More than ever, businesses of all sizes across all industries are being held accountable for their environmental impact. Sustainability is in high demand, but who determines what makes a product sustainable, how it is sustainability measured and what do sustainability certifications and labels mean?
Sustainability certifications help consumers identify whether or not a product or manufacturer is sustainable. These certifications are voluntary guidelines and standards that address environmental, social, ethical, and food safety concerns. Sustainable certification can help businesses improve their processes on a national and global level by providing certification services that span the complete range of national and international standards.
Key principles of a sustainability standard
Some of the key principles of a sustainability standard are that they are unbiased, and preferably audited by an independent, third-party group.
- They must be values based with quantifiable guidelines and standards. A benchmark baseline will establish fair and standardised testing and comparisons.
- Guidelines should be distinguished from mandatory legal requirements, based on reputable scientific studies, international and national standards and/or regulations.
- Problem solving, behavioural effectiveness, process effectiveness and constitutive effectiveness should all be tested to ensure success.
- To maintain credibility any sustainability certification must have a third-party audit process, regardless of the industry.
Another form of certification becoming more popular today are Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs). While somewhat limited in their overall scope, they do certify the environmental impact of a product. Much as a food label explains the nutritional content of the food you eat, an EPD describes the environmental impact of the products you buy or use. Across Europe, EPDs are routinely factored into personal and corporate level purchasing and supply chain management decisions.
Who determines what makes a product sustainable?
Sustainability is a difficult term to define, and even more difficult to quantify. Sustainability is measured by efficiency and the impact on social, financial, and environmental variables. Making a product sustainable – ensuring the product is efficient – means choosing energy-efficient manufacturers and manufacturing methods, decreasing water usage and chemical inputs, and by using renewable, non-polluting energy sources.
International scientific organisations help guide sustainability benchmarks by establishing regulations and guidelines drawn from research results. National governments also establish the setting for what makes a product sustainable. Ministries for the environment and specialist panels such as the the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produce reports, white papers, and other resources to help establish guidelines to determine the sustainability of a product.
Sustainable certification can be viewed as a form of resourcification: a theory that takes a social approach to sustainable resource management, and that encourages consumers to give a greater consideration to the products they purchase and consume. Consumers are often disconnected from understanding or thinking about how products are manufactured, harvested, transported and of the resources required for their production, and sale.
To quantify the sustainability of a product, all these aspects need to be considered, analysed, and compared to certain standards and criteria before sustainable certification can be awarded. Each of the variables can factor into how sustainable a product is, but there is no single definitive definition of the term sustainable because it is just too hard to quantify. For a product to gain sustainable certification it typically has to score well under three different criteria – social, environmental, and financial. There should be no significant social implications that negatively impact on minority groups/locals; it should have minimal environmental impacts such as low greenhouse gas emissions, and be financially beneficial for all parties involved.
In order to compare products across all locations on an equal footing, these standards and criteria are typically established by impartial or unbiased organisations, an industry trade group, or an international body. To meet standards and be granted sustainability certification, regulations must keep up to date with scientific research. Equally, regular monitoring, testing, and reporting is required.
What are the best sustainability certifications?
When looking at what sustainability certification is the best fit for your business there is no better place to start your research that the Ecolabel Index. The Ecolabel Index is the largest global directory of ecolabels, which currently tracks over 400 ecolabels across 199 countries, and in 25 industry sectors. Covering everything from food and beverages, FMCGs, appliances, furniture, and even businesses themselves. The directory tracks ecolabels via web scraping and independently verified submissions.
Among the many schemes listed in the index, you’ll find some of the following leading eco-labels:
- A relative newcomer, the B-Corp certification scheme was started by Richard Branson in 2007 and now boasts over 3,500 certified members, most of them, SMEs, in more than 70 countries. B-Corp certification is rapidly becoming something of a gold standard in terms of environmental, social and corporate governance best practice.
- Possibly the most well-known of all the global certifications listed is the Energy Star rating. Buy any new appliance nowadays and it is likely to have the Energy Star logo. The Energy Star program is run by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency in the US. The Energy Star informs the consumer of an appliance’s energy efficiency. The higher the star rating the more energy efficient it is.
