CERTIFICATION AND STANDARDS
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?
What does recent existing research tell us about impacts of voluntary standard systems?
In the past eight years there has been a substantial increase in the 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 situation, 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.
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.