaff (Duke University), and Claudia Romero (University of Florida)


This study explored trends in deforestation and commodity crop production to identify countries in which the uptake of agricultural sustainability standards could have the potential for significant forest impacts.

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Lead Author:

Hamish van der Ven (McGill University)


Given little published evidence on certification impacts for boreal forests, relative to tropical forests, researchers, with support from WWF and other regional experts, initiated a rigorous evaluation of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) impacts on both total forest cover and intact forest landscapes in Russia’s Far East region.

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Lead Authors:

Alexander Pfaff (Duke University) and Danica Schaffer-Smith (Duke University)


What does recent existing research tell us about impacts of voluntary standard systems?


In the past decade, there has been a substantial increase in available evidence about the impacts on voluntary standard systems (VSS), although research continues to face significant challenges. It is difficult to find quality comparison groups, establish a precertification baseline, include adequate sample sizes, and isolate the impacts of certification from other variables. Despite these and other limitations, there is emerging evidence on the conservation outcomes associated with VSS. 

What do we know about conservation outcomes associated with voluntary standard systems?

  • Deforestation impacts vary across commodities, settings, and studies. There is some evidence that agricultural and forestry standards reduce tree cover loss in some certified areas, but not all. Forest degradation, habitat quality, and intact landscapes are also important indicators of conservation gains, but they do not always directly align with deforestation outcomes, and there is still little research on these outcomes.

  • An increase in biodiversity is linked to agriculture standards. Research showed an increase in tree diversity on farms certified by agricultural standards. Mammal, bird, and insect diversity show less consistent improvements (with half noting significant improvements, and half show no difference).

  • Certified fisheries tend to show improvements of fish stocks overtime, maintaining or building toward healthy levels.

What factors influence the effectiveness of certification?

The effectiveness of certifications and standards is influenced by several factors along the supply chain, including market conditions, practices of actors at multiple stages of the supply chain, and the surrounding socio-economic and political ecosystem. Standards and certification will be more impactful when strong market demand for sustainable products creates an incentive for producers to improve practices and when there is effective supply chain management, monitoring, and transparency.

Researchers caution that conservation gains from certification may be outpaced by growing demand for commodities. While standards and certification schemes aim to have a direct impact on practices and conservation outcomes in certified production areas, most have little or no control over actions outside those areas. Leakage and laundering can reduce the net outcomes achieved through certification. To further understand this phenomenon, researchers explored how to improve the broader effectiveness of zero-deforestation commitments and commodity standards. Access this research and more on the Factors Influencing Effectiveness page.

Standards and certification have the potential to be more effective at influencing regional or landscape-level outcomes when a significant portion of the production landscape is certified and when agricultural production is integral to national economies and land use outcomes – for example, in Cote d’Ivoire, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste. Large buyers may want to focus on obtaining certifications in countries like these where agricultural certification at scale has the potential to affect land use change.

The achievement of landscape-level conservation outcomes would also be supported by government and corporate policies that prevent or disincentivize displacement and expansion of destructive production practices to non-certified areas.