- Fairtrade is another common certification. Fairtrade standards are based on an ethical trade system putting people first and are designed to support the sustainable development of small-scale producers and agricultural workers in the poorest regions and countries globally. Products carrying Fairtrade certification mean that the producers and traders have met Fairtrade standards encompassing the necessary social, environmental, and economic criteria.
- The Rainforest Alliance Sustainable Agriculture Standard shows that a farming, forest, or tourism enterprise has been audited and proven to be environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable. Rainforest Alliance certification is concerned with protecting wildlife, reducing water pollution, preventing soil erosion, and improving conditions for farmworkers. It’s focussed on improving farmers’ environmental management and sustainable development through conserving resources, biodiversity protection and paying at least the minimum wage to farm workers.
Sustainability certifications for products
There is a large variety of sustainability certifications for products such as the aforementioned Energy Star for appliances and Fairtrade certification across a range of products including for coffee, clothing and produce.
- The Green Seal is another independent non-profit, that certifies thousands of products. Green Seal uses a lifecycle approach to assess products against science-based environmental and sustainability criteria such as water and energy use, toxicity limits, and waste reduction. The Green Seal is found on household and building products from toilet tissue to paints and insulation.
- The Leaping Bunny is internationally recognised as an ethical symbol against animal cruelty. It was created and managed by the Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics to address the need for a single comprehensive standard for ensuring that products and the ingredients in them have not been tested on animals. The Leaping Bunny is found on both cosmetic and household products.
- Global Organic Textile Standards is concerned with the ecological and socially responsible processing of textiles and compliance with social criteria. Recognised as the world’s leading processing standard for textiles made from organic fibres, Global Organic examines the entire length of supply chains to ensure its standards are met before being awarded to clothing and textile products.
Sustainability certifications for manufacturers
Sustainable manufacturing is the ability to manufacture products through economically sound processes that minimise negative environmental impacts, while conserving energy and natural resources. Sustainability is a characteristic of lean manufacturing through waste reduction and improved inventory control.
- The Forest Stewardship Council is a non-profit, market-based certification program dedicated to promoting responsible forest management around the world. FSC labels can be found on millions of products from milk cartons to toilet rolls, or even your favourite book. The FSC certification indicates a product that is helping to take care of the world’s forests.
- The Marine Stewardship Council is a multinational, non-profit, organisation dedicated to combating overfishing and the devastation of marine habitats by guiding the fishing and seafood industries toward sustainability. The fisheries standard is assessed on three core principles of sustainable fish stocks, minimising environmental impact and effective fisheries management to determine whether a fishery is well-managed and sustainable.
- The FTSE4Good Index Series is designed to track the performance of businesses committed to good standards of environmental, social, and governance ideals. The Index can be used by investors to discover corporations that are implementing responsible business practices. It can also be used by other companies, and organisations as a benchmark for their own corporate sustainability.
- For clothing manufacturers, BlueSign is an independent verification system to indicate sustainability in textiles from raw material to a finished piece of clothing. BlueSign certification assesses each step through the supply chain from raw materials, processing, dyeing, and finishing to ensure nothing is missed in sustainable materials and work steps.
Sustainability certifications in the UK
- The Tourism Business Scheme is the national sustainable tourism certification scheme for the United Kingdom and Ireland. With over 2400 members, it is the only national certification programme endorsed by National tourism agencies. Companies opting to join the green tourism initiative are assessed by qualified grading advisors against a meticulous set of, and an impressive 145 criteria covering areas, including energy and water efficiency.
- In the UK who better to be associated with sustainability than one of the most famous botanists and environmental campaigners on the planet. The David Bellamy Conservation Award is an Ecolabel for UK holiday parks, caravan, and camping sites as well as park home estates. The certification is based on specific measures and management criteria.
Learn about the software used by Wellness businesses in the UK
Sustainability certifications in Australia
- The GECA sustainability and environmental certification program is the only independent, not for profit, multidisciplinary sustainability certification program in Australia. The GECA Ecolabel follows ISO principles and ISEAL frameworks to achieve globally recognised best practice ecolabel certification. The Australian not-for-profit uses multiple assessment criteria and lifecycle considerations such as environmental, human health and social impact criteria for architectural, building and design industries.
