Transparency Tools and the Data Revolution in Certification

One of the things most interesting about the evolution of sustainability certification today is the effect that data is having on company perceptions and expectations around trust.  The currency of sustainability standards and certification is trust. If that coffee or cocoa or seafood has a credible label on it, you trust that it’s – at the very least – not bad. But behind those labels such as Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, and Forest Stewardship Council, there are whole systems of audits and traceability, all provided as a proxy for company buyers to trust the performance claims of their suppliers. Companies that put certification labels on products are choosing, in essence, to outsource their risk to certification organizations because they see these labels as a ‘trust mark’ with their consumers. That’s a good thing, and certification is growing because of it. In independent research just released in March, European consulting firm AidEnvironment reviewed 40 studies on the business benefits of using certification and found that the leading benefits for manufacturers and retailers were enhanced reputation combined with risk reduction.

But what happens when the paper-and-pencil certification audit is no longer the only or even the best way to convey information about supplier performance? That day has come and many credible certifications are evolving rapidly. Technology and data availability are combining to provide a myriad of different avenues for information to be conveyed to company decision-makers. The certification audit as a standalone tool is already looking a bit antiquated.  New and attractive alternatives have emerged, from empowering workers to report on real-time conditions through mobile technology, to fine resolution satellite imagery and environmental data from sensors.  All of these technologies have in common the ability to convey information directly to the company sourcing professional, often through visualisation in maps and dashboards, creating a more powerful conduit for trust and transparency.  ISEAL, the global umbrella group for certifications, is working closely with World Resources Institute’s Global Forest Watch to ensure that certification data gets layered onto existing layers such as fires and forest cover.

With the emergence of all these alternative data and transparency tools, it certainly seems that we are moving in the direction of fewer data points measuring progress against critical sustainability issues, and at a much less granular level.  The future of certification might be ‘responsible sourcing regions’ rather than ‘certified farms and forest operations.’  If this is the future, does that mean that decision-makers are more comfortable basing trust decisions on less data or is it that the measures of trust are just better at providing an accurate, more real-time picture of performance?

In the first instance, credible certification organizations will need to raise awareness of the limitations of basing sustainability claims on one piece of data from a technological tool, and highlight the full range of sustainability issues and practices that need to be considered for meaningful impact.  In the second, we need to strengthen certification’s abilities to deliver quality data on priority issues companies need to measure.

But most importantly, in both cases, we need to recognise that all this focus on data and technology is useful for better understanding performance, but that the hard work is in delivering the incentives and capacity building to change practices on the ground in a variety of challenging industries so that all those critical sustainability steps are moving in the right direction. This is about strengthening the important roles that sustainability standards and certifications play beyond data capture; the value certifications add by showing what is ‘good’ in an industry, by the very standard itself; building capacity for small producers and enterprises in challenging parts of the globe; and convening stakeholders in dialogue about what the future of sustainable business should look like.


by Lara Koritzke
April 6, 2017

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Lara Koritzke is the Director of Communications at ISEAL Alliance, the global association for sustainability standards. She has worked in certification and sustainability standards for 17 years and is speaking at #SB17Detroit in the session on May 23 entitled “The Growing Impacts of Transparency Tools on Our Understanding of Global Supply Chains”

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  1. Siri Engesaeth says:

    Good and important article. It comes down to both data collection and verification and to actually follow-up with improvement programs. Not just washing or disqualifying. Our solution is designed with that at core.

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