- The Energy Rating Label – similar to Energy Star – have compared a range of electrical goods to achieve reductions in energy use from appliance products and meet mandatory Minimum Energy Performance Standards. The star labels have been a familiar sight in Australian for some twenty-five years.
Sustainability certifications in New Zealand
- The New Zealand Government owns and endorses Environmental Choice New Zealand the country’s only Type I ecolabel. With the New Zealand Ecolabelling Trust in charge of its administration it operates to internationally recognised standards and principles. The ecolabel recognises the increasing effort of manufacturers to reduce the environmental impact of their products.
- New Zealand has long been renowned for its food production and with AsureQuality New Zealand farmers, growers, and producers work together to a higher standard of food quality and safety. Offering the broadest range of food assurance services in the country, AsureQuality helps to build, protect, and ensure trust across the food and primary production sectors. Working closely with stakeholders at every point of the supply chains, imparting knowledge and insights obtained from over 100 years’ experience.
Sustainability certifications in North America
- The Better Environmental Sustainability Targets certification in North America provides recognition for lead battery manufacturers that meet minimum agreed emission standards and a take back policy of used batteries for environmentally appropriate recycling. With the goal to reducing emissions from lead battery plants and preventing lead poisoning.
- The Carbon Care certification delivered by Enviro-access recognises efforts to responsibly manage and reduce greenhouse gases. The two levels of certification are basic and carbon neutral in accordance with strict greenhouse gas verification and quantification standards to ensure its credibility.
Are sustainability certifications worth it?
Sustainability has become big business. While the genuine intention is collectively working towards improving the environment and making this a better planet for all its inhabitants, how a company contributions to sustainable activities directly impacts its value in the market.
Employing sustainable practices provides potential growth for the business because it is not only attractive to new and existing customers, but also to potential stakeholders and investors. When looking at sustainability certifications for your SME it is important to consider:
- The certifications that are the most well-known in your specific industry.
- Sustainability certification that is the most important to your business and aligns with its procurement policies.
- How much the sustainability certification costs in terms of both time and money.
- Whether the certification is a good fit – and a good deal – for your company.
- The expectation of your consumers, and if the certification will guide their purchase decisions.
Ultimately business should consider sustainability as a means to being a proponent of change. But regardless, sustainability measures are becoming par for the course. Consumers are increasingly geared toward businesses that can demonstrate environmental sustainability, social consciousness, and financial responsibility in the way they operate, and the products and services they deliver.
In addition to that, regulations and legislation on sustainability are inevitable and will become more present and thorough. So not only will sustainability certifications be beneficial from a marketing, sales, and overall business perspective they will also help SMEs have a smoother transition as and when national legislation changes. If you are already applying sustainable methods and incorporating small sustainable changes within your SME, it will provide your business with a greater ability to enact more significant changes, should they be mandated.
The question then becomes less about whether sustainability certification is worth it and more about what it will cost your business without them.
What does it cost to get a sustainability certification?
How much does sustainable certification cost? Once again this can be hard to quantify because it depends on a number of factors such as: what certification you are looking for, is it product or business focussed and where you are starting from?
For example, are you already undertaking sustainable processes and practices or are you still placing all rubbish and waste in the one bin? The cost components of sustainability certification will largely depend on scale, and the credibility and international recognition of the certification body. Cost generally will include:
- The money paid for the certification
- The money spent on the improvements to qualify for the certification.]
- The cost of the audit, which is a key indicator of a legitimate program.
- The cost of your staff’s time.
As an example, the cost of Environmental Management Systems AS/NZS ISO 14001 certification starts at around $500, but the reality is that the financial investment could range from a few thousand dollars on into the millions. For most SMEs, the financial outlay is most likely to be at the lower end of the scale. Many schemes recognise that there are multiple ways to approach sustainability. Acknowledging that as a small business what you can do immediately is introduce small steps they allow you to scale your commitment accordingly.